My love affair with music stores began when I was 12. My first purchases were made in EGS & Son and Casa Disco – Barnsley’s two finest record shops. Dank, dark and dusty caves that smelled of patchouli oil and sweat, they both went under about the same time as I graduated to CDs and videos. One became a greasy spoon, and the other a betting shop. It wasn’t too long before Our Price, MVC and Andy’s Records were struggling to stay afloat. They had bigger stores and better choice, but higher prices too. People scoffed indignantly, “Well, they were never going to last.” But with every new high street casualty, my Saturday afternoons became a little less joyful.
By the time I moved to London, I’d learned to content myself with the big three. And since I worked in an agency just off Picadilly, I was in the ideal location to take full advantage. Every day, for one hour, I was able to indulge in my favourite hobby – browsing for music and movies. I’d never had fashionable taste in music, so I always found the ‘serious’ independent music shops unwelcoming at best, and utterly bewildering at worst. The big brands, on the other hand, had the breadth to satisfy the connoisseur, but enough mainstream titles to attract the general populace.
I’d leave the office and head straight into Tower Records on the corner of Regent Street – upstairs first, then down to the basement. From there, I could exit straight into the circular tube station and make my way around to the Virgin Megastore. This time, I’d start downstairs, with the DVDs, then head up to the ground floor for the CDs. Finally, I’d cross the road and head into HMV, which was always my favourite. Here, it was CDs on the ground floor, then DVDs on the mezzanine. My movements were carefully choreographed with repetitive precision. Most days, I’d return to the office empty handed, save for a tuna sandwich. “But you never buy anything…” my colleagues would argue, failing to comprehend how I could ‘waste’ an hour doing the same thing every day. The thing is, I actually spent a fortune in those stores, amassing a collection of 3,000 CDs and 5,000 DVDs over the years. But visiting a music store was never just about the transaction. Like all the best things in life, the journey was far more important than the destination.
In recent years, Tower Records and Virgin Megastore disappeared from the high street, along with Zavvi, Virgin’s short-lived replacement. This left HMV to stand alone. A defiant monument to those of us who’ve spent our lives amongst the aisles. Browsing remastered re-releases, attempting to justify repurchasing something for the umpteenth time. Considering that much-hyped boxset, and figuring “I can always ebay it if I don’t like the first season.” Or wandering the rows with three sale items in hand, looking for that elusive fourth title to qualify for the multibuy discount.
So it’s with a heavy heart that I accept the painful truth. Nipper the Jack Russell is being sent to live on a farm, where he can play with the other animals. That’s what I’ll be telling myself anyway, since the cold, hard truth is too painful to contemplate. Not everyone will share my sympathies - poorly trained staff, inconsistent pricing and, yes, an outdated business model have all contributed to HMV’s terminal decline. We shouldn’t really be surprised to find that the investors have got Dignitas on speed dial. More reactionary voices might even celebrate the brand’s downfall, blaming the HMV for contributing to the gradual decline of the independent record shop – when in fact, they too simply fell victim to changing customer habits. In the coming weeks, people will conduct a public post-mortem on HMV. Did digital kill the traditional music shop? Or have bricks-and-mortar businesses been rendered obsolete by tax-dodging online retailers? Do people who shop online have any right to piss and moan about another high street casualty?
In the end, none of it really matters. Those of us who grew up in the music stores have lost a major part of our shared cultural heritage. In the same way we mourned for Woolworths, because we’d lost a touchstone from our collective youth, the death of HMV represents an even bigger loss. From adolescence through to adulthood, the high street music store was where our tastes and identities were formed. HMV never treated subject matter expertise as a prerequisite for entry, instead welcoming the ignorant and informed with open arms. It was a place to discover new artists, embrace shows we’d always meant to watch, and maybe even help out a customer when the staff didn’t know the answer. Or maybe that was just me?