It is sad news that HMV is once again in trouble.
There has been some snooty commentary surrounding the potential loss of this particular high street institution, with Penny Anderson’s piece in the Guardian drawing particular attention. She said:
HMV was always, even its heyday, the first port of call for beginners and general music consumers, where in more innocent times music as a physical artefact for novices was purchased. You wouldn’t expect to find knowledgeable advice…
As Pete Paphides has noted, this is a crass take.
You don’t become a “specialist” music fan overnight. Almost always, you begin on the high street. Then you get the bug and follow your excitement into exciting, rarefied new spaces.
That is certainly my experience. Most of my early music-buying memories were at the Kirkcaldy branch of Our Price. Kirkcaldy didn’t have an HMV at the time — or even a Woolworths. Any town that had either of those shops seemed superior.
The beauty of a shop like HMV was precisely that you could find popular (or “general”) music, and specialist music, all under one roof. You would begin exploring the ‘pop and rock’ section, and you might never stop looking in that section. But soon enough you could start exploring the more niche sections of the shop — electronic/dance, urban, metal, jazz, classical, folk, whatever. That natural progression is impossible to replicate in any “bijoux” or “boutique” indie shop.
Indie record shops have their place of course, but I have never been a regular in such shops. To be honest, they can be intimidating places for anyone. I am a 32-year-old music buff with over 1,000 CDs and records in my collection, and I still find indie shops quite intimidating.
That HMV gourmet take has reminded me of going to Andy's Records in Aberystwyth, 2005 to pre-order Rachel Stevens' second album (a classic) – Andy himself told me "we don't do chart music" and tried to move me out.
I stared back, cold "It isn't gonna chart."
He ordered it, tbf.
— Hazel Southwell (@HSouthwellFE) December 29, 2018
Indie shops also unquestionably have a poorer selection. Yes, they may have some depth in a particular genre or from particular labels. But the breadth just can’t be found in a “bijoux” shop.
The weirdest aspect of all of Penny Anderson’s piece is that she appears to suggest that Fopp is a better store — seemingly ignorant of the fact that Fopp is owned by HMV.
Fopp is indeed a better store, and I would be sad if it were to go. Fopp itself has been in trouble many times before, which is how it ended up being owned by HMV in the first place. But I appreciate how HMV have maintained that Fopp’s unique vibe.
To this day, I still semi-regularly make a trip to Fopp in Edinburgh, to do that “50 quid bloke” thing (though I confess that this has become a less and less frequent occurrence).
Armed with a moderate amount of disposable income in my wallet, I scour the shelves looking for bargain CDs. Invariably, I come out juggling about 10 CDs I’ve been wanting to buy for years, having spent slightly more than my original budget, but never spending more than about £8 per CD.
This is a great way to discover music, and you can’t really replicate it by buying online or streaming.
From time to time I have found Amazon Marketplace to be the one place I could find a particularly old or rare CD. But when that CD has arrived, I have sometimes been suspicious that I’ve been sold a pirate copy. In Fopp, you don’t run that risk.
As for HMV itself, its city centre presence in Edinburgh disappeared a while ago. Tellingly, it took me a year to notice that it had gone.
There is still a branch in Ocean Terminal, a shopping centre so far away from the centre of Edinburgh it may as well be in another country. But the one time I visited it, it was oddly empty, and was selling mostly discount DVDs and chunky style-over-substance audio accessories.
Sadly, HMV moved away from me, both physically and spiritually. Its inability to redefine itself and find a business model that can work in the current challenging climate may finally be too much for this particular institution.
But I do wonder if generations to come are going to be deprived of the unique experience of browsing a large record stop, facilitating a voyage of musical discovery. And for sure, I know I would miss Fopp.