A vinyl throw of the dice – HMV puts wax in the racks again

The first rumours crept out on Twitter. Nobody was quite sure how it had happened, but photographic evidence was quick to follow and the non-believers were soon silenced. The amorphous entity that is HMV 2.0, part bargain-basement, pile-it-high-sell-it-low merchants trying to fill space, part all-new, keen-to-listen music retailer of the people, is pushing vinyl back into its stores. There were those of us who had been saying this was necessary for some time, but the resolute and agonisingly slow death rattle of the last couple of years was utterly unshakeable in its monocular idiocy. Ever since that first middle class, Sunday supplement article on a vinyl revival arrived, and in the glibly recycled light of the subsequent 15,000 that followed, it has been pretty obvious to people who actually pay for music that HMV was missing a trick here.

But it wasn’t just an ignorance of vinyl that had cost them, so much as an ignorance of music full stop. Forget your big cities for a second. Where HMV matters most is the small towns where indie retail creaked and fell over or retreated to obscurity. Those towns need an outlet for music, because Tesco sure as hell aren’t going to be stocking the new Jon Hopkins or John Grant albums. And it was those stores where new music was drying up. Release dates would come and go, but it was no longer the case that you could wander in on that first day of sale and grab a copy of something unlikely to trouble the Top 40. Stock was ordered centrally, the needs of the customer were increasingly forgotten and the sense of urgency, the sense of excitement, the thrill of the new disappeared.

Saved from a grizzly, drawn out funeral, bedecked with florescent pink clearance stickers and the enormous Store Closing signs made trendy by Woolworths, HMV is now being steered by restructuring specialists Hilco. Quite what their long term plan for the business is remains unclear, but in the short term the emphasis seems to be on home entertainment of the conventional kind: music and film. The technology sections have been marked down and cleared out, the odd pairs of Beats aside. Bargain CDs are piled here, there and everywhere and they even managed to host a ‘Clearance’ recently, despite appearing short of stock only weeks beforehand. Prices seem sensible, new music seems to be something of a priority once again and, as we established earlier, the wax is back in the racks.

HMV vinyl

But, before you get out the bunting that you save for such occasions, it’s perhaps worth addressing Hilco directly. Yes, plenty of music fans are now buying vinyl and, yes, the labels seem to have cottoned onto the classic price bump strategy for disenfranchising their most loyal supporters. There’s money to be made in them there grooves. However, the nature of being a vinyl purchaser in recent years has necessitated the finding of a regular supplier. A dealer, if you will, who can always be relied upon to give the hit you need. The fact that a lot of the new vinyl hitting the shelves in HMV is reasonably priced is a definite step in the right direction, but it’s early days for their own little vinyl revival and simply shoving any old records out in the racks just ain’t gonna cut it with those who seek out special editions, want coloured first pressings or simply expect to buy this week’s big releases as LPs. The current approach seems to be to send each store a copy or two of the big new titles, along with a few racks worth of catalogue stuff. AC/DC, The Beatles, Snow Patrol, the Manics and The Doors have all put in a showing in the Bath branch, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. The current vinyl strategy seems akin to how Debenhams put those three racks of CDs by the counter and claim they’re ‘doing music’ now.

I’m genuinely pleased to see the nation’s last high street music retailer embracing the format I hold so dear, but if they seriously expect vinyl to work for them just by them stocking some vinyl, then they may still be just as clueless as the execs who dreamt up fashion section ‘The Studio’ or pinned a whole Christmas on iPads that nobody could get hold of. Let the music lovers on the shopfloors take control. Speak to the nation’s more successful indies and get some sincere advice. Take some risks with new releases to prompt a few impulse purchases. Because one copy of the Queens Of The Stone Age album which you sell at 9:45 on the Monday does not make you a vinyl retailer and, until someone can pop in during the week and pick up a couple of new release LPs with ease, the waxy creatures of habit won’t be jumping ship.

HMV – Well done everybody

Having speculated about it on several occasions, the inevitable HMV topple into administration is now upon us and with it has come the usual 21st century instant response that seems to also necessitate endless RIP tweets every time somebody famous dies and the typing of the word ‘GOAL!’ when one happens to be scored in a televised football match. Way to use the internet, folks.

My particular Twitter community is largely populated by reasonable, logical types and the response to Monday night’s news was essentially a resigned shrug and general concern about the possible knock on effects for other aspects of the music industry. But there were still a few dicks and a cursory search unveils a whole people’s army of phallic members. The end may not necessarily be nigh just yet and you may not have shopped there much yourself of late, but the fairly certain outcome that lies ahead is a loss of jobs. A LOT of jobs. Just as instant gags about news events are rarely tasteful (or funny, for that matter), the slew of HMV ‘banter’ has been predictably thick.

The #hmvmemories hashtag prompted the nation’s untapped comedy talent to go into overdrive amongst a whole range of curious comments:

With HMV gone where will I go to look at what I’m going to download next?”

Oh, very good. Well done. You made this world. Live with it.

“If HMV really thinks its not acceptable to honour gift vouchers, I’d say it’s very acceptable to shoplift from the shysters”

As there has been no media coverage whatsoever of HMV’s plight I can fully understand how this situation has occurred. And it’s not like any other store in administration hasn’t done this before. Yes, it’s shitty to lose out but it happens. Just like people are able to fall over without beginning to type the Claims Direct number as they land. Bad luck doesn’t invite you to suspend your moral code.

Someone on Twitter asks where they’ll get CD’s and DVD’s from without HMV… Maybe Amazon, which is also on the internet and cheaper..?”

Until the competitors have gone. Then labels make less stock, need to offer fewer deals and Amazon spot their position. Think Tesco moving into a small town. Undercut the local shops, drive them out, then put prices back up. £10-12 CDs on Amazon within twelve months if HMV go? Don’t bet against it.

I have no Sympathy for HMV or there Staff they are ill-informed ignorant scenester wankers,never been that impressed its no Amazon”

Do I need to comment? Anyone abusing staff in HMV over vouchers and the like is not only a phenomenal dullard but also emotionally retarded. It’s not their fault, it’s not their decision and it’s really not their day.

Add in a substantial burst of obligatory sadness and the internet is having a funny relationship with HMV today. The management of the company has been staggeringly bad over the last couple of decades and it has been full steam ahead towards an actually entirely predictable iceberg for some time now. Plenty of music fans have jumped ship and many more seem aggrieved about the prices both generally and in the blue cross sale. Many are talking of their fond memories of the store and then, in the same digital breath, saying that it’s so much cheaper to just buy from Amazon. It’s not difficult to put two and two together. If you’re not simply a nostalgia addict who simply enjoys sobbing about Zavvi, Woolies, Comet, HMV and whoever else goes to the wall next, then you do actually need to put in an effort to keep these shops you hold dear. Like having Waterstones on the high street? Buy a bloody book in there once in a while then, instead of going with tax dodging behemoths because they’re a quid cheaper. Where’s their recommends wall? Genuinely upset at the loss of so much music retail space? Visit your local indie and spend a quid more to get personal recommendations and a genuine experience.

Am I sad to see HMV like this? I’m sad to see so many jobs at risk. I’m sad to see a once great brand managed so poorly it’s on its knees. I’m sad that this leads to some uncertainty in the music industry. But, just like so many of you, I barely buy anything in there. I prefer independent record shops and make a point of supporting them through thick and thin. But am I grieving the loss of something of personal significance? Not really.

Listen Up and Listen Good

January dawns. List season is over again for another year. Shame. As most corners of the internet started to tell me what it is I’m meant to be, ahem, losing my shit over this year, I found myself hurrying off in the other, non Haim-occupied, direction. My thoughts turned to the age old question of favourite albums. I get asked this a lot. When you enter our house, the entire back wall of the living room is dominated by records. As happened only the other night, invariably people dash as slowly as is polite towards them to have a quick nosey. I like it, obviously. It allows me to spout geekily in a way that anyone with a sizeable record collection lives to do. But what’s your favourite is the question everyone ducks. Narrow it down to one? Really? I often mention my album of the last year as a way to shirk the responsibility but don’t always get away with it. I have previously composed a list for music message board polls and the like but haven’t updated it for several years. But how often do I actually listen to my ‘favourite’ albums?

When I was a teenager, ‘Everything Must Go‘, ‘Parklife‘ and ‘Different Class‘ got a hammering on my CD player, at least in part because I didn’t have many CDs. Anything that stood out would naturally dominate proceedings due to lack of competition. But things have long since changed and even my moment of clarity some four or five years ago about abandoning the almost immediately worthless 5″ disc in favour of my beloved vinyl, even for new releases, didn’t seem to staunch the flow of additions to the library. I’ve increasingly realised that I don’t wallow enough. There are still albums which necessitate multiple plays in one sitting – the new Low and John Grant records for a start – but my constant quest for exciting and involving music has made me quite sympathetic to the slow listening cause. And then I visit a decent record shop or two, get a sugar rush and end up at the till with a few prime choices to cue up that evening. So do I really play my ‘favourite’ albums that much at all?

I’ve just drawn up a rough list and am slightly concerned to realise that I can’t remember when I last played at least half of the albums on there. Are they, therefore, not my favourites? Are they simply there waiting for me when new or recently discovered music simply won’t cut it? Have I got illegal download hoarder disease – only with physical product? Can favourites survive in the 21st century culture of having everything available, day and night? I mention all of this in light of the news that beleaguered (though evidently not as beleaguered as I thought it was a whole twelve months ago) high street retailer HMV is to commence a blue cross sale on Friday, offering 25% off pretty much all back catalogue titles. It is fairly clearly a last gasp money grab, trying to get as much cash in as quickly as possible before the various banking covenants loom large. When MVC and Music Zone were hurtling plughole-wards a similar approach was taken and a stickering system which allows easy altering of prices is hardly a sign of imminent recovery. Such sales are designed to get you in and get you spending. When MVC Derby was close to the end it had a £3.99 and £1.99 clearout and there I was, piling ‘bargains’ all the way up my right arm whilst browsing with my left. What did I buy? All sorts of shite, mainly. This is, essentially, the mentality HMV are hoping for in the coming week or two. Will 25% be enough to lure people in, especially in the post apocalxmas environment of January? Will the ‘ooh it’s cheap’ instinct override the ‘why didn’t I buy this when it came out?’ question? I used to glory in the acquisition. A bloody big pile of cheap stuff was an achievement. Except it wasn’t, was it? How many of those desperate clearance items go on to be one of your favourite albums? Not one of the titles on my list arrived in that manner and I’ve learnt the hard way that sales such as these are best avoided. When I broke my ankle in late 2011, the enforced sofa time enabled quite a bit of bargain vinyl buying but it created quite a backlog, what with me not really being able to manouvere vinyl around the house. In the end, I was feeling under pressure to listen to things and get them filed. And that’s not what the joy of music is all about, is it?

I’ve already started playing the albums on the list I conjured earlier so as to see if they still mean as much to me when heard as when simply thought about and it’s going well so far. And maybe it’s time for us to all put the music first once again. Spotify allows us to play pretty much anything ever but that encourages a distinct lack of commitment. iTunes lets us think of something and buy it there and then but how do we find it? Various surveys suggest as much as 80% of people’s iTunes library goes unplayed while plenty of the catalogue for sale via the store has never been bought. Rather than putting your hard earned towards a pile of stuff you hadn’t felt worthy of purchase at full price simply because HMV want you to think this is rare opportunity to fill your music boots rather than a vague and likely fruitless stay of execution, ferret through the racks, pick out what you would have ended up buying in cavalier fashion and then spend that amount in your local independent record shop by asking them to recommend something you might like. A bit like an Amazon or iTunes algorithm, only human. And useful. That might then go on to be something for your all time favourites list. At least eight of my list are from direct human enthusing. That is what we should be bemoaning the loss of during this prolonged and very public death rattle for Nipper and his tattoo-obscuring co-workers. The company didn’t adapt, the company didn’t keep up. But plenty of the staff in HMV and Fopp are out and out music lovers for whom this will be a pretty grim time. Don’t be a dick and delight in its demise, whike they’re having to sticker stock like mad. It’s hard to currently comprehend what the likely consequences of an HMV-less high street would be, but let’s not pretend Amazon management aren’t leaping around the boardroom in glee, even if the warm feeling that’s due to accompany it is still a day late being delivered by Yodel. It’ll be then that we need our independent stores even more than ever before and we must hope that clearance hysteria doesn’t result in the typically minimal sales of the first quarter of the year for such shops being diminished even further.

You can read more about slow listening and evaluate how you listen here:

How Do You Listen To Music? Site

Thanks to @adam_bunn on Twitter for the photo above.

It’s A Dog’s Life – In The Balance

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?

HMV_-_Oxford_Street_1

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.

Macca 2

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.

Buy Star Wheel Press from the indie which first proclaimed its greatness: Avalanche in Edinburgh

Record Store Week – RSD and then some

It’s a sunny and surprisingly mild early morning in mid-April. I’m stood on Queen’s Road in Bristol, behind nine other people in a queue which begins with three camping chairs. I’m a little disappointed that so many people have arrived before me – it’s currently 6:10am – but pleased to know I’ll be in the first twenty allowed in when the doors open at 8. I have a list in my pocket and an iPod in my bag, but they’re my backup plan in the unlikely event that  nobody wants to chat about music. Luckily, both those ahead of me and those to arrive soon after are happy to wax lyrical about, er, wax and the relative merits of both the Low and Bill Callahan back catalogues are explored in some detail. It’s now a little after seven and some exceedingly good cakes are passed down the line by the staff as the sun starts to grace us fully with its presence. Various people, or to be specific – men, nip out of the queue to peer through the glass, trying to locate their desired items ahead of opening so as to finalise their plans of attack. With the moment of truth nearly upon us, lists are clenched and muscles flexed ahead of the charge.

RSD JP

And, when the doors did open, it was all perfectly civilised and everyone around me seemed pretty chuffed with their hauls. This was to mark the beginning of what was to become Record Store Week, a largely improvised tour of ten record shops across the South West or thereabouts. Rise Bristol deserve an enormous amount of credit for how they organised, priced and arranged every element of Record Store Day. Having been privy to some of the discussions about where to put stock (“From a geeky perspective, make sure all of the Third Man stuff is with the White Stripes singles”) and how the morning would operate, I’m pleased to report that the experience as a customer was great. I might not be quite so chuffed if I’d got there at eight and found the enormous queue ahead of me, but it’s not like the need to be there early for the special stuff wasn’t made clear in advance. The community spirit was a delight to behold and a number of us were keeping an eye out for various things we knew others wanted. The only brief hint of tension came when I advised a fellow vinyl obsessive about the location of the Doctor Who 7” in earshot of someone rather more manic and slightly less keen on my queue-chum getting hold of this particular item. Luckily, there were two so geek meltdown was narrowly averted.

Continue reading “Record Store Week – RSD and then some”

Uplifting News

As the HMV culling begins, with eleven branches and a Fopp having shut their doors this weekend, it’s a pleasure to be able to inform you of some rather more positive news in the world of music retail. Rise, 2010’s winner of the UK Independent Retailer of the Year award, has finally unveiled its online store and it’s none too shabby. Competitively priced, beautifully designed and with a comprehensive search option, navigating your way around it is actually a pleasant experience.

rise web1

You’ll find some startlingly good vinyl prices at the moment on numerous indie label releases from the last couple of years, along with some genuinely rare stuff at silly prices. Even more vinyl goodness is going to be listed on the site by the end of this week, so I’d keep your eyes peeled for what are some undeniably ridiculous bargains. Now, drenching Rise in hyperbole as I am, I should declare again my minor involvement in this music retailing behemoth. I’m doing some of the reviews for the site and you can already find my wordsmithery on the pages for the newies by Iron & Wine, The Decemberists and Jonny. In addition to this, you can find my sizeable review of the new album by The Low Anthem, ‘Smart Flesh’, here. The album’s great and I’m rather pleased with the review too. It’ll appear here in due course, but why not pop over and have a read. Then buy some stuff. I’m deadly serious about that. As we continue to see shops struggling to stay afloat, the old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more apt. If you want Rise to open a store near you then you’ll need it to be operating as a viable and successful business, which means supporting it however you can. Don’t read into that, by the way. I have no insider knowledge, but as their Warwick Arts Centre branch will close in the coming months due to lack of custom, it’s worth remembering that these places are few and far between. Continue reading “Uplifting News”

Lists and High Street Losses

I love a good list, me. The end of year issues of all of the music magazines are an absolute delight, allowing me to peruse vast swathes of numerically arranged albums deemed to be the finest from the last twelve months. Invariably, one or two records pop up so often that I realise I must have genuinely passed on something suitably splendid and onto the ‘to buy’ list they go. However, there is a distant cousin of these lists, one who only visits occasionally but always kicks up a fuss when he does. This particular breed looks to provide a guide to the best albums not just of one year but of many, such as “The 250 greatest albums of Q’s lifetime” in this month’s issue. This gave voters twenty five years’ worth of releases to select from and, of course, they chose magnificently. I mean, it’s not like Q readers would have Mumford & Sons in their top 100 or ‘No Line On The Horizon’ anywhere near even the lower echelons of such a list, right? Right? Stop backing away from me.

q 250

Such inclusions are so utterly breathtakingly bizarre that the presence of ‘K’ by Kula Shaker at 211 is something I’m finding considerably less offensive than I thought I might. Internet campaign, anybody? The incessant jizzing over all things Bono leaves a sickly taste in the mouth but things get truly hilarious when you move further up the list. Apparently, ‘Under The Iron Sea’, the second album by Keane is at 51. If you’re anything like me, this prompted an even more horrifying thought than the simple recognition of this particular placing. Yep, if this is as high as 51, where the fuck has their debut managed to get to? 34 is the quite staggering answer. As if in some kind of cunning PR move to avoid people totally incontinent with rage at such idiocy, the Q readership ensured that everybody was distracted by the record reaching number 32. ‘Sam’s Town’ by The Killers.

These lists are always worth a browse, reminding you of records you used to love, if nothing else. They’re always topped by ‘OK Computer’ and Oasis’ first two albums and there’s always a sizeable spattering of albums released close to the point of compilation. But this one does seem worse than most. It’s probably worth the £3.99 for the laugh it’ll give you.

Perhaps buy it from HMV, they could do with the extra pennies at the moment. Music writers seem to be split between dancing on its sorry music hating grating and agonising about the possible impact upon labels and artists. It’s odd, I can’t really imagine high streets without HMV but at the same time I’ve pretty much adjusted to that state of affairs already. I only really go in now to sort of my monthly quota of ‘facial displays of scorn’, actively looking to be annoyed in much the same way as people actually buy the Daily Mail each morning. It’s been an abysmal place to try and buy music for several years now and it’s fairly clear that when it comes to what used to be its core business, management don’t really give a shit anymore. It’s quite understandable that music is no longer the priority in this climate, but that doesn’t automatically necessitate it being sidelined to the point of decay. By also continuing to shoot themselves in the foot by running their own VAT-avoiding Guernsey based website in direct competition with itself – serving to highlight just how expensive their high street shops are – they display the same lack of self-awareness that keeps Nipper, the gramophone loving dog, as their logo. I can’t say I’d be especially sad to see HMV go, not that I think it’s likely to happen any time too soon, but I understand what its symbolic value is. One has to wonder, however, were the entertainment monopoly suddenly removed, could independent retails begin to crawl back out of the woodwork on the outskirts of towns once more? As Oxford prepares to welcome a new indie store and Derby delights in the return of BPM, we can, perhaps, begin to hope.