Fellow blogger Paul Sinclair, of Super Deluxe Edition, recently revealed that branches of recently resurrected UK music store chain, HMV, are beginning to close. It appears current owners, Hilco, are rationalising their estate. I find the demise of HMV incredibly sad. Back in the 70sand early 80s, living in Norwich, we had a plethora of stores to buy our music. Boots, Woolworths, Ace, Backs, Our Price, Andy’s, Gooses, Jarrolds, Top Deck, Willson’s, to name but a few. However, most of us gravitated to HMV. I think because it was a national brand, recognised for being a quality music store. Back then, it had everything, and in depth. Wall to wall displays, loads of crates to dig through, common sense categorisation, knowledgeable and friendly staff and a buzz and vibe that made it cool to hang there for entire afternoons, listening to music, checking out girls, buying music, checking out more girls and talking bollocks with your mates. But ultimately, you always came out of there with some new music (and maybe a girlfriend!) 😉
Sometimes, it was new music you wanted, other times it was new music you’d been recommended. On occasion, you did that thing where you saw something and bought it on a whim because you liked other stuff on that label, or you recognised the producer, or you liked the sleeve, or the girl you fancied was into them and you wanted to impress them. But it was a way of life. It was what Saturdays were all about.
Nowadays, you’re lucky if you walk out of HMV with so much as your own sanity. And that saddens me greatly. I’m my own worst enemy because, to this day, I cannot walk past a record store without going in and having a look. And every time I go into HMV, be it either one of the two we have in Norwich, or the ones in Ipswich or Bury St. Edmunds, I come out feeling frustrated, sad, confused and just a little bit “dirty”. Worst of all, I come out empty handed. You see, I go in with the expectation that there might be some gem, some unturned stone, something that’ll make my day. But no. That hasn’t happened in HMV, for me anyway, since circa 1989.
I went into HMV on Sunday, hoping to find some bargains in the sale. Ha! Unless I wanted a DVD boxset of some shoddily cobbled together ‘series’ of movies or TV shows, I was dead out of luck. A browse through the ever diminishing CD racks showed that unless I was after an artist or band’s greatest hits or their best selling album, I might as well not bother. So I thought I’d take a look at the vinyl. I searched high and low and eventually found six small boxes in a dim and dark recess, tucked between the posters and the t-shirts, that contained approx 60 titles in no particular order.
HMV is a pitiful, decrepit shadow of its former self. It died years ago and has been on life support ever since. Soon, someone will have the balls to pull the plug. This will be a sad day for all those still employed there and my advice to them would be to get out whilst they can because the prognosis is terminal.
That said, yesterday, I ventured into Ipswich and visited Out of Time Records. At least here the spirit is somewhat alive, although a bit coughy and spluttery. In this back-breaking tiny store, where one has to learn the skill of bodily contortion to navigate their stock, there lies a huge amount of music, both on CD and vinyl, as well as some compact cassettes to boot. However, it’s not perfect either. I asked if they stocked new release vinyl and was told that they didn’t because it’s just to expensive for them to buy from the wholesalers. However, I spent £20 and came out with 10 pieces of vinyl, including a Gary Numan live box set, a Lacuna Coil album on 180g vinyl and a good number of ZTT 12″ singles. The buzz that gives me is palpable!
People can blame the download culture, or the rise of Amazon for the downfall of the bricks and mortar music retailer, but one must also blame the retailers for being guilty of not evolving properly. Stocking video games, headphones, tablets, t-shirts, posters and vending machines isn’t going to keep them alive. They need to wake up and realise that it isn’t the product that solely brings the punter through their door. It has to be about the experience. Ask any successful retailer and they will tell you that it isn’t about what they sell, it’s about the experience the customer has when making their purchase. Visiting HMV (and I only single them out because they’re the only nationwide music retailer left on the high street) is an awful experience. Some indies get it bang on, others not so, but they are ultimately more satisfying experiences than HMV.
There is, I am certain, a way of getting the blend right, of holding the right stock and complementing it with a great music buying experience. I only buy from Amazon because they are often the only place to buy a lot of music nowadays. But I hate the experience. There’s no fun in it. I can’t talk to people doing the same thing, I can’t make friends based on the stuff the pull out of a box, I can’t study liner notes, I can’t talk to someone with in depth knowledge and without a patronising tone. Most of all, I can’t check out girls and try and impress them with my music buying prowess! 😉
I love what technology has done for my music consumption. I love the fact that I can have my entire music collection on a network drive, accessible by all my devices around the house, or by my mobile devices when I’m not at home. I love Spotify and how I can pay to be able to access a wealth of music anywhere I am, instantly. But I also love buying music, collecting music, sharing music, talking about music, listening to music and all of these things could be done at once in a decent record store. A tad nostalgic, yes, but spend an hour in a place like Sister Ray or Rough Trade and you will see what it was like for me as a kid in the 70s.
I don’t profess to know how music buying will be in the future, but I’d like to think that there is still a place for an actual record store that sells lots of music, stocking as many artists as possible and stocking them in depth. Leave the chart fodder to others. Let the sheep download that detritus and continue to be told what to listen to by the accountants and marketing teams. Let the rest of us indulge in the beauty and wonder of the discovery and consumption of the musical art form.
(Pictures of HMV Norwich located within Top Shop and entrance on Rampant Horse Street, early 1980’s, ©HMV_GetCloser)
More great pics of one of my favourite record buying haunts in its 80s prime here, again, courtesy of HMV_GetCloser on Flickr