HMV at 100: why the beleaguered record store is more vital than you think

It's easy (and fun!) to take the piss out of the retailer, which may seem like a relic from yesteryear, but we'd miss its accessible approach to music

A couple of years ago, a comedy writer called Laura Crisp went viral with her thread of tweets about working in HMV as a teenager. Anecdotes included a man who came in every week and pretended to faint in order to receive mouth-to-mouth, a staff member who was nicking cash and storing it in a Keeping Up Appearances boxset and, hilariously, a bloke claiming he was Paul Weller and asking if he could have some Jam CDs as he’d “lost” his.

The stories were brilliant, but I think the other reason it resonated with so many people was that fact that for many generations, HMV played a role in their adolescence. This week, the store celebrates its 100th birthday – or at least that of its flagship store in central London – so despite the fact this has probably just made you aware that HMV still exists, let’s give it up for them for making it so far.

Readers of a certain age probably bought their single or album from HMV (or maybe even Our Price – or am I showing my age here?), so it’s an important cultural milestone in all of our lives. Remember browsing through the posters in their rack? Laughing at the rude ones despite not really understanding them, gawping at your favourite bands and begging your mum for £8 so you could slap one up on your bedroom wall and announce you had a personality and taste in music.

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Browsing was a thing back then: rifling for hours through CDs, singles, DVDs, deciding what to spend what little cash you had on. HMV was a musical mecca, a treasure trove where you could get pretty much anything you wanted – maybe even in the sale. I’ve been to in-store gigs that had a unique intimate feel to them and, if you liked what you heard, you could turn around and buy the record. (Or don’t, if it’s your boyfriend’s unsigned band in Leeds in 2008, just as a random example.)

As much as we all love independent record shops – they’ve even got their own day now, after all – and although vinyl has well and truly made a comeback, we can surely all admit that they can sometimes be intimidating. “Oh, you haven’t heard of Strange Stairways? Are you sure you even lift, bro?” I might be mixing my images there, but you see what I mean.

HMV was there for all the kids in towns like mine (OK, after Our Price closed down, we had to go to the next town to see the dog and his gramophone – but still), the store serving as one-stop-shop for everything. In the glory days, you could choose a CD and listen to it in the headphones with the huge coiled lead purely to look cool and pass the time on a Saturday afternoon.

In all honesty, I thought HMV was purely online now, but before writing this column learned that HMV still has 107 shops in the UK. It seems like every year we see a headline about the biggest name in high street music facing closure or threat of administration – the latest being the closure of three stores at the start of 2020, not to mention – in a real body blow – their aforementioned flagship Oxford Street store closing in 2019, making national news.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, though. HMV’s online sales have more than doubled in the past year, so maybe there’s hope for them yet. Plus, they’ve announced that they’re opening 10 new stores around the UK, and as part of their 100th birthday celebrations have Ed Sheeran performing an old-school in store gig in Coventry, which I’m sure will be more popular than the aforementioned Leeds one of yesteryear. It’s quite a feat to make it 100 years in any business, let alone one that has become increasingly hard to make money in.

The famous dog from the logo (he’s called Nipper, and sadly, didn’t make it to 100) inspired the name His Master’s Voice, a bold choice if ever I’ve heard one for what was originally purely a music shop. It seems that dog lovers have always held influence, though: the brand began life in the early 20th century as a record manufacturer named The Gramophone Company, but the image of Nipper became so popular that they changed it to the famous one we know now.

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Despite multiple economic collapses, a World War and the onslaught of digital music, HMV is still somehow with us. I hope they’re here to celebrate their 150th birthday with us too, especially after the past year and the heartache it’s created for everyone. We still need HMV for those kids going to buy their first record, and for the people just who want to browse. Long live music and vinyl, long live Nipper and long live HMV, the original record store. See you at the posters.

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