The demise of HMV – and the end of an era

HMV, the flagship music store in the UK, has gone into administration. Perhaps a couple of the London West End stores will survive through the tourist trade, but I’m sure otherwise it is the end.

HMV isn’t the first: we’ve lost Virgin, Tower, Borders. All victims of the competition from on-line purchasing. Or downloading without even buying. A generational shift made possible by the new technology.

I’m not criticising. I’ve gone with the flow. I buy all my music from iTunes now. Everything is on the computer and the iPod. 25,000 tunes on a device that fits into your jacket pocket. How could you resist?

But I look back at the days of browsing in the record stores with affection. And none was better than HMV. In the 1980s, when I started work and finally had some money, I spent hours in HMV, Virgin, Tower and some of the specialist record shops in central London like Selectadisc (now Sister Ray) and Ray’s Jazz Shop – browsing, discovering. That carried on into the nineties and the early 21st century. I might have been pointed in the direction of something by a review in the NME, or Time Out or The Face or Q magazine or the Word or the Guardian, but once I got into the shop, I’d always be attracted to something else. From vinyl to CDs, I’d very rarely walk out of a record store with just one item. A while back I remember there was a media stereotype called the “fifty quid bloke”. He’d go into a store with one CD purchase in mind, but would rarely leave without spending that half century.  For a while he was held up as the salvation of the record and book stores, but he succumbed to the temptation of Amazon and iTunes, like everyone else.

He was me – in fact £50 was an understatement. I often struggled to get out with much less than £100 of musical booty.

So it’s my fault. I deserted the stores I loved. Delivered the killer blow.

But I do remember the days of browsing. So much better than skimming round iTunes, or Amazon, or Spotify. Brilliant though they are. More random – you didn’t really have to know what you wanted. You just browsed.

It’s how I developed my taste in jazz, world music, reggae, dance, even indie. I had plenty of recommendations from the papers, but I just saw stuff that looked interesting, maybe heard it on the PA, and took a punt.  Most times it paid off. They were my most adventurous musical times.

Sugar Minott, the Bhundu Boys, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Van Morrison, Ali Farka Toure, Fugazi, so many compilations like The Rebirth of Cool, Acid Jazz, Wired, Artcore, Jungle Jazz, Reggae Hits, The Real Birth of Fusion. All discovered, or fully realised, through browsing,

So I feel sad to hear of the demise of HMV today, because it gave me so much over the past decades (in return for large amounts of my money, but that was OK!). I guess people find out about the best music through other means these days. Social networking above all.

But there was nothing like stumbling upon a really good album or twelve inch single because the cover looked good, or the blurb on the cover seemed interesting. Or because The Face thought it was good, but you weren’t sure until you saw the album on the racks. Or at least sure enough to give it a go, take a risk – rather than now when you check it on Spotify first.

I’m not saying things were better in the past, because having resources like Spotify now to find out about music is absolutely brilliant. But I do feel a great affection for those days when I’d while away the hours flicking through the racks of vinyl or CDs in all those great West End music stores, big and small.

And I’m very sorry to see the demise of HMV, even though I’ve played my part in its downfall.

Thanks HMV, and Virgin, Tower and all the others, for the memories…. and above all, the discoveries.

Without you I wouldn’t have the music that has been such such an important part of my life.

This is a nice selection of photos from when HMV really mattered!

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
This entry was posted in Music - concerts, lists, reflections and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The demise of HMV – and the end of an era

  1. Nice pics, John! In b&w It looks kind of like the 60″s, however the swirling staircase is the first 80’s give-away.
    Oh, and I’d meet so many people. It was a social experience.

    • John S says:

      Thanks Resa. I think the photos are mostly of the 50s. By the time I was inhabiting the Oxford Street stores they were a bit more functional. And there were escalators rather than that rather splendid staircase!

  2. Rough Trade says:

    Enjoyed your piece, John, and I know just what you mean. I never thought I’d get sentimental about the death of a retail chain, but, as you say, shops like that meant a lot to us when we were younger. I’m amazed, in hindsight, how I used to shop then: I could spend two hours in an HMV or a Tower (an earlier favourite, especialy in my USA days), just grazing the shelves and gradually scooping up a pile of purchases.

    Sadly for the high stret – though fortunately for us – the web can offer the same sort of experience, only richer, easier, and far more differentiated. My last ten or fifteen albums (if that word is still used) were bought through a stream of connectivity, from one sample to the next, and the next, and the next. iTunes is so smart in that respect – and also, of course, with its 60-second free sample, free subscriptions by genre, purchasing by track, endless choice, instant gratification, links from YouTube…..

    Those poor sods in the high street had no chance.


    • John S says:

      But they made it harder for themselves by narrowing the choice of music so much that no-one with wide interests could be bothered to shop there anymore. but yeah, just fighting off the inevitable really.

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