Archive for January 15th, 2013

HMV’s Off to the Pound, But Indie Ain’t Out of the Dog House

As HMV calls in the administrators, spare a thought for the indie retailers who are now more exposed than ever to the wave of internet megafauna that have come to dominate the retail landscape.

I’ve been involved with the music retail industry for a number of years, and represented Virgin Megastores for almost a decade before it morphed into Zavvi and sank with the Woolworths ship in 2009.

We managed the launch of the last big record store, the Manchester Arndale Megastore, which set its course as the last hurrah of large scale music retail.

I was very close to this project and knew the passion of the people who worked behind the counters, who lived and breathed music retail, and could only watch on helplessly as their profession was eroded by the backwash of the rise of the likes of Amazon and iTunes.

Amazon’s ability to manage their financial affairs made them competitive in a way that the superstores could not be. By coupling their money-saving deals with time-saving convenience, the internet behemoth managed to render the high street outlets redundant.

The high street stores could offer one thing that the internet giants cannot however : the spectacle. Whether it were concerts, album signings or the launch of a video game, the high street store offered a venue for events, bringing a physical, memory-forming to the medium of entertainment retail.

High street music retailers started going wrong when they refused to accept the changing landscape of their ecosystem. It was a constant frustration of mine when working on such projects. When a business is so close to its own issues it can be hard for them to see change coming. These giants were so passionate about retail that they could not see how the internet era was about to change it. This inability didn’t mean they weren’t passionate, quite the contrary; their passion was their fundamental weakness, as they were unable to think disruptively about their brand.

The problem is the age-old issue of change. When the onslaught of modernity is laid out in front of you in plain terms, it can all seem quite sci-fi and impossible. John Baird’s television was laughed all the way out of one UK newspaper’s offices and branded lunacy not so long ago. And so it has been with music: to those who grew up with concept albums and cassettes, the world of Spotify and digital downloads was always going to be difficult to get your head around. But there will always be a place for the niche, and we are already seeing the baby boomers rallying guiltily around the boutiques.

The outpouring of nostalgia that we have seen on Twitter in the #HMVmemories hashtag has come too late however. Whether or not we have moved beyond the physical medium of the CD or vinyl is neither here nor there, but the disappearance of our high streets is very real indeed. But if this wave of nostalgia is jumped upon and turned into a PR tsunami, aided and abetted by digital, perhaps we can be given a little more time to spend with the indie record store as its pulse ebbs away.

So as Nipper’s sent packing for the pound, spare a thought for the indie retailers if you want to see the prolonged survival of niche record retailing. Though we will never see tune emporiums like HMV again, there will always be small, passionate independent retailers who keep the flame going.

The resurgent interest in vinyl and the pleasure of searching and haggling for them will be something only made possible if people forgo saving a few pounds and make at least a couple of purchases at the independents a couple of times a year.

Before the demise of the CD, lend your support to these last outposts of music passion and be ready to mop a baby boomer’s tears.

From Opulence to Obsolescence : Tarantino and the Decline of the Media Junket

Quentin Tarantino’s outburst last week should have come as no surprise to anyone involved in the juggernaut of movie promotion. If anything, it is surprising that it hadn’t come sooner. It is all too easy when watching a five minute long video clip from such an interview to forget the hours and hours – if not years and years – of tedious interviews and identikit questions that would have preceded it.

The media junket is a Prohibition era relic from the glories of the Hollywood Studio system that is arguably no longer fit for purpose: it was born into tyranny, and tyrannical it continues to be. I examined the development of the phenomenon and its decline in The Fame Formula.

The Hollywood press machine of late 1920s America would set aside vast sums of money to keep journalists happy. It sent them on cross-country, booze-fuelled journeys, managing to avoid having to bribe the police by constantly crossing state lines.

Journalists were now in the keeping of the studios, paid well and given exclusives to prevent the leaking of any damaging story that could get in the way. If the publicists of this era possessed any one great skill, it was making journalists think that they had the power that they were starting to crave, when in fact they were just desperate for the access they were being granted.

The Hollywood gravy train has become more of a cattle market in recent years however, sharing neither the chutzpah nor the grit of days gone by: it has become an industrialised process driven to the point of tedium. The modern formula is abundant in neither pleasure nor goodwill.

The disconnect of trust between the publicist and the media is at an all time low.

This is a complicated age where having total control of the image is an impossibility. Liberated by instant communications, the crowd can take its ravages wherever it may roam, and roam it does, at all hours of the day.

The desire to control the process of media relations has undone the original design of the media junket. What was once a mutually beneficial relationship has over time become mutually dangerous.

Offering limited time, space or freedom to ask questions, the modern promotional tour is to the media what battery hens are to farming: it provides bland insights, inflicts suffering and provides little satisfaction to anyone involved.

Over the course of a typical media junket – and I’ve been involved in a few – thousands of journalists are policed within an inch of their lives and are then left to compete ravenously over doldrums.

During the last few decades, a culture of self-serving amongst journalists who undermined the original model of the promotional tour has given rise to paranoia amongst publicists. This has led to over-cautiousness and protectionism and the slow rendering of the promotional tour into something anodyne and lifeless.

What the Tarantino outburst exposed was the pernicious fault line that lies between the publicist and the press. Tarantino himself summarised it quite succinctly: “This is a commercial for the movie, make no mistake. I don’t want to talk about what you want to talk about.” There is no give in the relationship: the journalist wants a good story, the director wants to promote his film and neither want to please the other.

Although Krishnan Guru-Murthy may have got a rise out of Tarantino, there was no real winner in this equation: it’s going to make it more difficult for UK-based publicists to convince the big dogs over the pond to let Channel 4 News in, and Tarantino’s frustrated sales pitch – though understandable – showed a quick transformation from crocodile smile to petulant protest. The safest way to resolve this for both the US and the UK will be for the clipboard Nazis – who are terrified of incidents such as these – to blacklist Guru-Murthy.

It seems that in the new millenium, the relationship between press and publicists has come full circle. The media are now acutely aware of nature of their relationship with the celebrities they report on and the publicists who manage them, who have a measure of control unprecedented by any of their forerunners.

The complexities of these relationships has created exactly the kind of stress and strain witnessed during the Tarantino interview, and is precisely why many journalists and would-be journalists are rushing to the other side of the fence.

The reason why the Tarantino interview took off was because it was sticky and off-script. It’s not enough to just appear anymore – information about who’s doing what is ubiquitous. PR in this space needs to evolve if it is going to survive, as current methods are rendering talent tired and audiences bored. Publicists have lost the art of building symbolic products of global fabulousness. They need to rethink their methods before all is lost.