What Jessie Did Next...

...being the inane ramblings of a mundane Yorkshire bird.

There came a flurry of news just before bedtime last night that high-street chain HMV was going into administration. It’s been on the cards since at least 2007 and while it’s extremely unfortunate that mismanagement of the administration led to staff finding out via the media (accompanied by scuttlebutt and faux-sadness on Twitter) I can’t say I’m surprised in the slightest.

This morning there’s a lot of punditry flying around regarding HMV’s business model, competitors, the inevitable comparisons with online vendors (and HMV’s own failed foray into online sales some years ago), the links to piracy, MP3s, iTunes, and tons more. Yet however you look at it HMV’s business model is completely and utterly flawed: the chart CDs stocked are sold cheaper in bulk to Asda so margins are nonexistent, racks are full of ‘classic’ albums you can find chucked out in Oxfam, there’s very little (if any) stock of local music, and when you want something out-of-the-ordinary you’re bang out of luck unless you want to order it in and wait a week. Just like Jessops before them, they’re box-shifters with stock even Del Boy would find hard to pass on.

It hasn’t always been so. Contrast it with the mid-90s when HMV stocked dance vinyl and had entire racks of ‘interesting stuff the staff found’ complete with a small sticker telling you what it was like – comments like ‘big farty bass and a synth line your mum will hate‘. That was brilliant – it’s how I discovered artists such as A Tribe Called Quest and labels such as FFRR, but that disappeared at the turn of the century and I found other outlets.

(Exception to the rule: the last CD I bought from HMV was This Sporting Life by Skint & Demoralised. I bought it there because I knew one of the lads worked at the Wakefield shop and if anywhere would have a copy, they would…)

I’ll admit I’m a marginal case: I like physical media. I browse CDs, I play vinyl, I buy from small shops such as Crash and Jumbo, I order from independent online stores such as HTFR or Norman Records where possible, and I pester local record labels for CDs rather than downloads. I love exploring liner notes and artwork just as much as listening to the music. The local independent record shop in Cottingham made a fortune out of me in my Uni days, and when we lived in London my wife used to curse because I’d go to Tower Records (RIP), browse the bargain bins and return at 11:30pm with two carrier bags full of stuff I quite liked the look of. Controversially nowadays I also use Amazon – most commonly at music festivals and gigs where I’ll 1-click order a load of the support act’s CDs (well, when they’re not on the merch stand anyway) – but it’s still physical media. I guess I’m in a minority now; not ‘down with the kids’.

The folks who have the bargain-bin physical media philosophy bang-on are That’s Entertainment, which is where your Music Magpie CDs end up (it tickles me that they spotted an opportunity to have a pop at HMV in Manchester). There’s one in the Ridings Centre in Wakefield where I can spend a happy (but costly) hour digging and finding CDs I didn’t even know I wanted, sometimes at five for a fiver. They participated in a small way in Record Store Day last year and it’s somewhere even my kids with their limited pocket money can buy a computer game or a bit of music. Winner.

Will I miss HMV if it does completely disappear? Nah, I can’t even think of a company who might want to pick the chain up other than for the HMV.com domain name. Perhaps it’ll leave a void which can be filled once again by the small shops it killed in the late 80s and early 90s, and although I doubt Wakefield would provide enough business to support it it’d be nice to see a JAT or EGS return to Wakefield’s streets. While browsing Twitter I came across @charlottegore who hit the nail on the head in one sentence: “HMV are a company that wasted lots of money paying rent to keep unsold CDs and DVDs on public display in prime locations.”

No flowers.

Edit: There’s another perspective from Banquet Records which is well worth a read (thanks Martin for pointing me to that).

3 Comments

  1. I used to DJ while I was at Uni in the 90’s, and I fondly remember browsing the old HMV of which you speak.

    At the time, I was also the music buyer for the Student Union (we didn’t have a high enough profile to depend on promos), and we had an account with a highly regarded local independent record shop (Tempest, which itself succumbed and closed it’s doors in 2010. Their great dance counter was run by a very knowledgeable chap called Jerry). While it was easy to just go into Tempest to do the weekly shop, and lob everything on account, the downside of Tempest was that it could be pricey.

    So, this is where the HMV (and Virgin) of the time came into it’s own – as both Birmingham branches had decent dance vinyl sections, and were cheaper than the independent shop.

    In the interests of saving our cash-strapped Students’ Union some money, I’d buy with a credit card and then get the cash back from the Ents manager, sometimes buying second copies for my own collection. Tempest tended to help with the more esoteric, rare import and specialist stuff, but even my own (import) copy of Shannon’s “Let The Music Play” (I got fed up of asking to borrow it off a friend) came from the HMV.

  2. Good stuff Jess.

    Not sure this is as controversial as you think. When I was there ages ago, the main customer base was generally the loyal customer who’d been there once a week since the day it opened, along with those who wanted to try and get something physically on the day it was released. Some people also enjoyed queueing. And some went for the free gigs. Prices for your general releases were quite high, but then collectors would go because it was somewhere they could trust.

    Amazon/Play made items arrive on release and offer cheaper music through loss-leading and “tax dodging”. Supermarkets take music retail for the masses as a loss-leader so you can buy it with your bread. Specialists tend to operate online for products that HMV would have ordered in, and buying digital content became more trouble than it was worth.

    Seems as if the management didn’t embrace the changing climate early enough, sadly. Hopefully there might be a compromise in some stores remaining open if a new buyer is found – but we shall have to see.

  3. You’re not in a minority if you like physical media, Jess. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of album sales worldwide are CDs. I myself “still” buy physical media and frequently point the facts out to kids on the Internet who scoff at my preferences – although why I should have to defend the way I listen to music I have no idea.

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