I know I am many things when it comes to commenting abut HMV. I am a white guy in his 40s, brought up on a diet of 1980s Top of the Pops, witnessing the arrival of the CD and the apparent fall of vinyl, the emergence of coffee shop grunge, Blur vs Oasis on the Six O’Clock News and the depressing omnipresence of so-called talent shows that rely on insipid covers of other people’s greatest moments. However….
We seem to be at a pivotal moment in our societal development. The high street as we know it is dying. In the last few years we’ve seen the demise of a number of high street chains, and many more independent stores have also come and gone. In its place we see charity shops, nail bars full of women who seem to have nothing better to do than worry about their bloody fingers, and coffee shops doubling as nurseries. And despite people saying that they regret the high street in its traditional form dying, and wanting things to be different, it is still dying.
I didn’t care much about this until the one place I could rely upon to pass more than a few minutes in the town centre was threatened with disappearing. HMV has been struggling for a number of years, and like the company itself, I’d rather thought that they’d get by somehow because, well, it’s HMV, and people still like music don’t they? I realise now that this flies in the face of the fact that HMV stores have been disappearing for a number of years, new stores have not opened in new developments, and many people are content with their exposure to music whilst wandering round the supermarket, watching the X-Factor or mining their memories from when they were 15.
Music for me is like expressing emotion. I’m not too good at telling people things, or saying how I’m feeling, but I can usually get somewhere by using a song lyric. During the 1980s, wandering into one of the two Disco Music Centre record stores in Morecambe, or ‘Ear ‘Ere in Lancaster, was like wrapping a warm blanket around me. Flicking through the 12″ albums with the waft of the plastic liners rising up into my nostrils was blissful; finding the records you wanted was a satisfaction, hearing something in the store or coming across something new in the racks was more so. The staff would even set aside the huge promo material from our favourite albums after they were done with it. Of course, all of these stores vanished years ago.
Coming to London during my teenage years and into my twenties and walking into one of Oxford Street’s two HMV stores was magical. I’d make lists of obscure records I wanted for weeks in advance to ensure that the trip wasn’t wasted, though invariably my list was grander than the contents of my wallet. But the thrill was in knowing that this cavernous space, set over three floors, wall to wall with racks of LPs, CDs and 7″ singles, would have pretty much anything on my list, and in the unlikely event that it didn’t then the Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road or Tower at Piccadilly Circus probably would. I can still remember the difficult decisions required in relation to Toad the Wet Sprocket’s back catalogue. Of course, Virgin, Tower and one of the HMVs vanished years ago.
In the wake of the announcement in January 2013, that HMV had entered administration, coincident with a massive 25% off sale, I purposefully made a visit to Oxford Street to see what was going on. I wanted a couple of albums, given the markdowns, namely David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret – not exactly obscure albums or artists. It wasn’t a reminiscent visit either; I still visit HMV in Oxford Street whenever I can.
What greeted me on this visit, alongside the usual piled high, bulk reduced, mainstream selection of TV and film DVD box sets, 2 for £10 albums and the latest top 40 albums was a sale that cluttered the place up with unorganised boxes of DVDs and CDs and the regular shelves virtually empty of stock. It was a sale seemingly being run by children, reliant on coming across something by chance and buying on impulse. Neither of the CDs I wanted were available, and the overall selection was rather depleted. There was a sense of desperation about it. HMV had finally reached the pinnacle of what it seemed to want to achieve these last few years – appealing to everyone whilst simultaneously appealing to no-one.
I was pleased when a buyer for HMV came forward, but the nature of the beast needs to change. The record buying public has changed. I can’t speak for the teenager, the family watching that lowest common denominator tat that television companies tend to offer on a Saturday night, the mum mooching around Sainsbury’s and accidentally passing the music stand, for those who have no appreciation of the physical thing and the art and artistry that goes into that, but I can talk for blokes like me.
I still want to get my hands on a physical music product, whether it’s a shiny CD or a big black vinyl disc. I still want to have to browse, to maybe hear something I like in a store as I browse, to come across something that looks interesting, to come by chance upon a name that was otherwise lost down the metaphoric side of the sofa in my brain, to have recommendations and suggestions made by someone else who’s judgement I can value. The likes of Sister Ray, Reckless and Rough Trade and the many brilliant independents up and down the country fill some of the gap here but tend to lean toward their own niches or have the randomness of second hand selections, but it would be nice to have some level of consistency in selling records in the major towns and cities of the country to those who want it.
I’m pretty sure that there’s a band of boring middle aged fellas like me who have music buying in their blood who would relish the prospect of visiting a well stocked music store where they could guarantee a good back catalogue of nostalgic stock combined with a sprinkling of new releases. And perhaps have a nice coffee and muffin. Surely a super slimmed down HMV can, in part, meet that?