As His Master loses his Voice, can the Indie retailer rise again?

On January 15, 2013
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The recent announcement of HMV’s decline into the hands of administrators should not be a shock to anybody. With a mountain of debt, poor sale figures and having to be propped up by music/film industry backhanders, it was all too predictable. For many years, media economists have pored over the Christmas sale figures and made doomsday prophecies for His Master’s Voice. To the glee of some and despair of others, that day has finally come. Many questions are being asked as to what this means, how things will adapt and what can be salvaged from what could be a fundamental shift in how we procure our media.

Sympathy for the Devil?

Not so long ago, HMV was the villain, not the victim. Before piracy and the internet became hot topics amongst music, film and game enthusiasts alike, the common furore surrounded the demise of independent music outlets due to the impact of media megastores. With the growth of large media outlets such as HMV and Virgin Megastore, alongside new competition from supermarkets, indie numbers dwindled from 1064 (1998) to 269 (2009), a decline which seemed to halt in 2011 with the first rise in stores, growing to 281. Parallel to this was last year’s announcement from HMV that it was to close 60 stores – an early warning signaling the beginning of the end. 2011 also saw protests in regards to HMV’s interesting Tax accounting. The store tried experiments in expanding their tech departments, shrinking their music stock and tweaking their DVD visibility but were never really going to put a dent in their crippling debt, and as sales dropped 10.2% leading into October, shares continued to tumble. 

The recent troughs and peaks of the independent music store are well documented, but no examination is more heartfelt than the Pip Piper and Graham Jones documentary Last Shop Standing. As a first hand witness of ‘corporate greed and corruption’, Jones sets out to highlight the importance of the indie store and the human connection it provided between consumer and provider. 

Can the indie store rise from HMV’s ashes? Or is physical too hot to handle?

As the crisis at HMV continues to stew in Deloitte’s administration cauldron, another debate emerges: Can the independent stores rise again, or are physical formats no longer viable platforms for media distribution on the high street?

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Potentially, this is a great opportunity for indie stores. However, they still must overcome the other issues facing music sales and distribution today. Whatever side of the coin you fall on, piracy is still a problem. However, legal digital distribution is just as serious a threat to the indie store. Be it the shift to instant access music via streaming with services like Spotify, or the simplicity of 24/7 music stores like iTunes, distributors of tangible media are always under pressure. Yet digital is not the only threat; online retailers such as Amazon and Play.com are leaders in physical distribution away from the high street, and through scrupulous tax dodging (*cough* Amazon), they can price these much lower than high street locations with difficult overheads. Let us also not forget that aggressive tactics see distribution channels pushing big box deals and practically ignoring small outlets. Pressure from the major labels for high sales and the ability for these stores to use loss leader tactics to sell media at such low prices all served to diminish the ability for independent labels to operate. Bulk purchase orders for media became priority one, with HMV, Virgin and the big supermarkets all getting preferential treatment.

Stacking CDs on shelves is just not good enough to justify a higher price tag or the potential inconvenience of leaving the sofa. The indie store has to be a unique experience and needs to find a way to keep people returning, be it to browse or buy. Truck Store in Oxford is an example of a music store meets coffee shop meets live music venue, coupled with friendly, intelligent and music savvy staff. It has a limited but well selected range of content and also provides a space to promote local acts. It stays open into the evening hours and seems to always have a few people buzzing around the music or buried in their laptops with a coffee. However, rumour is constantly circulating that the store is in trouble, may close and cannot cut decent profits – something which never seems to be confirmed or denied. Maybe the gossip and scrutiny simply come with the territory of running a volatile business, but I hope this news gives them extra incentive to make it work.

So physical formats are not necessarily the issue; rather, it’s how we choose to purchase them.  We as consumers know how to make choices and we make the ones we are comfortable with, even with price differences. Some buy organic food, some buy brand X. Some buy shop branded goods, others won’t. We use our experience and our conscience to decide how we spend our money. Maybe the tax nastiness may push certain people to a more honest, local retailer. For some, the experience of buying a tangible product from a face rather than a website is still preferable. Is buying from physical from an indie more ‘organic’ than buying from website X? Our ability to buy direct from the artists via services such as Bandcamp also offers alternative buying options. 

The frontline gets hit when the Generals mess up

I am a former HMV employee. I spent only four months there but over a busy holiday period, working on the retail frontline. From this experience, I know how desperate store and general managers were for sales, with constant maneuvering of furniture and stock, micro managing in every department, and squeezing blood out of every stone. It was corporation with a frontline of youth, many very talented and excited to work in any part of the entertainment industry. It’s these troops we need to look out for. 

An estimated 4,500 jobs are on the line, with a large percentage likely held by under-25s. Many of these are media enthusiasts making ends meat with a retail job that has some connection to their interests. They are budding musicians, film makers, journalists, artists, and are now facing a very uncertain future. Youth unemployment is already an issue in this country, and the high street is getting smaller and emptier. Many of its employees are students without degrees or other work experience. These guys are pretty damn vulnerable right now. Yet as I type this I’m reading stories of abuse; customers lashing out at till staff as they are refusing to accept gift vouchers which were likely gifted over the holiday period – a measure activated by Deloitte. I can imagine how infuriating this is, especially if such vouchers may have been mis-sold by a company who already knew their fate – something they are currently denying. I only hope the managers are not hiding, and the frontline staff are getting the support they need. 

Closing Sentiments 

HMV hasn’t shut its doors yet, and it may be saved still. For those who work there, I hope for a happy ending for you. If the end is nigh for His Master’s Voice, we can only hope for life out of death and a new generation of independent outlets who will help to provide for and school their customers, giving greater exposure to local and independent artists. A revival of the social, interactive record store experiencing is possible. Let’s keep the enthusiasts on the frontline, in the record stores, helping customers find what THEY want, and not pushing every other piece of counter filling tosh under their nose. Physical formats still have a demand and therefore a place on our high streets, but consumers need to be encouraged back to the counter. 

 

 

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