Why The Indie World Still Needs HMV

It’s easy to gloat at today’s news that HMV are set to close 60 stores this year. Figures were published this morning stating that like-for-like sales for the 10 weeks leading up to January 1 were down by 10.8%, and sales for the manic five week Christmas trading period were down by 10% on last year – a slump that they’ve attributed to the snowy weather impinging on Christmas trade.

As someone who used to work in an independent record shop that died a speedy death when HMV (and then Fopp) came to town, it’s tempting to see this news as karma coming to bite the chain shop on its bargain-preoccupied bottom. But unfortunately, HMV closing 60 shops – and potentially more in the future – isn’t a victory for the indies, whether by that you mean labels, shops or the cultural tribe.

“HMV is the only remaining physical place our albums can cross over from more hardcore fan to the more casual fan,” says Alex Fitzpatrick of Holy Roar, a small independent label dedicated to predominantly metal and hardcore releases. Wichita’s Mark Bowen is even more worried about the potential loss of the chain.

“If we have nowhere to sell records, we cease to have a reason to exist. It’s pretty serious.” Despite Wichita being an indie label to the core, it’s through shops like HMV where they make most of their physical sales – not the Rough Trades and Jam Records of this world. “Even if HMV only take one for each of their shops, that’s still around 300 units, whereas a dozen indies might order 10 copies each.”

For the most part, these indie shops stock these records on a “sale or return” basis, which means that if they don’t shift the units after a certain amount of time, they go back to the distributor so that the shop doesn’t lose out. Due to the comparatively massive commercial power of a shop like HMV, they don’t have to work in that way. As journalist Louis Pattison pointed out on Twitter this morning, for tiny distributors like Cargo, SRD and Proper – the middlemen who actually get records into shops – having to ply their trade solely as “sale or return” puts them in significant amounts of danger.

Back in 2003, former NME journalist and founder of Word magazine David Hepworth coined the term “£50 man” – “the guy we’ve all seen in Borders or HMV on a Friday afternoon, possibly after a drink or two, tie slightly undone, buying two CDs, a DVD and maybe a book.” £50 man is usually cause for slight ridicule (hi dad!) rather than concern, but Colin Roberts, who works in artist management and online PR, is well aware of how artists could suffer without his haphazard forays into HMV.

“Those people who see an act on Jools Holland’s programme, or read about them in a broadsheet, and then buy a record because of it – they’re about the only people who end up propelling an artist to recoup.” Seeing as the music industry doesn’t give a lot of second chances these days – just ask Alphabeat – those sales are crucial to acts being given the chance of making more albums after their debut.

You might argue that £50 man could go and buy his CDs elsewhere, but the sad fact is, most towns don’t have an independent record shop left, and there’s not about to be a resurgence just because of the HMV-sized hole in the high street. Outside of London, it remains one of the only places to buy non-chart music, even if their selection’s a bit rubbish.

Be as indie-minded as you like, but seeing anywhere that sells albums disappear isn’t a good thing at all – there’s little like the joy of riffling through a rack of CDs, even if you have to wade through piles of cut price West Wing box sets to get to them. And as Mark from Wichita points out, records bought at chains subsidise your indie habit.

We’re not saying you should throw HMV a party on Record Store Day this April. Just bear in mind that if they go, it’ll be a very cold winter for all music, not just HMV.