I was walking through the city centre on my lunch break and the sign stopped me in my tracks. Leicester’s HMV store is closing down. A British institution, HMV first opened its doors on Oxford Street, London in 1921. It has since been a haven for music and film lovers across the UK. I’m certain many of us hold fond memories of purchasing a favourite album or single at HMV. Fast-forward to now, that London flagship store is closed. In several weeks the Leicester store will be too. I headed inside to check if anything I wanted was discounted. Then it struck me, do I actually need a physical copy of Czarface’s latest album or Mr Robot Season 1?
HMV’s demise is undoubtedly due to the shift towards online in the UK retail landscape. Last year, the Office for National Statistics found that one in every five pounds spent in UK shops is now online. HMV has no online store. Their fate may have been decided a long time ago. However, if we put retail versus online aside for a moment, we should consider if physical media is even necessary any more. In 2017, GlobalData’s retail analyst Zoe Mills reported: “Despite negative sales, HMV outperformed the music & video market (excluding streaming services), which we estimate declined by 12.1% in 2017, and enabled the retailer to grow its share”. The market can longer sustain HMV (in its current form) even though humans are spending more time listening to music than ever. What happened?
It all changed when consumers stopped viewing music as physical media (Vinyl Records, Cassettes and CDs) and as digital files. With this shift in thinking came a reduction in spending.
Looking back to 2001 the music industry was under siege by Pirates. We were ripping, burning and downloading more than ever. Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and Bearshare were killing physical sales. “Where’s the value in a digital file that can be infinitely copied?” we asserted. This was evident. According to Forrester Research revenue from music sales across the US plummeted to $6.3 billion in 2009. In 1999, that same figure topped $14.6 billion.
Eventually, the industry adapted - but not entirely. The arrival of Spotify in 2008 heralded the rise of streaming. No longer did you need to spend time organising iTunes libraries and correctly tagging tracks. Databases packed with albums from all genres are accessible wherever you are. As long as you have an internet connection. This development has relegated physical music to something for enthusiasts and collectors. It has got to the point where some physical copies aren’t even available until after the digital release. Bandana, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s excellent sophomore album, isn’t available on CD & Vinyl until July 26th (a month after the release date). Physical is becoming secondary to digital.
It seems HMV’s downfall was reacting to this trend too slowly. Today, around 50% of floor space in their stores is taken up by vinyl records. Betting on the resurgence of vinyl was fundamental for HMV, it just didn’t pay off as well as they’d hoped.
The music business today is digital. SEO, playlist placements and exclusive content are what’s being discussed in boardrooms. Partners in automotive, tech and fashion are at the forefront of executives minds rather than retail locations. So as we marvel and enjoy the benefits this technology brings us, pour one out for our homies at HMV. Brick and Mortar retail has been our portal to music for decades and deserves to be recognised as such. It’s not only music either; film, television and gaming are all being transformed at a rapid rate by technology. Is the silver screen important anymore? Are games consoles a thing of the past? Find out on the next
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