HMV shopping bag

1950s HMV carrier bag

What can be added to the many articles generated by the trouble at HMV since the chain went up for sale? The usual media interest, contrasting with a deafening silence from Government, and hand-wringing from an industry which feels it has done all it can to support the chain (suppliers have been stocking the shops at their own risk for a long time now, in the past it used to be covered by insurance in case HMV couldn’t pay).
On the other side of the counter there doesn’t seem to be much fondness for the shops, beyond the sadness of us losing our last high street music chain. My own relationship with the brand has certainly not been as strong as to other now vanished record shops. The reason being that back in the 1970s there was no HMV in Sheffield. Trips to Manchester enabled me to check HMV there (curiously site on a second floor – you entered down a short glazed alley off the pavement and up some stairs, before the whole shop opened up before you) and it was impressively well stocked to be certain, if a bit aloof somehow – very little atmosphere or spirit about it (unlike their main competitor Virgin).

Exterior of HMV London shop 1960s

Exterior of HMV London shop 1960s

I visited the flagship Oxford Street branch a few times whenever I was there in the late 70s and 80s. This was an amazing experience, with loads of imports as well as regular and back-catalogue albums and numerous different departments. At this period HMV had around 42 decent sized branches across the UK and was properly managed. Jon Kirkman worked there at the end of the 70s and was in charge of the singles department in one of the North West branches; he stocked what he wanted to see in a shop, and such was the increase in sales the manager from head office came up to see what he was doing, so they could try the same elsewhere.

Interior of HMV London shop 1960s

Interior of HMV London shop 1960s, note the players for the listening booths.

In the eighties, HMV went for a huge debt-funded expansion programme to the massive number of stores they had by the end of 2012 (four in Heathrow airport alone!). One of those new branches was in Sheffield. They certainly went for it in a big way with a large well stocked two floor branch right in the centre of town (there by the late seventies).
This sparked a bit of a battle with Virgin, who also upped their game and moved to a bigger more central location. I would think I used HMV more after this, the new Virgin being so corporate it lost the charm of the early store on the edge of town (and most of the knowledgable staff too). HMV was no less corporate but still felt more like an old style record store. And they chucked out all their store displays round the back so you could scrounge posters. Their upstairs was given over to MOR, Classical and other niche markets. It was here that I remember seeing my first compact disc around 1984.
With HMV and Virgin in town, the long established (some for fifty years or more) local record shops disappeared and more chains moved in to grab their share of the market. But for Our Price, Andys, Fopp and the other chains it was a case of ‘last in first out’, and for mainstream stuff HMV was eventually all that was left in the city once Virgin / Zavvi went under.
And a fairly grim shopping experience HMV became in their second (and current) location. For some time they seem to have chased the very section of the demographic who aren’t interested in buying CDs and ignoring older buyers who are (while racking DVDs down to the carpet so you have to get on your hands and knees to check the bottom couple of shelves).
As I buy most of my CDs and vinyl up at the local independent (Record Collector), HMV closing wouldn’t be a massive personal blow. But it has been one of the few shops which drags me into town of late, mainly for a browse among the DVDs these days, and I would miss that.
Is there still room for a reduced record store chain in the UK? I’m sure there is. Check out any Apple shop to see what you can do to make niche shopping attractive and enticing. Rough Trade in London have shown that a large well stocked record store, with knowledgeable staff, attracts people.
Yet with today’s get rich quick private equity business models it’s hard to know how you’d get something up and running. And they are the only ones interested in HMV including, worryingly, the boss of HMV Canada (which I’m reliably told is utter crap and far worse than the UK chain).
The industry needs to get behind such a project more fully, and give the breaks to physical stores (rather to the all consuming Amazon as they currently do) – exclusive releases, formats, signings, in-store sets, people to chat to, etc. Or possibly give support to the indie sector to enable them to grow and fill the gap.

HMV carrier bag 2000

HMV carrier bag circa 2000

HMV is interesting in that it has been fairly well documented and lots of great early photographs survive, certainly of the original London store outside and in, with the amazing ‘foreign’ record department – which gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the place in its prime. That I never saved any old HMV bags (unlike the groovy Virgin ones) says a lot. The modern bag above is from a couple of years ago before they streamlined the logo yet again.

1950s HMV carrier bag

1950s HMV carrier bag reverse side

The lovely vintage carrier above is a real find (discovered tucked in with a box of albums according to the seller). It clearly dates from the late 1950s (or very early 60s) judging by the design and the various logos (the Decca one in particular was used on all their mid-1950s albums). It’s thick paper, reinforced across the top so the handle doesn’t collapse. You can imagine some well off gent carrying his classical albums home in this (I doubt singles buyers got anything so flash!). The vivid red colour really stands out (and happily hasn’t faded over the years).

HMV London press advert Dec 1969

HMV London press advert Dec 1969

Lastly a small HMV print advert which appeared every week in the music papers of 1969 for the London shop (this one is from a vintage NME I was looking through the other week). 3,ooo albums. And that was just the pop department…
HMV has an even older legacy as a label, and of similar vintage to the early store bag is the more familiar HMV Records paper sleeve design below, which first appeared on the 10″ singles in the 50s (the song title has been written on in fountain pen but doesn’t help dating too much as September Song was recorded by any number of singers at the time). There were three similar covers at the time, all featuring these carefree illustrations, for the different EMI labels.

HMV 10" single bag

HMV 10″ single bag

HMV Scarborough closing

HMV Scarborough closing, May 2013. Cellphone photo : Alan Coventry

Lastly, a couple of ‘further reading’ bits. St. Etienne’s Bob Stanley looks at HMV (thanks to Vince Kelly for the link)

The best business analysis of HMV’s woes is this piece on The Guardian site.

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