published: 15 /
In his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth reflects upon the continued declining fortunes of HMV, and asks if anything can be done to save it
Ah, 2012. Another year begins with another potential crisis for the last remaining major record shop.
At the time of writing, HMV appears to have got a reprieve. Its suppliers (mainly the record companies) and some of the banks have agreed a deal to keep the ailing chain on its feet. But, it can only be a temporary relief.
There are lots of reasons why HMV has declined so sharply. First, the industry behind its main product (music) is suffering an enormous comedown after decades of tacky marketing stunts and backslapping award ceremonies. Between September and October last year, sales of music across the UK fell by 20 per cent.
Second, its rivals were even more idiotic. As one-by-one, Our Price, MVC, Virgin Megastore, Woolworths and Fopp collapsed, HMV lost its competition. Any advantage gained from being the last record shop on the high street was diminished by the fact that consumers simply got out of the record buying habit.
Third, it failed to compete with the internet. In some of the business press commentary about the decline of the record shop, the tone implies that consumers are being fickle in opting for Amazon’s markedly cheaper prices. Pish – CDs were overpriced for years, and the internet has helped break the cartel. Those of us who remember having to pay £16.99 for back catalogue and niche releases have little sympathy.
Those are pretty big problems. Even with the latest batch of panic measures (shifting from video games to electrical equipment, letting go of its live music division), it is hard not to view the announcement of support from the major labels as anything more than an example of two dinosaurs holding hands while the giant meteor strikes.
The biggest warning signs come from the attempt to sell HMV Live. You might argue that HMV had overreached beyond its natural area of high street retail, but in fact this was a profitable business (sort of – technically, it hadn’t made back the capital investment when it was put up for sale). Selling it shows just how desperate HMV are for cash.
So, are there any glimmers of light? I doubt it. In recent years, HMV has tried and failed to expand its video games section and to sell large volumes of clothing. Now its latest wheeze is technology. £300 Dr Dre headphones might be profitable, but they will not keep a high street chain afloat on their own. Meanwhile it’s hard not to see every iPod sale as another HMV regular switching from discs to downloads.
But, if there is any hope, it might come from the fact that there is one part of the community not very well served by the high street at present – music fans. Maybe (just maybe), it’s not too late for HMV to reach out to its “core supporters” one last time.
Those of you reading this in a big city might be wondering why it matters. You won’t be switching from Rough Trade to horrible, corporate HMV, anyway. Alas, your friends in the suburbs don’t have that option. Without HMV, they’d have no record shop at all.
Buried under the announcement of the credit deal that has kept the shops open was another press release, announcing that HMV planned to put more vinyl in its stores in 2012. You can’t download vinyl, but an increasing number of people are buying it. Vinyl on its own won’t save HMV. But stocking more of it is still a good idea.
They could go further. In a time when the “blockbuster” releases are doing worse and worse (this week’s number one album will do well to sell 30,000 copies nationwide), there is more room for range and diversity. Instead of another row of Florence and the Machine, how about pointing people in the direction of something less easy to download for free online?
If HMV has one advantage over the internet, it is that real people work there. Up until now it has conspicuously failed to exploit this. It would be a better shopping experience if the staff took off the pink and black uniforms, donned band t-shirts and had the freedom to decide what they should sell (not just a small recommendations aisle, but genuinely a choice about whether to promote Anais Mitchell or Ani DiFranco).
Another advantage is being local. There are plenty of places to shoplift Adele’s album. Instead every HMV in the country should have a large section devoted to local bands, hometown heroes and anyone with a gig coming up in the area. Eastbourne’s HMV should have a shelf of David Ford records. Maidstone’s should be packed with Johnny Kearney and Lucy Farrell. No one in Harlow Newtown should be without a copy of Darren Hayman’s 'Pram Town'.
My plan might not be the answer, but it’s no more crazy than anything else HMV have tried. And, if the stores did eventually close down, at least someone other than the unlucky employees would miss them.
523 Posted By: Myshkin, London on 06 Feb 2012
A great piece, Benjamin, in summing up some of the problems currently facing music retail outlets like HMV and, er, well, really no one else. But I think a big problem with entire music industry is that despite it appearing to be all trendy and cool it really is very conservative. It's business model is effectively outdated and needs to change rapidly to keep up, yet it seemingly moves as swiftly as a disabled dinosaur in its death throes. Films and TV have moved much more swiftly with use of online sites such as the BBC iPlayer and 4oD.
Another issue, and this is much more fundamental, I think. Music just isn't that important to people as it once was. This works two ways, a cursory scan down the charts will indicate just how formulaic, predictable and downright dull 'popular' music is (but, arguably, it has always been thus) but the change really has come with just how detached it is with society. The pop world has always been a fantasy realm but I would think it has become far worse in recent years. In the words of The Smiths, it says nothing to me about my life. Couple that together with the rise and rise of alternative leisure interests, like video games, and people just aren't interested.
But the real killer is that a large percentage of the population want their music for free and won't pay for it. Well, that's just simple economics, why pay for something when you can get it cheaper or for free somewhere else?