Wednesday, January 02, 2019

HMV: the overdue death of a dinosaur?

When Penny Anderson wrote a Guardian piece welcoming HMV's collapse into administration and championing the comparative merits of independent record shops, she probably didn't expect to be subjected to a barrage of criticism from precisely those "true music fans" at whom her article was ostensibly aimed, as well as from countless musicians and indie labels.

Emma Pollock, formerly of the Delgados and founder of Chemikal Underground, declared the piece to be "horrible journalism", and Aidan Moffat was even more forthright, blasting it as "just puerile music snobbery gone wild".

Meanwhile, another Chemikal Underground-affiliated Scot, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite, responded by posting a link to an article he wrote for the Scotsman back in 2013, when the chain first found itself in desperate trouble. Similarly sensitive, sympathetic and (most crucially) informed pieces were published by Pete Paphides and Jimmy Martin, guitarist with Teeth Of The Sea and himself a former HMV employee. The latter article appeared on the Guardian site, a swift corrective to Anderson's.

Personally speaking, I have no great affection for HMV. I haven't shopped there for years, having been repelled by the exorbitant amounts they used to charge for CDs, and (at the risk of echoing Anderson) prefer to spend my money in local independent stores like Selectadisc in Nottingham and Spillers here in Cardiff where specialist knowledge and the personal touch are guaranteed.

However, I've undoubtedly been very lucky to live in or near cities where such shops exist. As has been widely pointed out, this is not a luxury afforded to everyone. Even if you do have the good fortune to have a Truck, a Monorail or a Piccadilly on your doorstep, high-street stores like HMV are (as Paphides argues) usually where "true music fans" are born. They were certainly the source of some of my earliest music purchases.

What's more, HMV plays a vital role in giving people access to music in physical form, thereby helping to keep alive the idea of buying records. This isn't merely a matter of fetishising the material over the virtual (something of which I'm often guilty/proud); to use Braithwaite's terms, sustaining "ownership culture" in the face of "streaming culture" is essential in ensuring that artists are properly paid for their work. In this sense, the way that Anderson sets HMV in opposition to independent shops is fundamentally misguided; in fact, they're on the same side - the real conflict is between bricks-and-mortar retailers and online giants like Amazon and Spotify, whose business models are contributing significantly to the devaluing of music.

Add to this the observation that HMV and indies generally cater to different customers and serve different needs (to the extent that most towns ARE big enough for the both of 'em) and the labels' insistence that HMV is absolutely crucial for their distribution networks, and you have a fairly compelling case in support of Moffat's claim that "Anyone who thinks the demise of HMV would be anything less than devastating to the UK music industry is a fucking idiot".

A number of people commenting on Anderson's article also pointed out the irony in the Guardian publishing a piece expressing a lack of sympathy for a business struggling to survive in the internet age while the paper continues to appeal to readers for money so it can stay afloat...

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