Day Eleven: MP3 Ate My HMV

"Hey can I borrow that CD? I need an ice scraper for my car..."

The CD is dead and piracy is killing music. Sound familiar? It’s a statement that might once have seemed slightly scaremongery but it’s really not far from the truth.

The facts are all there; once again album sales are on the decline and, according to the money men over at the Financial Times, digital downloads are failing to offset the decline in CD sales.

All in all, 2011 has not started out well for music in the UK. With album sales still in freefall, and the latest news that the last bastion of major record retailers, HMV, are struggling to the point where they’re looking to close 60 stores this year, the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is – what’s next?

Well, according to The Guardian and pop music dinosaur Paul Gambaccini, rock is “dead”, so I guess you should next expect your beloved music websites to start vanishing as less new artists are signed, and rock music starts dying a slow, drawn out death.

Or not. Whatever.

Anyway…

The decline of HMV, as the very last big chain record store left in the UK, is something of a double edged sword. As it stands, it’s still one of the only places in the country where indie labels can sell their records, making up most of their trade sales, but as artists increasingly turn to the internet to distribute and sell their music, the emotional connection people feel holding a CD, plastic casing, artwork, credits, lyrics and all has gradually been eroded away with the advent of digital media devices and formats, particularly over the past five years or so.

HMV haven’t helped themselves in this regard. In 2007 they decided to change track as a retailer, scaling down their CD sections and increasing space in their stores for DVDs and Blu-rays, alongside moving focus on to video games and bringing in other forms of media such as books, electronic products, merchandise and apparel. Obviously, for a brand like HMV who, at the time, were up against other retailers with similar product lines in Zavvi and Woolworths, this was a good tactic – how were they to know that they’d outlast their competitors in the same arena? – but since the demise of the aforementioned media retailers, HMV has become a sort of jack of all trades style establishment.

So, if you walk into a HMV store today and are a little unsure of just what kind of store it is, then you’re not alone. It’s clear that this diversification has resulted in something of an identity crisis. Sure, you can go in there and perhaps find some of the more obscure films or TV shows that you couldn’t find in the likes of Tesco or Asda or even Blockbusters, for example, but you could still find it cheaper online. With the vast majority of the country possessing some kind of internet connectivity, people are willing to pay less and wait a little extra for what they desire. Their identity crisis is further compounded by this, as their online retailing has suffered in recent years as people turn to cheaper, tax free outlets like Amazon and Play. Put simply, their scope has become too broad resulting in extra cost to the customer. For video games, it’s particularly baffling because the lack of specialisation in this area makes its look weak when compared to the likes of Game and Gamestation.

But it doesn’t end there. You can purchase the electronic goods they sell in places like Comet or Currys, books in their sister store Waterstones and you can get every kind of product they sell in any supermarket these days. So what do we want from HMV? Recent evidence points out that their “high street Amazon” style approach seemingly isn’t working.

The decline of the store is clearly a sign of the times. Once, many record stores acted like a sort of social hub. At the age of 25, even I can remember the times when I would head into to Glasgow city centre to meet my friends, hang out in a few record shops (including the indie ones) and could nearly always see something that took my interest. While this wasn’t as huge as it was back in the 90s, a memory which Sarfraz Manzoor of the BBC took time to comment on recently, it happens to an even less degree these days. Now, I walk into the only high street record store in existence and ring my hands in frustration at how only the chart stuff is visible, and how that CD section is dwindling on a monthly basis. So what do I do? I let the machines take over.

Chances are that if you’re reading this, the machines have taken over for you now too. People now shuttle in and out of all kinds of record stores and grab exactly what they want or what they’re being sold by the numerous displays and chart walls around the store – there are no longer groups of teenagers hanging around discussing the latest artists. Hell, even the biggest HMV store in Scotland has moved its CD section to the top floor. Rather, we discuss our favourite artists online and download, legally or otherwise, the new records from our favourite bands, the ones you’re recommended by sites like this one, or the ones you’ve stumbled across on a site like last.fm. Gone are the days when we paid for a record we might not even like, and the excitement that came with it. Instead we just download it and if we dislike it, delete it.

Helienne Lindvall at the Guardian might be right in the sense that the decline of HMV is a bad thing for physical record sales, even if it has been a long time coming. But I can’t agree with how we need it. We have more choice than ever now when it comes to music, and if putting it out online means that we can revel in that choice, check out more artists and go to more shows then this is a good thing. We’ve seen the effect the internet can have on bands from a grassroots level and since most bands make the majority of their money from touring and merch sales, as opposed to CDs the slow demise of the CD might be a good thing for smaller artists. And, while I agree that having a physical object of bands labour of love, the credit of a producers work, some artwork and lyrics help to create a greater emotional connection to music, it is clear that many artists are willing to move away from that. Sure, we might never see another superstar stadium rock act again, but the trade off is better for the artist and the art in the long run.

The sad fact is that CDs are going the way of vinyl – they’re becoming niche products for collectors. While there may be casualties as physical CDs slowly vanish from our shelves, younger generations will see to it that indie labels still stay afloat through digital purchases.

Plus, the quality compared to digital isn’t really that inferior. If you have high quality mp3s or CD quality equivalent FLAC files of records, the average music listener can’t tell the difference between good and bad quality rips anyway and even those with a good ear struggle in a blind test.

So, if album sales in decline are we really surprised at the fact HMV want to close 60 stores? No. Probably not. Is it a good thing for music? No. Probably not for record labels. It really is just a sign of the times. Perhaps they are partially to blame by attempting to, and succeeding in, changing their reputation as that of a record store to that of a DVD/Games cum book and record store, or maybe it’s because HMV came far too late to the online retailing game, allowing Amazon and Play to take over at a time when, if HMV launched their online service sooner, the power of their household name could have perhaps ensured success in that arena, that is to blame for the down turn in profit.

In fact, Mr Fox himself said last summer that he was hoping their “Live” section of the business would help offset the decrease in record sales. You’ve seen the HMV venues crop up around the country, and probably even attended shows in one. But the fact that HMV still want to close store perhaps suggests that this strategy isn’t paying off as well as they hoped. But still, it could be worse like in America, where HMV stopped trading five years ago, and Virgin closed their last store 18 months ago.

I can’t see HMV vanishing just yet – people still want to buy media – but hopefully when it does, the artist can finally reign supreme and have complete control over the music landscape. People are always going to make music and people are always going to want to hear music. The medium and distribution of it has changed periodically since the birth of music, and now, for the first time we are starting to witness that no matter how much money record labels throw at artists, their music and their marketing that music is truly becoming, in many ways, free.

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