London Evening Standard, Jim Armitage column
Jan 17, 2013 (London Evening Standard - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The DJ was desperate to get the lines buzzing for his phone-in show: "What are your oldest and fondest HMV memories We want to hear your stories, listeners!"
As punter after punter eulogised the chain, I was baffled. My earliest memory of HMV was overpriced records, enormous stores that took ages to navigate, and a not especially good range of the Fields of the Nephilim-type dirge I was into at the time. Also, I remember my much-beloved local independent record shop, Ray's, shutting up as the cadaverous Ray found himself unable to compete when HMV opened in the next town up the road.
The same thing happened to our local video store, which closed when Blockbuster planted its flag in town. But there's no point mourning the small independents that the chains killed back then, just as there's nothing to be gained now crying over the goliaths who replaced them.
We should, of course, pity the thousands of staff. Finding yourself jobless in this environment is awful.
But, like Blockbuster, HMV's employees have been let down by poor management since the late Nineties, when it started to become clear that the internet was going to be the biggest gamechanger retail had ever seen.
Lest we forget, Amazon was founded in 1994. Napster in 1999, iTunes in 2003. Yet HMV had still failed to build an original and adequately differentiated online store until, well, now. And where was Blockbuster when LoveFilm started streaming video Panicking, with no alternative ideas.
I'm not convinced Blockbuster could ever have survived, and have my doubts about whether LoveFilm and Netflix will be around in 10 years' time either. There are simply too many other ways of watching movies.
But HMV, with its huge dominance over music distribution in the UK, could have fought a far better fight.
At least 15 years ago, with better management in place, it should have launched a wholesale rethink of the business. Even before the turn of the millennium, it should have started closing stores in a big way and investing the cashflow saved in creating the country's best, most innovative music website, with Amazon-busting fulfilment times and special features, maybe even spawning its own Spotify or Last FM.
Sure, it was always going to struggle to compete on downloads, given the way Apple sewed up access to its hardware through iTunes.
But HMV should have used its clout with the record companies to demand differentiated products with which Amazon and the supermarkets couldn't compete: exclusive tracks, interviews and commentaries with artists, early release dates. Anything to give its ranges an edge.
Simon Fox, HMV's chief executive until last year, made tweaks -- selling more gadgets, redesigning the stores. But if you put a fancy cover on a duff album, it's still a duff album. The business was still fundamentally the wrong size, the wrong shape.
His move into live music was bold and savvy but way too late. The division had to be sold to pay down some of the debt built up from its failure to cut the number of stores.
Perhaps now, the store closures the administrators impose -- though many years too late -- could be enough for the HMV name to survive.
Freed from much of its debt, the chain could be small enough to be run in a more innovative way by the kind of inspired new management team the staff deserve.
Blockbuster, I fear, will go the way of the silent movie. A footnote in Hollywood history.
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