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It is sad when we must prepare our valediction for the demise of yet another great high-street store. There was a shock of near incredulity when the rumours of the possible disappearance of Woolworths suddenly became a reality, and within days the bleak hoardings turned a colourful busy enterprise into broad neglected windows looking into squalid barren space. And now it is HMV that must take leave of its presence in innumerable city centres throughout the country.
It had a wonderful beginning. The Gramophone Company had been quick to see opportunities in the sale of recorded music as early as 1899, and bought the now famous picture by Francis Barraud of his dog Nipper listening to an old cylinder recording, adopting its title, ‘His Master’s Voice’, for the company name. By 1907, record production was begun seriously in a factory in Hayes, Middlesex, where later in the studios Sir Edward Elgar would record, writing of the ‘marvel’ of the gramophone ‘which makes study so much easier . . .’. Elgar took part in the opening of HMV’s gigantic record store in London’s Oxford Street in 1921, and so successful was the prediction of public interest in recorded music that over the next 90 years HMV opened almost 300 shops worldwide acquiring a revenue of £2 billion.
Yet I wonder if this recent demise could not also have been predicted had not the quest for ever higher profits been at odds with those ideals of the 1920s. I had not been into any of HMV’s stores for many years, finding little of interest any more. At one time it was a quieter atmosphere in which to browse and select recordings of quality, rarity and distinction. The Company had devoted much energy to the acquisition of more than simply recording interests. They had bought Waterstones, W H Smith, the Scottish music chain Fopp and various entertainment and artist management groups. There must clearly be a risk that other businesses will fall in turn. But worst of all, over the past decades the HMV stores have changed, attempting a kind of unlikely youth appeal; whereas most adolescents are, we are told, buying online. Few of the older, more serious CD purchasers have been venturing in, finding the atmosphere lacking in appeal for browsing.
It is not the economic climate or the competition from internet downloading that has put an end to HMV. It is rather its resistance to being a record store, choosing to become more an emporium for DVD box sets, games, consoles, books, T-shirts, cheap jewellery, clothing and fashion items, computer software and hardware. Its stores generally had a decibel level that was close to being physically painful, with a large shop in my former city centre enhancing their increasingly desperate presence by regularly erecting speakers outside the main doorways – a serious disturbance eventually requiring police intervention. These once noble record stores were no longer inviting an enthusiasm for fine music and great recordings, so unwelcoming had their ambiance become with its recent chaos and its tawdry peripheral nonsense.
I don’t find HMV a loss at all. Poor Elgar would regret this downfall, though he is unlikely to disturb his restful repose in the garden of St Wulstan’s in Little Malvern by spinning in his grave.