Today music retailer HMV announced it was to appoint an administrator, essentially confirming the end of the High Street music chain as we know it. With specialist outlets continuing to operate in towns around the UK this marks a significant change in the consumption of music and the impact that will subsequently have on both our High Streets and artists.
Before I continue writing, I think it’s worth revealing my opinion up front about the role of retailers in the music industry and the various interests that may inform said opinion on the matter. This piece is exclusively discussing the issue of what record stores critically deal with: physical product.
Not gigs. Not MP3s. The ‘record’ itself.
As a musician and performer I appreciate that this is one area of discussion that generates passion in abundance and I am aware that there is no way I (or anyone) could effectively cover the multi-faceted challenges and changes that the music industry faces in the future. What I’ve tried to do is use my experience and knowledge to discern the pertinent facts and distill them into something you might consider against today’s news.
Here’s my excuses:
1. I worked at HMV Cheltenham for four years. Following a turbulent time at University I returned to my home town and had to get a job to pay off a mountain of debt. Lucky I was to be employed by Nipper and Co. as it got me out of a sticky situation, opened my eyes further to the world of music and provided some fine friends. I loved it.
2. One of my first ever ‘jobs’ was for independent store Badlands, handing out flyers some 17/18 years ago. I worked two Saturdays and got paid in CDs. Only one of these CDs remain in my possession: “Senseless Things - Peel Sessions”, a trivial UK indie band performing for a legendary DJ - I am so very pleased to have possessed such good music taste at 14 : )
3. As I’ve grown older (and hopefully wiser) I’ve become much less enamoured with the concept of structured commercialism surrounding music. As the romanticism of physical product shackles dinosaurs to consumption, Radiohead (as far back as 2007) released “In Rainbows”, an album that could be purchased directly from the band for whatever the fan felt it was worth. Okay, perhaps this is a flawed business model but it certainly provokes a debate over what music is worth and who should decide its value. In 2010 Thom Yorke followed up this action with words - claiming that it is “only a matter of time” until the music business establishment “completely folds”. It turns out he might have been right all along, as international artists continue to leave major labels for management companies that deal with their affairs. Steve Albini once said that taking a percentage of an artist’s royalties is “an insult to the artist.” I would go further to claim that anyone between those who create the record (artists, producers and/or performers) and the consumer is peripheral to the consumption of music. Admittedly there is cultural capital in label association (the most effective ones operate as self-managed artistic collectives, which I think is a magnificent emergence) and independent music shops, but I believe this is to miss the crucial point of music and consider fashion over function. In these times, why should anyone other than the artist decide how much one should pay for their work?
4. I am aware of the potential irony of these statements considering I play in a covers band that does everything from The Backstreet Boys to Peter Andre (!) - so let’s not get confused. There is making money from the physical product (i.e. the ‘record’ which is what the retailer deals with) and making money from the music (i.e. the ‘recording’ which is the concept of the creation itself) - a very important demarcation. Whether it’s remixing, covers or sampling there is (quite correctly) a different conversation to be had about the ethics surrounding musicians making money from other music. To placate any sanctimonious torch-carrying protesters all the money/profit I stand to make from record sales goes to one of two places: the original artist (quite rightly) and charity. I do not make money off their records. Denniz PoP and Max Martin get theirs so don’t you worry…
5. Don’t get me wrong - I don’t hate record stores, I am simply adverse to any business primarily masquerading as anything other a commercial functionary. In all honesty I’m not even sure why this particular kind of trader is afforded any more protection than their peers. Ten years ago an artist relied on these labels and record stores. Now the recent fundamental change that humanity has undertaken - the internet - continues to empower the creative with control, yet we as consumers seem inexplicably unwilling to release ourselves from the structure that has grown up around the artists we love and the music we hold so dear to our hearts.
6. I’m a fan of music, not shopping.
In order to consider what the future might hold for commercial record sales, first we must define the delineation of what constitutes an “independent” record shop and a “chain” record shop. One might define a chain store as having more than one shop, but what is it that makes them different? They use the same suppliers, they use the same banks, they both (usually) operate from commercial centres and they both rely on trade to sustain their activity. One might define an independent store by claiming it caters to the specialist music tastes and acting as a champion for new music - something you could argue the music press, radio and the internet have dominated for years now. Perhaps one might define them by the staff who are careful in stocking music of integrity and quality? This is by no means exclusive territory. When I worked at HMV (2002 > 2006) I’d argue that we had the best selection of music in town - and we really cared about what we stocked. Ordering was done by specialists in sections and our expertise and knowledge in these areas were valued (to a point) by the store’s management. We loved the fact that we could order in obscure and amazing records because the shop possessed the buying power to justify orders from smaller distributors and for a while, it was good.
Because of the purchasing power possessed by the store (indeed, the company), as buyers we could order in pretty much what we wanted - which we perceived as a strength over our competitors. If a customer wanted to get a ‘specialist’ record you would take a deposit, order from a distributor who would dispatch once they’d reached their minimum order value, then inform the customer once it had arrived. We could basically get anything and the process was far easier when you were regularly ordering greater amounts of stock from numerous distributors. These same records can now be obtained instantaneously with a few simple clicks and this has been the greatest (and most significant) impact to the specialist music consumer.
These shops, no matter what their philosophy or position (and like any other retail business that is not afforded the same cultural protection) need to make money - without it they simply cannot survive. Perhaps then it helps to look at the commercial sales side of the music industry as one machine rather than independent vs chain. We could look at this in a number of ways and ultimately use endless quotations and statistics to support our personal viewpoints, but the key transaction here remains between artist and fan - more specifically, who ultimately controls that value.
So - what am I trying to say? Basically one might claim that today’s news illustrates that the position of the independent record store is becoming as untenable as HMV’s and their fate is intrinsically and unavoidably linked. There are those who might foolishly welcome the downfall of such an institution, but it is a grim horizon for those who ply the same trade. These shops do not ‘protect’ and subsequently cannot ‘save’ the music industry - after all they don’t define it, they depend on it.
Even the most optimistic of economists will doubt that HMV’s 38% share of the High Street will be transposed directly onto their independent competitors. I have no doubt that initial trade will see an increase, but as production costs for physical product climbs, HMV’s administration has underlined one unquestionable fact of which we are all already aware: people are stopping buying records. I do not wish to sound uncaring, but is it the responsibility of the artist to keep these people in jobs? Is it our job as a consumer to propagate the mark up made by both retailer and distributor by purchasing from their stores? What tangible value is there to protect in these services anyway? I can’t answer in all honesty, but these questions will most certainly be addressed over the next decade.
The short term is bright for these stores with increased growth in sales and perhaps a bit more of a spotlight on the independent retailer, but the long term outlook remains bleak. As online purchasing and non-corporeal ownership continues to grow across all media, the purpose of a record shop becomes parallel to that of the print newspaper. We get our news through our phones and it’s the same for music - so why the middle man?
The majority now search for new music using the wealth or portals available in the palm of their hand - or simply follow what the hot girls/cool boys are listening to at school; in essence they have already found the new way to find music. The elevation of social media has created a perception that we are directly connected to our favourite bands and artists - one retweet and suddenly Katy Perry is your best friend. This will no doubt be reflected in the way we consume music: direct connection to the creator. This author sees nothing wrong with that at all : )
I don’t necessarily support the music industry, but I do support positive changes that enable and empower those creative people that span local bands to international artists in their ability to control the consumption and cost of their material.
After all, once you put aside the TV talent show types who pursue the ultimate fallacy that is fame ask yourself this: What artist of deserved stature, talent, originality or influence has ever claimed they made music for money?