News landed this week that HMV in the United Kingdom is facing administration and with the potential loss of thousands of jobs and a staple store on UK high streets, the news was greeted gleefully by some publications as an inevitable outcome of the changing music culture.
However, even if the viability of the chain store has since dwindled, HMV was an important part of many music fans’ early years and should remain a continuing source of the record buying experience, because there is no experience like browsing and buying a record in a physical space.
In the late summer of 1996, I entered full-time employment at the age of sixteen. Not being a particularly gifted young student, I went to work in the mail room of a little camera store on the outskirts of Leicester city. I was on a basic minimum wage, but with very little financial responsibility other than buying my monthly bus pass and giving my parents weekly food and board, I had more money than I really knew how to spend.
Also, not being quite of the legal age (not like that didn’t stop me trying), drinking away my wages wasn’t really an option, so the money would be splashed out on new music and new clothes. Saturdays were more or less the same routine. With a group of friends, I would head into town, nosh down a Burger King meal deal and then head to HMV as the first port of call on my mini spending spree.
Throughout the week, I'd have heard new releases and old classics on Jo Whiley and Mark Radcliffe’s BBC Radio 1 shows. If I hadn't heard it yet, I would have read about them in the weekly music press and based on their opinions I’d have pre-emptively made a decision to go buy it.
We had an abundance of decent indie record stores in Leicester, and certainly these were places where we'd browse and buy records, a rare seven inch, a live bootleg recording on impulse. But HMV was the place to go for the latest releases, or to select the multi-format singles by Britpop shining lights Oasis or Manic Street Preachers.
It’d be a solid hour of browsing in that store. We’d all separate into various parts and often bump into each other and discuss and swap our selections and make promises to burn them to CDRs later in the week. Arms loaded with CDs would have to be whittled down to just a handful by the time it came to purchase. Money was an object, after all.
HMV had educational value that few appreciated. Staff members (if not too busy) would be happy to recommend, debate, bestow their knowledge and often just make decisions for you on the records. I remember strolling into a HMV store one day reeling that At the Drive-In had split-up a few weeks after I’d discovered their record Relationship of Command (2000). Members of that band had splintered off into two different groups: Sparta and The Mars Volta. I’d heard a couple of songs from each, but felt indecision at which record to buy. It was a staff member who figured out based on a short Q&A that The Mars Volta would probably be the band I’d like best. A simple purchase led to years of discovery for me.
The reason I went to HMV instead of the smaller independents? Firstly, I knew they’d have both records ready to purchase if required. The indie never seemed to have the latest. Secondly, Metal (prog or otherwise) was deeply unfashionable and I dreaded the judgement from the prickly indie owner. There was no such judgment at HMV. Staff just wanted to help you make a purchase and be happy with it.
And let's not forget that HMV was more than just music. The DVD section in Leicester's HMV was incredible, broken down into genre so that any film rabbit hole you’d fallen down that week would be easy to follow. With so many deals it was easy to walk out of the store with five classic movies having only spent twenty quid.
I also remember buying a Star Wars t-shirt for one pound in their Boxing Day Sale. See, HMV was not just about music.
It is no doubt inevitable that HMV would face its high street demise once again. When news dropped this past week that the company was facing administration there was no huge shock. The culture of consuming music has changed dramatically in the past ten years. Spotify does in seconds what it took hours to do in a record store. That is, to select, to recommend, and to play new music, or create a playlist based on an algorithm that has monitored your music tastes, your searches, your selections.
Those that rejoice at the closure of an established high street brand neglect to mention that actual livelihoods are at stake. The workers and their knowledge base will leave a hole. I’ve been there. Years ago when Waterstone’s (the chain of bookstores which at the time was owned by HMV) was facing closure, customers would come in and in an almost gleeful manner comment on the state of affairs that the store and the chain as a whole were facing, all the time not realizing that the experience of browsing and purchasing books and taking them away to enjoy at home would cease if the store closed. Thankfully Waterstone’s was saved, though its practices had to change and move with the times.
Those that rejoice also neglect that they themselves, music experts that they have become, started their musical life in places like HMV. There was no chance when I was twelve or thirteen years old that my Dad was taking me to some snooty little record store. He wanted the big one, with loads of staff and good parking. My first records, like so many others, were brought in HMV, Our Price or Virgin Megastore.
HMV might not be the go-to destination for record buying anymore. Its business model of providing physical music might seem antiquated and a chore for consumers who are now more accustomed to on-demand content. This whole article is based on a total notion of nostalgia for a time which was simpler and carefree, at least from my perspective.
But, just as happened to me only a few weeks ago when my son asked where we could buy a DVD of a film he wished to own, HMV was the first place we went to and within minutes we owned the film and for a mere few pounds. It’s this kind of service we’ll miss if HMV disappears and many won’t know they’ll miss it till it’s gone.