There is reason to be sad at the passing of what seemed like a portal into a slightly illicit, transgressive alternate universe
In the world of what used to be called record shops, you’re not really supposed to mourn the demise of a vast corporate monolith. No one seemed to care that much when Zavvi or Our Price or Tower or even Virgin went to the wall: save your mourning, goes the logic, for the tiny independent record stores, trying to repel the apparently inexorable advance of Amazon armed only with their specialist knowledge of and true passion for music.
They have a point: as a Brighton resident, I’m more concerned about the uncertain future of the tiny Borderline Records in North Laine than I am about the local HMV, because I love shopping in the former, and the last time I went into the latter, I came out wearing the expression of existential despair I normally reserve for Sunday visits to Ikea.
And yet I can’t help feeling sad at the news that HMV has gone into administration, apparently brought to disaster by a failure to keep up with a changing market. Online, you can find a blog by an advertising executive who worked with HMV for 25 years, in which he claims the company’s former MD remarked in 2002 that “downloadable music is just a fad”, which if it’s true may well be music retail’s own equivalent of “groups with guitars are on their way out, Mr Epstein”.
The Leeds branch of HMV was the first record shop I can remember visiting: from the age of about nine, my mother used to drop me there before heading off to Lewis’s or Schofields or Marks & Spencer. Certainly it was the place that sold me the first album I bought, rather than received as a gift, Adam and the Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier. If you’re looking for an example of how online retailers have undercut the high street, one of them is offering said album on CD for the same price I paid for it 32 years ago.
It didn’t seem like visiting a branch of a vast faceless corporate monolith. In fact, it seemed like a portal into a slightly illicit, transgressive alternate universe. The walls at the rear were covered in punk 7″ singles. There were picture sleeves and coloured vinyl pressings and imports. There was a single called 99% Is Shit by The Cash Pussies, which I remember boggling at: aged nine, it seemed utterly inconceivable that someone had made a record with the word “shit” in the title. For some reason, I can also vividly recall seeing an import single featuring Malcolm McLaren singing You Need Hands: presumably some lunatic at a continental record label had looked at the soundtrack of the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and concluded that the track with most commercial potential was the one that featured their manager tunelessly bellowing his way through the old Max Bygraves number. All of it was thrillingly suggestive of a world very different from that of the Top 40 display at Woolworths or Smith’s.
It continued to feel at least a bit like that well into my teens. HMV was the place I went to buy albums I couldn’t find locally. I suppose I could have ordered them from my nearest record shop, but I liked to browse, and HMV felt huge. You could easily lose yourself in there for an hour, an idea that feels laughably bizarre if you’ve visited an HMV in recent times. The only way you’d lose an hour in there now was trying to find an album that you couldn’t find cheaper elsewhere, or indeed trying to find any albums, in among all the other stuff HMV had started to flog in an attempt at staving off the inevitable: the range of music on offer seemed to continually narrow over recent years.
One story has the rot setting in with a centralised buying system, which saved money, uniformed stock and ensured valuable wall space would no longer be taken up with The Cash Pussies’ 99% Is Shit – or similar – just because someone who worked there liked it.
The truth may be that the way people consume music has changed utterly and irrevocably from 20 years ago. You hear a lot of talk about the demise of record shops denying customers the pleasures of browsing, but perhaps they still do: maybe clicking on YouTube videos and SoundCloud links is the new flicking through the album racks.
It seems less fun to me, but then doubtless someone said the same when HMV’s flagship Oxford Street store in London removed its listening booths into which people once crowded to hear the latest from Acker Bilk.