The first record I ever bought was from HMV. It was Weezer’s Green Album, and while I can’t pretend it was the moment that my obsession with music kicked off (I’ll put that down to the literal wall of CDs that acted as structural support for my older brothers’ bedroom), it is a moment that I remember incredibly vividly. And, for the record, its was a great album too.
That would have been the summer of 2001, a few months before the launch of the first iPod and roughly around the time of the fall of Napster. Little did I know as I parted with my cash at the HMV counter that day that, each in their own way, the iPod and Napster would lead to the demise of the record store. Together, both legally and illegally respectively, they would lead a digital revolution that would seemingly make the physical record all-but obsolete.
It was a slow death for HMV, one that would see the company increasingly shift focus to entertainment and gaming products, before eventually calling in the administrators at the start of 2013. Unable to compete with the cut-prices of CDs on Amazon, and failing terribly to match the might of Apple’s iTunes digital download store (not to mention the devastating effect of illegally downloaded music and, to a lesser extent, the rise of streaming services and YouTube), HMV was under fire from all angles.
Every dog has its day and, after 92 years in the business, it seemed that the iconic HMV jack russell was going to be packing up his gramophone and heading to Battersea Dogs Home.
But, to use another canine-related analogy, you can’t keep a good dog down. HMV was to be saved by “restructuring” specialists Hilco. With a flagship store re-opened at 363 Oxford Street and a new digital offering planned, could Hilco have taught the old dog some new tricks?
It certainly seems that way -- though its MP3 pricing still can’t quite challenge Amazon’s or Apple’s, the new HMV download app is getting lots right, elegantly offering customers a way to download tracks in an instant. But, with multinational mega-corp rivals like Amazon, Google and Apple to contend with, that’s not enough. It seems crazy to describe it as such, but in this day and age HMV has a USP in the fact that it is a brick-and-mortar, high-street store, and that’s something it must exploit to its fullest potential.
When the digital download boom kicked into gear, HMV ran away with its tail between its legs, pushing entertainment products to the fore, with a tunnel-vision approach to stock which catered primarily for pop chart pap. Where was the curation? Where was the love for the music that had built the brand?
It was a failing, a gap in the market that was exploited by industrious independent record stores. For many music fans, the physical act of record buying was still an important one -- the smell, the artwork, the community spirit, knowing that there was a like-minded music fan sitting behind a counter (not a faceless forum name) ready to help you to find the tunes to change your life. The likes of Rough Trade and Phonica Records in London knew this. Shunning the mainstream entirely, they focused on curated shelves of up-and-coming artists, with stores manned not by Christmas temps but the beardy musos who were as intimidating as they were helpful. Handwritten reviews sat among their shelves, stocked as equally with vinyl as CDs, short-run fanzines sitting alongside rock biographies from major publishers.
Listening posts, in-store gigs, even in-store coffee shops within which to reflect on your new, coveted purchases -- it was the allure of analogue that made the likes of Rough Trade go from strength to strength while HMV floundered between poor digital plans and even worse in-store set-ups, a fact backed-up by this year’s booming vinyl sales. And it’s not as if the independent record stores are racing to the bottom when it comes to pricing -- Rough Trade in fact commands a high premium on the pricing of its stock. And yet it’s one of the great retail success stories to come out of the recession. It proved that, if the retail experience is right, and the customer feels cool (or part of a like-minded collective -- call it a "lifestyle," if you will), they’ll happily pay a few extra quid for the privilege.
Of course, for HMV to ever regain its dominant place on the high street, it’s not enough for it to think like an indie. It has to be bigger; it has to be all-encompassing.
And it crucially has to appeal to two very different markets. Let's make a bit of a generalisation here and say that those between the ages of, say, 20 and 45 (and I mean no offence to anyone who falls outside of this bracket -- just run with me for a moment here) are as equally comfortable downloading music as they are popping a CD into a Hi-Fi, having bridged the format generation gap. But what of the young ‘uns who have never bought a record in their lives, reared on YouTube? Or the older folk who didn’t feel all that comfortable with CDs, let alone what HMV will be pushing with their digital download apps? How do you get those two key demographics buying music again?
HMV believes it has the answers and has turned the corner. Individually curated, well-stocked stores are being touted. In-store appearances from major artists and up-and-coming bands alike are planned. They’re even trialling innovative ways of bringing the digital and physical format worlds together, with the app in time hoped to be capable of two-step authentication, unlocking unique, exclusive digital tracks for anyone who has bought the physical version of an album in a HMV store.
Only time will tell if this revised strategy will prove successful. And I truly hope it will be. Here’s hoping this will be the start of another 92 years of hearing His Master’s Voice sing, rather than it be the store’s swan song.