In case anyone from a country without an HMV store is wondering about the title, that’s what the “HMV” stands for: “His Master’s Voice.”
A business with origins from classical music via Edward Elgar, that has seen increasing struggles for quite some time now, has fallen to the next level of decline in the existence of its infrastructure. News and reactions that started unfolding late yesterday and continued to unfold as those of us across the pond and disconnected from HMV slept overnight, are literally happening right now.
The decision to bring in administrators from Deloitte to take charge of managing what’s left of HMV, sees customers, staff, ex-staff and news outlets everywhere singing all kinds of swan songs. (To be clear, the store isn’t fully under just yet, despite the rhetoric of HMV being “dead,” though trading on the London stock exchange has come to a halt according to BBC.)
Those in the U.S. have not had the experience of a major brand music store since the loss of names like Tower Records and Virgin, which have long since faded away, limiting those who supported the stores, to the odds and ends at electronics mega shops like Best Buy, the seemingly random f.y.e. that somehow remains or independent ventures/mom and pop businesses.
Regarding the latter, there is somewhat of an irony and unique predicament about the state of HMV as both a super brand and simultaneously a beloved staple of British pop-culture, much like the ever-enduring fan base for Doctor Who; plowing along like a symbol of national tradition. The music industry going as digital and intangible as it has, calendar events and trend-fighting efforts like Record Store Day were brought into existence to try and reinvigorate appreciation and enthusiasm for the opposite of digital purchases and mass online retail: single location shops with physical merchandise and exclusive bits and pieces right from the minds of the artists. These two major factors of RSD are not only the effective opposite of a digital approach but also the opposite of large brand retailers like HMV. To the mom and pop shops, in some ways, during the CDs heyday, trying to compete with a mega store would be next to impossible if the crucial factors of price and selection weren’t able to keep up or somehow exceed those of their corporate brethren. Between a digital only source and a physical source with special merchandise, HMV actually seems caught awkwardly in the middle.
Does that mean a single movement like Record Store day helped kill off HMV? No, not really.
As many a financial publication and website have already reported, there has been an increasing pile of debt and the increasing loom of default. The pass of holiday sales without much of a boom set things up to keep falling downward. What is so baffling though, is the inclusion of what CEO of Musicmetric, Gregory Mead, is calling a “fail[ure] to adapt” as a major source of reasoning for why HMV was on a nosedive path. Maybe in a parallel world, where HMV would have had more time and funds try out other business methods and marketing approaches, it could beat competition to the punch, go digital faster and ditch physical sooner and what have you. Let us say for argument’s sake, that doing so would keep the store alive; that it would then be in the black rather than the deep, deep red and all would be right with the company.
The name and stock might still flourish in this alternate reality but what of its principal soul as a curator of music and a musical experience. That would still be dead. It’s true that independent stores have had a big fish to contend with in HMV but, at the very least, despite its size, just like independent stores, the company was always about human connection and recommendation. As I wrote a year ago, during my one and only visit to HMV, and the one on Oxford Street at that, employees were much more than shelf re-stockers and cashiers.
There might be overwhelming evidence to show that going to a music store, large or small, is simply not what people want to do, or pay for anymore, and that what’s to come is eventual digitalization of the entire musical experience from exposure to purchase and eventual deletion. However, if and when that comes to be the state of affairs for recorded music, take a moment to unearth the idea that in such a world, music’s existence and life story (what happens to your music from the moment you buy it to the day you decide to get rid of it) becomes a single variable in an ongoing equation of mathematical and financial proportions, used only to determine what is best to buy next time.
Music discovery has become a large segment within the music industry and ushered in many bright and intriguing startups worthy of commendation. Clearly, we as a creative species, are continuing to try and refine the internet-fueled discovery process. The loss that I believe cannot be recovered though, is the possibility for random chance…
Random chance that a light in the store is shining on a particular shelf and brings your attention to a new band you’ve never heard, happens to be next to a listening station, which you then use and realize despite always avoiding “X-genre,” this one CD you’ll take home and you’ll like.
The random chance that someone put something in a place it shouldn’t be and when a staff person sees you looking at it and you say you found it there, they tell you a great story of one live concert and throw five more bands just like the first, your way.
The random chance that a CD might have a package blemish of some kind so the clerk offers it to you for half off because it can’t sit on the front shelf spot.
The random chance that you meet another die hard fan of one artist and walk out with a phone number and a date scheduled for the following day.
Okay, that last one isn’t directly related to merchandise but the point of these scenarios is to highlight the elements of occasional flaw, luck and spontaneity. No “Genius” feature is going to be able to to talk about a once in a lifetime event it witnessed when it suggests you download something. No recommendation algorithm is ever going to mis-label a CD and inadvertently create a future collector’s item you manage to grab. Music is a creative pursuit. Creativity is messy. Digital startups might come from a creative idea for a brand and mission but, the last thing computers, mathematics, data and the internet are, is messy or imperfect. The above scenarios might come off as “imperfections” that a digitally run process would “fix” but whether it’s called fixing or not, closing HMV’s shops means a loss of a place to go, people to shop with and an unpredictable type of interaction that will just be plain gone, as with previous stores like it, and never capable of being replicated genuinely online.