Since the announcement that HMV, the music, video and games retailer that’s been an institution on the British high street since the 1920s, has gone into administration, followed by the more recent news that dozens of stores will be closed leaving, most notably, Edinburgh and Manchester city centres without an HMV outlet as well as pulling out of Ireland entirely, much has been written online of the potential impact on independent music retailers and the British music industry in general. “Where else am I going to get a CD for £15.99 instead of paying £8.99 online?” goes much of the banter. But indie record shops still exist everywhere, in some form: far less has been said about the fact that without HMV the only place to buy DVDs and Blu-rays would be supermarkets and possibly, if you can ever find anything worth buying in there and you’re not just going in for sellotape, WHSmith. The last decade has seen the demise of Virgin, Our Price, Zavvi, Borders and Tower Records in the wake of online giants Amazon and Play.com, and their mates from HM Revenue & Customs. Will ‘I’m in love with the girl on the Manchester Virgin Megastore checkout desk’ by the Freshies mean naught to future generations? I fondly remember spending many happy hours in the HMV where I grew up in Bolton, once I found it. It is apparently one of the stores that has been given a reprieve, though why it would want to keep its current premises in the hidden arse-end of the Crompton Place shopping centre is anyone’s guess when the rest of the town centre is rapidly becoming a ghost town due to the ridiculous rents.
The saviour for many record and film buyers has been Fopp, for those lucky enough to live near one anyway. I find them especially great for browsing, and picking up things for a few quid that I may have heard or read about but never actually seen. Unfortunately after running into trouble in 2007 Fopp was itself bought by HMV, so its future looks similarly uncertain. The bookseller Waterstone’s was sold by HMV in 2011 and looks to be the only one that will get away relatively unscathed, but isn’t it also the only high street media chain worth going into for a browse? Funny that.
What went wrong for HMV is obvious, so obvious in fact, that their response to it over the last ten years is bewildering to most. I can’t believe, for example, that they thought it was a good idea to devote large areas of floorspace and diversify into high-end electronics and overpriced headphones when dedicated retailers of those products were struggling. They completely ignored the resurgence in vinyl sales as independent shops started shifting buckets of it. Before Borders went under it was the only chain that stocked a decent selection of magazines, but even after it was gone HMV continued to only stock Heat and a couple of other worthless rags you could buy in any supermarket. Go in your local HMV over the last twelve months and there’d be no one there except a couple of skint teenagers looking at a pair of Dr Dre headphones they couldn’t afford. As cashflow dried up they moved to a sale or return basis with their suppliers, which meant they lost control of their own prices to a large degree, and by then the writing was on the wall.
This is an interesting article from a guy who worked on HMV’s advertising campaigns in the eighties and nineties when they seemingly ruled the world. His main point seems to be that the HMV brand should have (and easily could have) absolutely dominated internet music, movies and games right from the start, and no online start-up would have got a look-in in Britain for many years, but management weren’t interested, or simply didn’t understand the massive threat to their business. If they weren’t interested in the internet my own opinion is they should’ve sent their stores more down the Fopp route: there was no way they could compete with online retailers on price, so compete on quality. Stock a diverse range of world cinema and back catalogues, concentrate on specialist music selections, stock music and film magazines people can’t get elsewhere. Give people a reason to browse. The chart DVDs and albums still have a place, but they will sell themselves, or they won’t shift at all if there’s a Tesco round the corner. The downsizing would still have been inevitable but I still think there’s a place for stores that specialise in one thing and do it well. Most of all I cannot believe that there’s not a place for a music and video retailer on every high street, if it only offers something, anything, that you can’t get online. Incidentally I just went in the big HMV on Oxford Street and they didn’t even have ‘Something/Anything?’ by Todd Rundgren.