Tuesday 15 January 2013

How HMV can save itself

This is a piece I wrote almost exactly a year ago. I've left it intact as I think it's all still relevant, but please bear this in mind.

Not too long ago the flagship HMV shop on Oxford Street was a destination. If you were meeting someone in town you would arrange to hook up in the album section, maybe between B and D to browse the Beach Boys or Dinosaur Jr’s wares while your friend struggled with the vagaries of the Central Line. Those sections are still there, but the last people I arranged to meet in HMV were a pair of Fifties pop enthusiasts, both in their seventies, to whom a rendezvous at the store has become an old habit that they find hard to break.

The shop is so unattractive, and so unsure of its purpose, that it is wholly uninviting. I popped in at Christmas to buy some last-minute presents and breathed in what atmosphere there was. I saw two-tone grey carpet that may have been there since the Eighties. The aisles were ludicrously wide, as if they still expected people to jostle, three deep, to rifle through the CD racks. Staff wore shapeless, branded black T-shirts, meaning that a genre expert in the basement was hard to separate from someone who only started last week. When I looked for the Beach Boys Smile deluxe box-set I only found a piece of plastic in the racks that said “please ask at counter”. If you can’t display a beautiful item like that, you’re not doing your job properly.

The vinyl section I couldn’t find at all, but I’m assuming that there is one, tucked away in a grotty corner for minorities. Except that fetishists such as me will go to Sounds of the Universe, a nearby shop that advertises its vinyl products in the window, which plays records if you want to hear them, and where you’re likely to hear something new, something to raise your pulse, rather than the Rihanna album that you just heard in a café or a cab five minutes ago. The way we consume music has changed completely in the past ten years, but you’d never know it from walking around HMV.

Last summer the Voices of East Anglia blog posted a set of photos of the original HMV Shop on Oxford Street through the years. They were quite beautiful. This shop is now a branch of Foot Locker, but the present HMV could pick up plenty of aesthetic tips from its heritage. From the exterior signage, to the listening booths, to the specialist sections (whatever the “Cosmopolitan Corner” and “Personal Export Lounge” were, you’d definitely want to hang out there), it looked inviting and exciting.

Record sales back then were buoyant enough to pay for the grand staircase in the middle of the store. The HMV Shop had been opened by the Gramophone Company in 1921, ten years before that label amalgamated with Columbia to form EMI, Britain’s most successful label. For decades it thrived, but the digital age has seen the market for physical music product drop precipitously. It isn’t HMV’s fault that Boney M’s Mary’s Boy Child sold 1.6 million copies inside a month in 1978, while Orson’s No Tomorrow notoriously reached No 1 with sales of fewer than 18,000 in 2006.

The key to HMV’s survival, even on a much-reduced scale, isn’t in a hankering for the past. Many shops — chain stores in particular — have struggled or disappeared in recent years. However, other shops are thriving. Last year I did a short trip around the country to check out the state of record shops. It was invigorating. With the exception of a couple, whose owners were in their dotage, all were staying afloat, and some were doing better business than ever before. It isn’t a myth that teenagers are buying vinyl and obsessing over it. Records are cool objects to own — anyone can have 20,000 songs dangling round their neck, but not everyone can own a limited edition White Stripes seven-inch or an original mono copy of Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?. These are desirable items and need to be sold in the right environment.

In Dalston, East London, two new record shops — the ramshackle Eldica and the well-appointed Kristina — have appeared in the past year or so. Down the road from them is Rough Trade East, a vast store, just a few years old, that has already become an institution. It has “world famous weekly mail-outs” on new releases, exclusive mixes and CDs on sale, an Album of the Month club (with invitations to members-only events), and in-store happenings that include book launches and debates on the future of pop.

Could HMV compete with Rough Trade? No, it has a bigger and broader customer base. Instead, it should let Rough Trade have a concession — after all, Rough Trade’s branches are way west and east of Oxford Street. HMV should act like it is the parent of Rough Trade, Kristina and Sounds of the Universe, because that’s exactly what it is. It should be proud of its history. The original store has a plaque on the wall that reads “Opened by Sir Edward Elgar in July 1921” — that’s impressive.

If vintage clothes can be bought in Selfridges, then why not vintage sections in HMV? There are plenty of second-hand dealers in London, working out of lock-ups or from home, who would not only have a ready supply of vintage vinyl but would love to have a Central London location in which to sell it. Some concessions could change on a bi-monthly basis, like an art show; bands could curate some departments, recommending their favourite music, and decorating the place as well as DJing or doing in-store shows. Domino Records ran its own radio station for a week last summer out of its offices in Wandsworth and it felt like an event — there’s no reason why HMV couldn’t do the same.

Beyond the CD racks HMV’s magazine section is an embarrassment. Yes, they stock the quarterly Elvis: the Man and his Music, which I buy every issue of, but they also stock Heat. Who would go into HMV to buy a celebrity gossip magazine? Borders, which used to be across Oxford Street from HMV, had an extensive magazine section, which is now entirely absent from any major West End store; you can buy Fantastic Man for an interview with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor from a stall in Islington, but nowhere on Oxford Street. It’s an open goal. Like the HMV of old, Borders was a destination purely for its magazine selection. Stock them and people will browse, spend time and probably end up buying before they leave. It gets customers through the door and, looking at the wide open spaces, HMV isn’t doing that right now.

Other than Rough Trade East, the shop that HMV should really be looking to for ideas is a few doors away. The basement of Topshop is like a crazy souk, only navigable through practice and feminine intuition, and within it are plenty of concessions, vintage areas and shops within shops. Topshop, which once appeared way below HMV on the cool register, has re-invented itself by moving quickly to get involved with designers and start-ups who are creating a bit of buzz. An example is Wah Nails, a super-hipster nail salon that has its main store in Dalston and now has a concession in Topshop. It opened in 2010; only a handful of blogs had written about it. Then a couple of months later there it was in Topshop.

Selling music isn’t quite like selling clothes, but HMV’s clumsy embracing of technology — dumping the CDs and vinyl to sell MP3 players and assorted hardware — is short-termist; there are plenty of other shops already doing just that. The internet, however, could provide it with some much-needed cool. Blogs have helped Topshop to get new items and ideas into the store before even keen fashion watchers know about them. HMV could look to aspirational, tastemaker sites such as Pitchfork and Popjustice to recommend music. Beyond that, there are plenty of well-written, enthusiastic music blogs that HMV could take a chance on. It’s a two-way street. At the moment nobody would want their music or playlists to be associated with HMV’s grubby-grey carpet-tiles.

It isn’t just about what you buy, but how you buy it. There is a café in the basement of Topshop. Rough Trade has a café and a bar too. If you can meet friends, chat over a coffee, swap notes on the latest sound sensations, and then purchase those sounds, having a seated social hub for groups of friends will bring in more revenue than lone customers wandering the empty aisles.

Again, HMV could look east and steal some ideas from the Pacific Social Club cafe on Clarence Road. The walls there are decorated with vintage 78-sleeves, and there is a stack of vinyl that you can put on yourself as you eat your banana and passion fruit on toast. The café could include listening posts, using Spotify and iTunes. There must be a way for HMV to work with these digital distributors.

The details can be discussed later. At the moment HMV is little more than a vast shop window for Amazon; you can browse the racks, make a mental note of what you want, then go home and buy it online slightly cheaper. It needs to change how it sells more than what it sells. Customers need to go in thinking of HMV’s expertise — they need to think of the shop in the way that people thought of John Peel. Anybody can buy what they already know from Amazon; they need a gatekeeper.

At £160 million in the red, it wouldn’t hurt HMV much more to take a chance on a revamp, splash a couple of million re-inventing the Oxford Street store, and hope that, like Topshop, it attains trendsetting status, with its influence trickling down to regional branches. Its one major advantage, and one that it hasn’t begun to capitalise on, is that people genuinely like HMV. They want it to survive. I don’t remember anyone getting particularly weepy over the demise of Zavvi, Tower, or even Virgin. HMV, like EMI or the BBC, is a British institution that’s fun to knock, but nobody would ever want it to disappear.
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