The first thing to say about all the ‘bye bye HMV’ talk that’s flying around is: hang on, it’s not dead yet. The company has gone into administration – which admittedly is not the best position for a retailer to be in – but could still find a buyer. It might continue to exist, just in diminished form. Even if it ends up as just a bloke who approaches you in a pub with some Now compilations in his jacket pockets, let’s not pen its eulogy just yet.
The second important thing is to shush all the pundits who keep saying that digital downloading is the cause of HMV’s woes. Not true. As of 2012, digital is the dominant music sector in the UK, but only just. £70m-worth of physical music is sold each year. An awful lot of people still buy CDs. The trouble is, they buy them on Amazon, not the high street. You can get worked up about this, but it won’t do any good. Waterstones boss James Daunt calls Amazon a “ruthless, money-making devil.” They’re not evil (though their tax arrangements don’t exactly help). They just offer a more convenient way to buy CDs and DVDs. What can you do?
It’s been interesting to read the outpouring of affection unleashed by the #HMVmemories hashtag (I’ve included a selection of these tweets below). An elegy for HMV? I’m as nostalgic as the next man, but it rings a little false. As these photos demonstrate, HMV’s flagship store in Oxford Street was once a gleaming modernist temple to recorded sound, populated by sleek Don Drapers perusing the latest finger-poppin’ jazz discs. But that romance was short lived. In more recent times it was just your basic market leading retailer, with no more special charm than Toys R Us or Halfords. I miss shopping there, but only in the same way I miss everything from my childhood. I don’t recall any magical golden afternoons flipping through the racks.
Most likely, people are mourning not HMV specifically but something broader. We miss a time when CDs were valued artefacts, something you looked forward to getting your hands on, day-dreamed about all week at school. Now, for most people, CDs are little more than plastic clutter, on the high street as at home. Indeed in recent months branches of HMV have taken on an end-of-days feel. The ones I went into before Christmas had that down-at-heel, Blockbuster atmosphere. The CD era, beginning in the mid-80s and continuing until the end of the millennium, was a fabulous bonanza for retailers and labels alike, offering miraculous profit margins. But those days are gone.
Make no mistake: the total collapse of HMV would be a disaster for the wider music industry. The retailer commands a 30% market share in physical music. That’s a huge hole to fill. If HMV disappears, will those sales transfer to independent stores? It’s possible, but by no means certain. To be brutally frank, consumers are unlikely to be affected that much. It’s hard to imagine a future scenario where you’ll think, ‘Damn, if only there were a branch of HMV open right now’. But the loss will be felt in other ways. The distributors who lose their main customer. The labels who lose the chief outlet for their stock. And of course the staff who lose their jobs.