A A once-illuminated sign with a Jack Russell called Nipper sits above signs on Oxford Street in London. With his head tilted to the side, he seems disappointed that there is no music coming out of the gramophone which he scrutinizes questioningly. There is still a poster claiming that it is the ‘hotbed of entertainment since 1921’, but it is now believed to be home to squatters, including Piers Corbyn.
HMV’s 363 Oxford Street branch is closed, with remnants of a once famous Main Street presence still lingering on its facade. The company is celebrating its centennial this month, and after persisting with store closings and bankruptcy in recent years, had almost turned profitable in its May 2020 financial results – despite, at this point, three months of forced closure by Covid. Considering the race the record industry and the Main Street have had since the turn of the 21st century – including during the pandemic – reaching this anniversary seems miraculous.
The centenary marks the opening of this same store. On July 20, 1921, The Gramophone Company, which since 1902 had been making 78s displaying on their interior labels a variant of a painting by Francis Barraud entitled His Master’s Voice, decided to take its unofficial name and open the first HMV store in a former men’s clothing store. Composer Edward Elgar was on hand to mark the opening, and HMV – via Blur on the rooftop of 363 in the ’90s to One Direction packing the Manchester store in 2011 – has made in-store appearances ever since. “He practically invented the idea,” says Gennaro Castaldo, communications manager for the UK phonographic industry and long-time former employee of HMV. “They have always prided themselves on providing access to popular culture. “
When Bill Haley and Elvis started a cultural phenomenon with rock ‘n’ roll, fans flocked to HMV branches to hear it. “On Saturday morning, I went to the HMV store to listen to the latest records in a booth,” explains Diane Humphrys, a teenager from Lewisham at the time. “It was a big event: I dressed in the latest fashions – puffy skirts, wide elasticated waistband – and I spent my pocket money on one or two 45: Frankie Vaughan, Pat Boone, Buddy Holly… The LPs were too much. Dear. I played them non-stop on my Dansette record player.
After the manager of a certain Merseybeat quartet crossed the threshold, his place in history was sealed. In February 1962, Brian Epstein entered the 363 to have acetate records made for the band’s Decca demo. The Record Cutter mentioned the group to publisher Sid Colman, who in turn mentioned them to George Martin. The Beatles signed their recording contract in front of a portrait of Nipper. When the 363 finally gave way to the much larger 150 Oxford Street in 2000, Martin was on hand to unveil the blue plaque marking HMV’s most famous location, shortly before it was transformed. in Foot Locker.
“When recorded music was rarely heard wirelessly, HMV Oxford Street was heaven on earth,” recalls Alan Johnson – former Home Secretary, longtime author and mod. “[In the 60s], if you wanted trendy clothes you would go to Carnaby Street, and if you wanted a record by an obscure R&B artist that had been mentioned by Jagger or Clapton you would go to Oxford Street. Just to be seen, there was a mark of sophistication.
Branches sprang up in the South East and in the 1970s, with singles sales reaching $ 540 million, HMV – despite young contenders such as Our Price and Virgin – was opening stores across the UK .
The 1980s will be happy days. Many will remember the pink and blue neon adorning the entryways; impressive showcases; Dark hacienda-style interiors punctuated with blocks of bright colors; Brothers, Duran Duran, the last Now! compilation or Madonna screaming at an obscene volume. “As a sales rep for Island Records in the ’80s, I saw HMV stores as the muscle of the main street,” recalls Phil Barton, now owner of independent store Sister Ray, a Soho institution. “Better run than Virgin, cooler than Our Price, and staffed at the managerial level with people who know music.”
Someone else you might have met, when he wasn’t buying records from “spooky music warehouses”, was broadcaster Trevor Nelson. “I loved killing half a day getting lost in the vastness of HMV Oxford Street. I used to go there during my prime years as an R&B and hip-hop DJ, so people were surprised to see me flipping through the classic rock section. It was the perfect place to listen to what the rest of the world was doing.
You might have even seen the odd stray international superstar. Simon Winter, now head of events and public relations at HMV, recalls: “In the early 90s, I was at the checkouts downstairs and Michael Jackson walked into the store – completely alone – on the way up. the famous spiral staircase to the floor video. Turns out Sony had arranged for a visit to Michael, the cab was ordered to deliver Michael to HMV Oxford St and dropped him off at 363 – not 150 where his team was waiting for him. Word got out, and within 10 minutes 200 people crashed into the store. We had to get it into the principal’s office until it could be retrieved.
By the mid-1990s, HMV had grown steadily for three decades; there were 300 branches around the world, from Tokyo to Sydney and New York; it was gobbling up other chains such as Ottakar’s and Waterstones bookstores, and even arrived in Tunbridge Wells just as I started high school there. “If you lived in a provincial town where there wasn’t much going on, it got you into pop culture and musical consciousness,” says Castaldo.
The low drumbeat of the dial-up Internet has not quenched HMV’s thirst for expansion. In 2001, Apple launched the iPod, but until 2009, HMV bought 14 stores released by the recently collapsed Zavvi. “When the driving force of a business is to get bigger and bigger, it can tend to lose focus,” says Winter. Castaldo adds: “One of HMV’s great strengths was also potentially its Achilles heel. People believed in the idea of a record store and the interaction so much that they couldn’t fathom a different world where you would order online and have something shipped to your home.
With a two-pronged attack on Amazon and iTunes, and the failure of Get Closer – a mix of downloading and social networking – the bubble has burst. In 2011, HMV announced the closure of 40 stores due to lower sales. Two years later, he called on the administrators. Restructuring company Hilco bought the channel, and in 2014 HMV reclaimed its crown from Amazon as top music and DVD seller, but it was only a brief reprieve. The company filed for bankruptcy again, a 363 shutdown relaunched just after Christmas 2018.
Enter Doug Putman, CEO of similar Canadian chain Sunrise Records, which bought HMV in early 2019. One hundred and eight stores were rescued and Europe’s largest entertainment store, HMV Vault, was launched in Birmingham. Although three stores closed in 2020 and 363 Oxford Street remains closed, Putman says there is a “95% chance” of having a new flagship: “I really want to have a store in London”.
“For me, the HMV experience is all about playing great music, discovering new artists and talking to like-minded people,” Putman adds. “Trying to be everything to everyone alienates your primary customer, so you double up on what your customers actually want – and they wanted vinyl.” He does refer to records, but the insect-eyed Funko Pop vinyl figures of characters, like Marvel, Friends, and Pokémon, must also be important.
When stores reopened in April after the winter lockdown, footfall increased 150% from their reopening after the lockdown in June 2020; 10 new stores are planned for this year, and Ed Sheeran is celebrating the 100th anniversary with a free concert at the Empire sponsored by HMV in Coventry. But creating a 21st century brick-and-mortar entertainment chain can seem like an insurmountable challenge. It has to somehow be competitive with Amazon and the cooler independent stores, and despite vinyl sales increasing 11.5% in 2020 from a year ago, the format remains a niche part of the overall market for the music. “Vinyl masks a downward trend in all other HMV formats, and everyone stocks,” says Phil Barton. “How long for the CD or DVD?” There are now no other national entertainment retailers – even Sainsbury’s is phasing out CDs. Barton is worried, despite encouraging financial results last year. “I’m afraid HMV will go bankrupt for good next time. The current owner must have deep pockets and an unwavering belief in the brand, because it’s not going to be any easier. “
I pose this to Putman, who lets out an amused or nervous laugh. “From a business point of view, HMV is great,” he insists. “I’m steadfast about it. Not because I’m an idiot – with your pockets full or not, you either believe in the business or you don’t. The fact that we have been through Covid is a testament to HMV and the customer. Putman wants to create well-organized shops that we can immerse ourselves in, and believes a friendly, knowledgeable staff – and, yes, Funko Pops – will be the key to making HMV the best dog again. “My goal is to get it to a place where it will last another hundred years.”
The company supports the music economy by bringing business to distributors, record labels and more, but also more generally by continuing to champion music as social and tactile in the age of streaming. “We all need a solid HMV on the main street,” Barton concludes. “They need to uncover the untapped talent of their retail staff, stop selling candy and mugs, strengthen their website, and then they can celebrate with an eye on the future. Happy birthday, HMV – I support you.