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His Master's Fucked: The End Game of Music on the High Street

Posted on Monday, 14 January 2013 | No Comments

 (picture from www.littleyellowduck.co.uk)

With the announcement of HMV's Blue Cross Sale on Friday (25% off the vast majority of in-store products until the end of January - assuming of course the stores last that long) and rumours that the company is set to appoint administrators on Tuesday morning, the final collapse of the HMV, already much beleaguered in recent years, just got much closer.

There's a few out there making the most of this opportunity to bask in schraudenfreude. Edinburgh indie icon Avalanche Records have been quick to comment, while ITV's Laura Kuenssberg used it to state the bleeding obvious. In Avalanche's case, there may be a point given how the HMV owned Fopp chain (who itself went under 2007 but were bought out by HMV to re-open eight of its stores) have been eating into the same fragile market supply as Avalanche. Certainly, it's understandable if some independents might be breathing a sigh of relief at seeing one of the main points of competition go under.

We have, of course, also been here before in recent years, with the demise of Virgin Megastores - sorry, Zavvi - in 2008. As with HMV, it was pushed to the brink not just by the ailments afflicting all arms of the industry (namely downloading, cheaper online alternatives and general apathy) but also by some utterly bewildering decisions by management that seemed to view the nature of the shop as somewhere that sold media products as an inconvenience and tried to steer it as far away from its roots (and, as became evident, what their customers wanted) as they could. Although to give the HMV managements the smallest compliment possible, at least they haven't proven dim-witted enough to think Zavvi is in any way an acceptable name for a shop.

For the health of music in Britain as a whole though, the now seemingly inevitable closure of HMV at some point this year is a dire state of affairs. Mourning the death of a Goliath while David lives on might seem contrarian to a point where even a New Statesman writer might feel a rush of blood to the head, but hear this one out.

When Virgin  Megastores - sorry, Zavvi - went under, it was disappointing (and obviously terrible news for all their employees), but if you were happy enough in your role as a vulture, it was possible to enjoy its closing down sale and write off a bad business plan. I mean, the high street wasn't in that much danger: we now had a virtually competition-free HMV, right?

Unfortunately, with a mixture of music and DVD sales continuing to fall and remarkable managerial incompetence, it seems HMV managed to bungle its way into a coma. Looking around one of their stores now, and the failure is obvious: half the store has been taken over by over-priced and notably un-purchased technology, reducing the amount of film and music - you know, the reason why you went in there - that's actually there. Then there's HMV always baffling pricing structure, which somehow allowed a vinyl copy of Beach House's Teen Dream to sit around collecting dust with an absurd price tag of £52 in their Newcastle branch, or for CDs by small-scale indie acts that, if not exactly unit-shifters, still maintain a demographic that might actually buy albums occasionally (e.g. Bill Callahan) to be five pound more expensive than the same album in the small independent shop down ten minute’s walk way.

It's not the fault of HMV's staff, who on the whole have always been a knowledgeable lot trying to work their way around idiotic decisions from on high. It's not the fault of your average consumer either - if you want to pick up an album or find a film, you shouldn't have to try and fight through cuddly Angry Birds dolls or comically expensive Dr Dre headphones to try and find them in what was, theoretically at least, a music and film shop.

But this isn't just the demise of a shop. Without HMV, a major avenue for people of all ages to seek out and get access to art and culture they weren't aware of is now lost. Many large towns and cities are now to be left without any kind of record shop at all. (On a personal note, this music geek would have been in quite a pickle without the small but superbly staffed HMV in Wakefield during his teenage years.) It's also a major source of income and promotion deprived for the music industry at a time when there's less and less money to go around and the chances of successfully 'breaking' a new act are getting smaller and smaller. Now that the only high-street stores to sell CDs will be supermarkets or Urban Outfitters, the ramifications on this on what we hear and what gets chosen for the big push are huge and horrifying. Thought the mainstream was getting homogenous and bland before? Babe, you've seen nothing yet.

Already on Twitter, there's much discussion about the possibility of a closing-down sale and picking up a few final bargains as the useless captains of the HMV ship steer it into the climatic stages of its suicidal death-wank into oblivion. I can't complain too much - if there is one, I'm as likely as anyone to be giving it the once-over. This once though, maybe we should hold the sneering and the bargain hunting just a second. If HMV really is going under, it's going to be taking a sizeable amount of British music culture past, present and future down with it.

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