Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A Nipper read

Everyone else has their thoughts about HMV so I thought I'd give mine a go. Look at it as a bit of a companion piece to Friday's post.
HMV doesn't really hold any sort of affection for me; we never had one in my town. The nearest was the Nottingham branch on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. It was an enormous shop. A shop I never went into until I was a teenager and old enough to go shopping in Nottingham with my school friends without parental supervision. What I remember most about it then was that the records were displayed with records inside the sleeves. Up until that point the record shops I'd been used to would display the sleeve in the browser where they assistant would pull what you wanted from a shelf behind the counter - which helped combat shoplifting, I guess. Obviously in a store as big as HMV Nottingham and with a huge turnover of stock, they could take the shoplifting hit if it meant staff didn't waste time looking for the record or tape. That, and that alone, was what impressed me most about HMV. I've never felt much affection for the brand, other than all record shops are good. It always seemed a bit staid, they way they stuck with the Nipper logo. Edward Elgar opened their first store. Do you see what I'm getting at? A bit old-fashioned.
Then Richard Branson decided to open a huge, and I mean huge Virgin Megastore in Nottingham (I vaguely remember that it held some sort of record at the time as being the biggest record shop in the UK outside of London). Now say what you like about Branson ("Pol Pot with a beard" being my favourite, courtesy of Andy Partridge) but Branson knew how to do a big record shop. Inside there were two floors purely of music and music related stuff like VHS videos, t-shirts, posters etc. There was also somewhere where you could buy a coffee (years before Starbucks), a hairdresser (!) and an in-store DJ in a proper DJ booth. And his brand was associated with loads of cool bands. I know it's a bit daft to get nostalgic about a massive record shop but believe me, it was like stepping on to another planet.

Fast forward more than 25 years to just over a month ago. I was in Birmingham doing a spot of Christmas shopping when I decided to have a browse around HMV in the Bull Ring. Oh dear. It was dreadful. The shop didn't know what it wanted to be. Was it a music store? Somewhere to buy computer games? A bookshop? An electronics store? It was suffering an identity crisis. To make matters worse the whole thing just looked a mess. As soon as you walked in there were pyramids of awful American comedy boxsets stacked on the floor which you had to negotiate. I mean, does anyone really need every episode of The Big Bang Theory?
There were schoolkids taking up a huge amount of room while they played Xbox games which were being demoed in-store.
There were pyramids of iPod docks and other audio equipment stacked on the floor. One brand of which bore Bob Marley's face. Now I don't know much about Bob but I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have wanted his fizzogg and name to be used for marketing electrical goods. And why this thing about headphones in HMV by brands you've never heard of. Skullcandy anyone? Beats by Dr Dre? No? Okay. I already own some decent headphones, they were made by a little known Dutch electrical company which goes by the name of Philips. Ever heard of them? And I got them from a shop called Currys, which is where a lot of people go for electrical goods.
The music section just seemed secondary. All the top-selling chart stuff was at the front of the store while anything else was chucked in at the back seemingly as an afterthought. And I've been in multifloor branches of HMV where you had to go upstairs for music. I think they'd lost sight of their core business - don't forget that CDs still make up 70% of music sales.
It was one of the most miserable retail experiences I've had for a very long time.

So while I'm truly sorry for all those people facing an uncertain future over their job and hate to see more record shops go to the wall, I can't help thinking that HMV had it coming to them. Your business is selling music, so sell music and don't alienate your loyal customers who like to buy CDs. Perhaps they should have taken a leaf from one of their subsidiaries, Fopp. Now they're proper big record shops.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Last Shop Standing

We watched a film over the Christmas period called Sound it Out. If you've not seen it, it's a film made by Jeanie Finlay about the last record shop in Teeside called, erm, Sound it Out. The main thrust of the film concerns the owner, Tom, and the customers who come into his shop. Tom is exactly what I would look for in a record shop owner: knowledgeable, friendly to your face, wide range of taste. The customers are all, what I would call, 'good people' They aren't the sort of people who cause trouble. They're the sort of people who know what they like and are prepared to talk about what they like with other people. we often hear this ridiculous term 'Broken Britain', watch Sound it Out and you realise that most people are inherently good. Friendly, even.
The stars of the film, apart from Tom and his shop, are Shane (a rabid Status Quo fan who didn't have the best start in life but doesn't let that hold him back) and Gareth & Sam (a couple of metal freaks who make their entrance into the film by announcing that they like any music "as long as it's suffixed with the word 'metal". A bit of a double act, these two). What these, and others in the film show, is that music is the best form of escapism. It really is, as someone once said "The dog's bollocks".
The film is tinged with sadness as we all know that record shops have died a death. We're all to blame, we all got our heads turned by cheapo internet deals and downloading songs we liked off the radio. I know I did. The only place I can now buy records in my town is in a supermarket or Oxfam or a wonderful old hippy who has a market stall on a Friday. Even as little as 15 years ago there were four stand alone record shops in my town as well as record departments in Boots, WH Smith and Woolworth's. Sad times. Nothing could beat going in to my favourite, R & K and looking to see what the latest metal releases were. The owner, Richard (who looked, and spoke, like a dark-haired Mike Nolan off of Bucks Fizz) was a metal fan, so he was always well stocked. Just browsing a shop is much better than entering a search on Amazon, you never know what you'll find when you do a proper browse; we went into a branch of Fopp just before Christmas to buy a DVD for someone's present - £80 later...

As an add-on to this, I heard Paul Gambaccini on the radio last week saying that Steve Jobs was the 'saviour of the record industry'. Nonsense. Steve Jobs was the saviour of making money for Apple. How else do you explain why Macbooks are now coming without CD drives? No CD drive, no ripping CDs into iTunes = more money for iTunes Store. If Apple can't make any cash off it, they'll get rid of it. I like to have something physical in my hand when it comes to music, I still buy CDs and records. I might be old-fashioned but I like looking at sleevenotes, I need to know who engineered track 6, I need to know who played marimbas on track 12, I need to know who made the sandwiches during the recording sessions (in the case of Motorhead's Iron Fist, it was Katy). Which is why I will never fully embrace downloads or Spotify, I want that sense of ownership of something, I want something tangible. And that is slowly being taken away from us.
Hopefully people like Tom or the excellent Unknown Pleasures in Edinburgh or the equally excellent Swordfish Records in Birmingham or even that daft old Krautrock-loving hippy on the market can ride the storm for people like me. They said vinyl records, turntables and cassette tapes would all be gone by now, well they're still all here and hopefully there'll be some record shops left too in thirty years' time.