Over Christmas, HMV had bought a television advert to announce their sale. Curiously, it didn’t mention any actual items that were reduced. Didn’t even show you some sleeves or cases. Nothing. It simply pointed out that HMV have an ‘up to half price sale’ on at the moment. Considering their rather precarious position on the high street, this seemed like yet another sign of how they’re getting it so badly wrong. Apparently, some HMVs, along with branches of their faux-indie bastard offspring Fopp, have been bashing out enormous DVD boxsets for £5 this week. Surely something to shout about, even if it is just a way of clearing slightly dented stock in an attempt to at least get something for it before the increasingly graffitied surfaces morph into a gargantuan female vocalist?
Their website seems to have switched a lot of ‘dispatches in 5-8 days’ items to ‘Out of Stock’ suggesting that things might be a little more short term right now and the annual crush in the post-Christmas sale was absent when I visited. Indeed, the former preserve of middle-aged men with an unfeasible amount of noxious flatulence seemed largely untroubled. With their technology stands and stock piled everywhere, the shop seemed to be attracting the younger generation. They just weren’t buying anything. They pointed at stuff and mentioned who in their family had had it for Christmas, they flicked casually through racks and seemed to purchase little. The previous CD hounds of a certain age have moved on. They know that this isn’t a place for music lovers anymore. Instead, they frequent independent and second hand record shops. I know, because I smell them there. I am being disingenuous based on the fact that each year I seemed to encounter somebody at the HMV sales with very loose bowels. However, as only small numbers of young people pledge allegiance to their local independent music emporia, the older generations who might otherwise have ambled round HMV and Virgin in the past are now returning to their spiritual homes, leaving Nipper and his unfortunate employees with a customer base who don’t really want to spend much.
Several years ago, I noticed how blatantly the charts CDs suddenly went up in HMV come December: your Bubles and boy bands given prominent displays at two or three pounds more than they were the week before. Why? Because that’s the other HMV customer, ‘family member with a list’ who visits once a year to pick up the presents. It was announced recently that the week before Christmas accounts for almost 10% of the shop’s annual sales, hence the ruthless price hike. How can you know it was previously cheaper if you haven’t been in since last December? After announcing that his strategy for this year’s festive run-up was “fingers crossed” it now remains to be seen if those last minute sales have actually done enough to postpone the inevitable for Chief Executive Simon Fox. It’s hard to believe the end isn’t nigh and it would be terribly sad to see the brand go and for all of those, largely committed, enthusiastic and knowledgable, people to lose their jobs. However, I can’t truly believe that that many music lovers will actually miss the 21st century HMV experience. The Oxford Street store is still a treasure trove, but vinyl prices are regularly £5 higher than in their competitors’ stores at a time when it’s gathering an increasing following. Fopp has stayed fairly close to the original incarnation, even if it is essentially an HMV clearing house. And the vinyl’s really expensive there too.
As the independent stores quietly rub their hands at the thought of more trade and possibly even some cautious expansion, the British high street can prepare for a very curious situation ahead. Do indies move for some of the old HMV stores safe in the knowledge that people expect to be able to buy entertainment there? Could town centre music retail return? The downfall of HMV is not a source of glee, more the depressingly predictable end to a downward spiral started years back when their core product was marginalised. There are still record shops thriving and even some new ones entering the fray. If a shop – and the last of its kind – with such a nationwide presence does go under, it’s hard to believe there won’t be a few more on the way.
Having been reading Robert Levine‘s excellent ‘Free Ride – How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back’ over the last few days, how music is sold and the value attached to it in an internet age has been on my mind. I received the uber-deluxe book edition of Paul McCartney‘s debut solo album for Christmas. It’s over-priced for what it is, but it is utterly gorgeous. A combination of fascinating written content and beautiful photographs from the time of the album’s creation make for a very satisfying and special item. Inevitably, it made me want the equivalent version for ‘McCartney II‘ and I gave in to festive consumerism. The uber-deluxe edition certainly seems to be the current way to get people of a certain age to spend big on music and, while it’s being described by some as the final acts of physical media, there’s a lesson in there for the future. People like beautiful items. I’ve read of teenagers buying LPs with mp3 download codes so that they can listen to the digital copy and pore over the sleeve, despite having no means of playing the disc inside. The wonderful Star Wheel Press album can be bought direct from the band or selected independent retailers of renown in a stunning hand-printed package for only a few pounds more than the download. The Low Anthem posted photos of themselves on Twitter last winter as they took all of the many, many pre-orders for their screen-printed editions of ‘Smart Flesh‘ to the post office. People will still pay for music but they like it to mean something. Independent record shops still understand this and for as long as they do it’s hard to imagine music retail disappearing from the high street entirely. As we enter 2012, I will confidently predict that this time next year there’ll have been a few surprises in the sale of music for us all to reflect on.