There’s been lots of commentary recently following the news that UK music retail chain HMV has gone into administration – something that seems to have been on the cards for a long time now. Whether some of its stores can continue remains to be seen, but it seems likely that at least some will close.
Like many music fans and musicians, I have an enduring affection for physical media, particularly vinyl and tape. But I’m a bit more ambivalent when it comes to record shops. Their use of audio technologies sometimes bothers me: bombarding me with music I don’t like, whilst giving me no easy way of auditioning music I might like to buy.
Opinions expressed about HMV have been mixed: flashes of nostalgia, hand-wringing about high streets, along with a healthy dose of derision. Singer Emeli Sande admitted to still buying CDs there, which seemed to confirm my stereotype of the chain as a place for bland mainstream pop and not much else. Some have suggested that HMV’s troubles are due not just to the decline of physical sales, but the fact that it has become a really poor record shop. As Michael Hann put it:
HMV’s problem wasn’t just that it was expensive, compared with the online retailers. It was that, by and large, it had become an awful shopping experience. Where once it was a byword for music shopping, it became – from this music buyer’s perspective – a place of last resort…a shop that had been neglecting music for years, turning to games and DVDs and electronic hardware, compacting its music catalogue into an ever smaller space.
Another Guardian writer was even more blunt:
Why should we feel nostalgic about the demise of an excrescence of capitalism? What are we going to feel nostalgic about next? Cholera?
There’s also an interesting New Statesman article which argues that Amazon is out-competing HMV on physical sales not just because of its lower overheads, but owing to its massive use of loss leaders. Amazon’s strategy is to sacrifice profits in favour of continually expanding its market share, something which HMV can’t possibly compete with. This is something that I think deserves our attention and action. The merits of HMV aside, Amazon’s strategy appears to be to drive all its competitors out of business. Amazon may offer a convenient way to buy stuff, but by participating in that we are actively helping to create a world in which there are more jobs stuffing envelopes in warehouses, and fewer jobs in shops interacting with people. I don’t want to romanticise working in a shop, but its got to be better than working in one of Amazon’s Orwellianly titled ‘Fulfilment Centres’ – there are a few pretty grim first hand accounts here.
Anyway, back to HMV…reading the various reports, I realised that, whilst I’ve bought DVDs there, like many people I hadn’t bought any music in HMV for years, maybe even decades. So, switching into empirical mode, I took a trip to the Edinburgh Princes Street branch to pay my last respects and check the state of the place out. My research questions: is HMV really as bad as has been suggested? What is the shop like to be in, and how does it sound? And could I find any music that I wanted to buy? Here’s a bit of soundscape recording and a short field report:
The ’25% off’ sale is the only sign of troubled times. The staff are smiling and everything seems to be business as usual. Bypassing the special offer DVDs, I work towards the CD racks, and soon find myself in front of the S-T section. A woman clutching a Simple Minds album is leafing through Rod Stewart, and seems to be grooving very slightly to the piped instore music, some extremely generic rock/pop. She looks to be in her 60s, wearing a sturdy red rambler’s waterproof, with thick glasses hung about her neck on one of those little cords. I look at the CDs: Take That. Tiesto. This is exactly what I had expected – the sort of place where my mum might shop for music. Moving further in, however, the dance section seems to be quite well stocked. Minimal techno is one of the few music styles I know a bit about, and they have some recent releases in there, albums by Monolake, Rob Hood and Andy Stott. The prices, however, are on the expensive side, hovering around the £15 mark. The shop also has a vinyl section, but the stock is low, the prices are high (£28 in one case) and I don’t recognise most of the artists.
Shuffling through to the rock and indie section, there are a few more surprises, not least the presence of all three albums by 1990s shoegazers Slowdive, a band that split many years ago and who, by my reckoning, lie some distance from the current pop mainstream. Speaking of which, the instore music is starting to grate heavily by now. It sounds like some sort of commercialised, festival-pleasing, 8th generation dilution of grunge, dull major label pap. Of course it’s not really that bad, but it’s not what I want to listen to, and as with most piped music, the lack of control is what makes it so unpleasant. In the end I grab an old Happy Mondays CD in the sale for the bargain price of £4.50 (note to self: so I’m not just stuck in the past, but a cheapskate stuck in the past), and head to the checkouts to make a swift exit.
I didn’t find HMV to be a terribly bad record shop, but it didn’t leave me wanting to go back any time soon. So what – in the days of MP3s and illegal downloads – would make for a really good record shop? Take Glasgow’s Rubadub, one of my favourites. I think the key elements there are friendly, welcoming and enthusiastic staff who know their stock, and plenty of decks to check out possible purchases. However, like HMV they have been reducing their record racks and shifting to selling audio hardware in recent years. Maybe now that people won’t pay for music any more, their spare cash is being spent on headphones and MIDI controllers.
I think the very best record shops also serve a social function, acting as key sites in forging music subcultures. Berlin’s Hard Wax, for example, has been instrumental in the development of European techno. It was set up by and has employed many key players in the scene (Basic Channel, DJ Pete, T++, Shed, Dettmann, etc.), and as well as selling records it acts as a distributor for local producers (as does Rubadub), and is linked to a specialist mastering studio, D&M. Reading interviews with the musicians involved, there is a strong sense of Hard Wax as a social space, bringing together like-minded people. If HMV ever performed that function, it definitely doesn’t any more. It’s essentially a supermarket.
It will be interesting to see if any social function develops around online music retailers. Boomkat, for example, offers a quality of service that rivals the best record stores, with informative reviews and sample audio clips for every release. It’s a beautifully designed virtual space, and fun to browse in. But, unlike a traditional record shop, it’s not really somewhere that you can meet people.
If HMV does go to the wall, there are two things that I’ll miss about it. One is the staff. They always seems to be friendly and helpful, which is pretty amazing given their likely pay and conditions. A mate of mine once worked in the Princes Street store, and going by his accounts it was definitely a low pay, low status, unrewarding job.
Second, and more strongly, I’ll miss the size and scale of their shops. I’m not talking about the poky little branches stuffed into shopping centres, but the big flagship stores, with multiple levels and racks stretching into the distance. There’s a forever-teenage part of me that still finds something exciting about a space so big and grand dedicated to recorded music. Of course, HMV hasn’t really been dedicated to music for years now, but the size of their stores is a reminder of times when records, tapes and CDs were more viable, valuable and valued. The small but significant thrill of descending an escalator into a vast expanse of music is one that no independent record shop I know of can offer.
Thanks to Neil Simpson for passing on the New Statesman article.