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.