The Death Of HMV – The End Of A Way Of Life
Football and music – the two burning passions of our site editor Rob Blanchette. In this article, he reflects about the loss of HMV from our lives and high streets.
When I was 15, like most kids…my school sent me out on work experience. One of my best pals had put down on the form that he loved sports, so subsequently got sent to work at a golf club. I had put down that I wanted to be a writer, and had hoped to be placed at the local newspaper…but I ended up at the Woolwich building society in the high street, filing paper work and making the tea.
But in the end, it was the best work placement I could possibly have. And this was because it was next door to HMV.
In my ill-fitting oversized suit, Id spend every lunchtime in there, browsing through the cassettes and CDs. Checking out all the new band t-shirts. I learned every corner of that shop, without realising that one day I would work there. As a 15-year-old I loved the vibe of the place. All the staff were cool. One girl was probably the most beautiful goth I had ever seen, and I had to control my boyish motivation for staring at her as she filled the racks. To me it was the greatest place to spend any free time. It was my library..I could discover new genres I had only read about. I could admire the artwork on the cover of every album. It was a consistently satisfying experience. It was the only place on earth I would run too when I needed a dose of escapism from the council estate and our poverty. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Playstation to fill a void. But we had music, and that was enough.
It is obvious to state that ‘things move on’. Progress is a human desire. But once upon a time a job with HMV was the safest job in the world. Why was this? Because as we used to say…’people will always buy music’. As it turns out, that philosophy was flawed. However in the mid-nineties you really could not have had any other outlook.
I was dedicated to the company from day one. I worked in the video department as a quiffed, Morrissey-loving, uni student. I would swan around, checking the videos were in alphabetical order and cleaning headerboards, but I longed to work in the music department. After a couple of staff swiftly moved on I was inexplicably running the video department. I didn’t have a clue! But I was keen as mustard and wanted to succeed. I remember being told that I ‘ambled’ around the shop floor. Ambled?! Damn! …so I made sure I walked more quickly…and was amazed at how much more work I could get through. This was a huge revelation for a teenage boy, who had no idea about budgets or targets or bonus schemes.
Soon I had earned that spot working in the music department. I jacked in university because I couldn’t really afford to study, and I was happy starting at the bottom of HMV rather than coming in a year later as a graduate. I ran chart. It was the days before planagrams, and tradition values of merchandising existed. I created displays and tempted customers. But I was a singles man – CD singles…cassette singles…and of course our blessed vinyl. Very soon I was running singles and doing what I truly believed was the best job in the world. I would get in at 7.45am every Monday to get ready for my rush of workers and rabid DJs, who would be in for our normal early opening for new release day. I ordering all my own stock. I was the one-stop fountain of knowledge in the local area for my chosen specialist subject. I enjoyed the kudos. I liked being recognised in every pub I went into as…’that bloke who sells the records’. It was pop stardom, without any of the actual fame or money. What money I did earn…I put back in the tills with staff sales.
As the years rolled on I collected promotion after promotion, and before I knew it I was a member of management. The classic HMV polo shirt and trainers came off, and the ironed shirt and leather shoes were put on. I worked hard, developed staff, delivered profit, and enjoyed the challenge. The business became all important, but I clung on to the fact that I was working in the industry that I adored. I loved going to all the gigs, and I still got my kicks out of seeing all that new music before the vast majority of Joe Public. I also enjoyed the lifestyle: ‘Work hard, play hard’ was our motto…and we lived it in our pre-parental bliss.
I could carry on and tell you about more fantastic music nostalgia…about the heady days of Britpop and playing the Blur vs Oasis game. About opening new shops and the mania surrounding that. About the mad nights out, sticking together like a huge gang of drunk know-it-alls. But ultimately this story has a sombre ending.
I can clearly remember attending a think tank meeting eight years ago. We discussed many things, mainly customer service based…but we also discussed the Internet. No one had smartphones back then. Even ownership of an iPod was elaborate. Many in the industry just didn’t get ‘digital music’…which looking back is completely shocking. I can remember saying in that meeting that one day there would be no shops and everyone would buy their music online. I seem to remember getting laughed out the room.
I don’t think you needed to be a visionary to see what the Internet would do with our core business at HMV, but vision was the one thing the company lacked in the years before I left. Brian McLaughlin had vision, and he took HMV into a golden era through the 80s and 90s. But the company decided that games were ‘the next big thing’…when it should have thrown its weight behind the digital explosion. It is true to say the explosion had not yet happened in 2005…but a little bit of vision would have been more invaluable today than studying sales mix and stockturn. HMV stood still, and Amazon and Apple rushed by like a speeding train, leaving Nipper on the platform.
I will admit I did not think I would feel sad when HMV went to the wall. The day I resigned I skipped away from my boss’ office looking forward to brighter days without the creative drain of business ‘Agreed Actions’…but on my last day with the company I sobbed all the way back to my car, clutching my leaving gift…which was ironically…an iPod. I wondered if I had made the right decision, leaving the only company and business I had ever known. I was scared and questioned my judgement. But deep down I knew it was time to get out. I did not want to be part of what appeared to be a sinking ship. I also had a young family that I wanted to see grow up.
Yesterday was a black day, hearing of the company on its last legs. Some fantastic people made that business what it was, but ultimately it was the decisions of a few that brought this icon of British music to its knees. We will never know if HMV could have taken on either Amazon or Apple…it is unlikely when you look at those two companies resources. But it could have used that vision that McLaughlin once had, and given it a better fight strategy. This for sure, is not the fault of the staff in the stores.
The high street will be consigned to mythology soon, and we can all live in our virtual online bliss. Progress cannot be halted, but in any war there are casualties. HMV was on the frontline for so many years, and there to be shot at. But that bulletproof vest we used to have is no more. It is with a heavy heart I say goodbye not only to a business that paid my bills, and gave me the best discount a music junkie could ever have. It is goodbye to a way of life. I guess when our elders get teary about the local post office and greengrocer disappearing from the top of the road because of Tesco, we will feel the same when our holy and sacred record shops disappear forever.
Personally, I hope the brand can be saved. I would love to see it become a progressive record label, releasing music and supporting new artists like it was famed for. The ‘Dog and Trumpet’ to appear on vinyl and CDs…along with online releases in the future…would be a special thing. Let us hope a solution can be found, and that the 4000 people that still serve the company are looked after. Especially the ones who have been there since the glory days.