Farewell HMV

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.


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.

Photo of HMV, Oxford Street in 2005 by User:Edward.

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.


  1. Louise 19 February 2013 at 1:31 pm

    In my opinion HMV went out of business because it clung to a dying medium instead of fully embracing the new world. I speak as a former employee who saw this coming a long time ago. I am almost 50 and stopped buying physical CDs/DVDs 3 years ago. I stopped buying books last year. I’ve cleaned out all that stuff and now have extra space in my house. If I’m doing that, how long is it until everyone is?

    Until recently, I lived in America – the last record stores closed down there years ago when Virgin gave up the ghost. Britain is just a few years behind. Book stores will go next I’m afraid.

  2. Tanya 19 February 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Yep, I live in NYC and Tower records, the cool music store, along with the rest went down years ago. I used to frequent record stores a lot but I think the introduction of the CD ruined the browsing experience. Looking through 12′ album covers was about art work not just music and I am sure I am not the only one that tried some new music because of a cool cover (or maybe I am?). Who displays a CD cover when they get home? If you’re going to get a CD to upload to your computer you might as well buy it on iTunes. I don’t necessarily agree about (large) bookstores though. The small ones may be doomed but the large chain Barnes and Noble has got a winning formula. Many interconnected stores, membership, free (online) delivery the same day, they sell the Nook and you can download from their store or online, they’ll order just about anything and hold it for you, they have Wifi, lots of comfy chairs, although they took out the tables as too many kids were doing their homework, a coffee shop and clean toilets – you may laugh- but if you need to go here you find the nearest Barnes and Noble!

  3. Peter Haveland 19 February 2013 at 2:37 pm

    At my age I might have an excuse for abandoning CDs for MP3s but I am distressed that those with potentially undiminished hearing are listening to crippled sound files on horrid tinny ear buds…they are missing so much. Physical shops might well be a dying phenomenon, what I regret is not the loss of them but the earlier loss of the recording expertise or at least the need for it and the mainstream organisations who fostered new music and new artists, now one need to be in the know in many ways, in order to find them and I worry that this will lead to a diminishing audience for the truly new rather than the manufactured novelty of X-Factor, Young this-and-that and so forth. But I suppose that without the shops this is inevitable, no longer will people have my experience of discovering at an impressionable age, Beethoven Late Quartets, Luc Ferari, Robert Johnson, Sonny Rollins or Carole King by hearing them being played by knowledgeable salespeople.

  4. Dave 19 February 2013 at 6:14 pm

    There’s an interesting article written last August

    Nice bit at the end, confirming a story I once heard that Play.Com was started so HMV could buy them out.

  5. Nigel Monckton 19 February 2013 at 7:20 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with everything Peter said. I believe we won’t realise what we’ve lost until its gone. There is some talk on the student forums of the difference in experience between reading paper and screens. The difference is tiny compared with the difference in browsing experience between a rack of cds and itunes.
    We will end up in a position where we only find what we are looking for – which will be a crying shame.

    1. John 19 February 2013 at 7:28 pm

      So long as we have radio, we have the opportunity to experience the new. The internet has provided access via the radio to a huge variety of music and other output that we would never have experienced in the ‘heady’ days of the music booth in the gramophone shop! Then, as now, in shops we are treated to whatever the whims of the procurement policy is, or now unfortunately was. I agree about the pleasure in looking at LP’s, but most of it was looking. Outside the major conurbations there was precious few specialist shops selling records anyway. The serendipity of radio, even the dumbed down version of Radio 3 still treats us to new journeys that we would never have found otherwise.

      1. Peter Haveland 19 February 2013 at 10:40 pm

        I think that the problem with the internet, and indeed the radio, is that one only finds what one is looking for, the chances of stumbling on something different by accident is small. How many devotees of Elbow listen to radio 3, or of Elgar to radio 1?

        1. John Umney 20 February 2013 at 7:04 am

          I plead guilty to the former, sadly not the latter!

        2. Paul Vincent 20 February 2013 at 9:37 am

          I find modern online resources such as Spotify *almost* as good as the old record store owners for sourcing music I would never have found otherwise; albeit in a less human way. I’ve spent hours following a breadcrumb trail through the ‘Related Artists’ section of Spotify in recent months. It’s a sterile process, but it can result in some pleasantly unexpected discoveries. As it happens, I started listening to Chopin after bumbling through Spotify… I’ve yet to encounter Elgar, however.

      2. Paul Vincent 20 February 2013 at 9:30 am

        I remember moving between HMV and a small shop called ‘Tracks records’ in my teens (and on rare occasions Andy’s Records – if anyone remembers that?) We all went to Tracks to find the rare gems from before our time, and to HMV for the big modern hits. I was sad to see Tracks and its enthusiastic owners go, as at the time it was a truly precious resource, but I’m only sad to see HMV go for nostalgic reasons – I won’t miss it from a practical point of view at all. As Patric says – it lost its way a while back, a lot like WH Smiths.

        In a way, all this X-factor rubbish that populated HMV’s shelves could be a good thing – older music is experiencing a huge revival lately, according to iTunes sales charts, as is vinyl (and with it, vinyl shops – John Lewis also now stock it). Most likely, this is down to a bulging disillusionment with what’s being funnelled down our throats through the traditional media. I’m beginning to see the ‘talent contest’ music of the last decade as less of an irritation and more as an overdue purging exercise of popular culture. There certainly seems to be a lot more diversity amongst the small bands playing in pubs and bars lately; more folk bands with piano, violin etc. than the predominance of loud guitar-toters seen over the last fifteen years. I only hope HMV’s demise finally marks a general turning point…

  6. John Read 22 February 2013 at 9:27 am

    I certainly don’t miss HMV. My main interests are classical and latterly it hasn’t catered for this genre. Nowadays I buy through Amazon or listen to Spotify. If I want to browse I can easily do this on Spotify and YouTube which will often have interviews with the composers as I found when I wanted to listen to samples of Harrison Birtwhistle and Maxwell Davies.

    So far as the latter two composers are concerned I think they have been done a disservice by the tv programme The Sound and Fury. Birtwhistle says that he doesn’t care what people think about his music which makes him seem arrogant and Maxwell Davies says that he was pilloried for including a straight Fminor chord in one of his pieces. That may be so but from the tiny snatch I heard his music is quite tonal and rather pleasant. The BBC has concentrated only on composers who sound like manic piano wreckers to the exclusion, so far, of Britten, Part. RVW, Holst, Gorecki etc etc

  7. Andy Glover 22 February 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Yes it is a shame that HMV has gone the way of nearly every record store but if you look very carefully the small independants are still around concentrating solely on CD’s or secondhand records, or even cassettes. In my city of Birmingham Vincents record store was the first to fold back in the 1980’s. There knowledge was second to none.

    I worked for Virgin as a department head then at Hudson’s Bookstore in the records (Later Waterstones) as well as a few others. The buzz word was always progress and never consolidation. Always new markets never retention. This is as Patric has rightly pointed out the main reason for the big names demise. The people with the specialist knowledge and love of the medium were forced out in favour of the spotty faced little twerp with one GCSE and no knowledge of music beyond his favourite band who was willing to accept low pay for many hours, and unsocialble ones at that.

    I stopped buying from stores about three to four years ago and little could now induce me to give up the delights of the computer mouse; well except the other half moaning about the garden not being done.

  8. Olivia Irvine 22 February 2013 at 10:14 pm

    I popped into my local HMV the other day to see if there were any bargains to be had. Either the best stuff had gone or it was never there. There were quite a lot of One Direction tee shirts, I remember.

  9. Fiona Coulter 27 February 2013 at 1:21 pm

    I agree 100%. While HMV are no more my local CD store that specialises in new and secondhand classical CDs seems to be doing just fine. It is all about remembering who your customers are and having some respect for them.


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