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Tuesday, January 15, 2013 

This is the end.

This is the end.  So begins Adele's Skyfall dirge, which on Sunday won the Golden Globe for best song.  Not too much should be read into that, as last year Madonna's "Masterpiece" won, a song so forgettable that it will only ever be recalled for the fact it soundtracked W.E., one of the worst films the inestimable Mark Kermode has ever seen.  Skyfall's opening line and victory is none the less all too apposite, coming just a day before HMV announced that it was calling in the administrators, and with it all but bringing to a close the record shop on the high street.  Amongst all the reasons for HMV's eventual failure, the triumph and reverential praise given to mediocre artists, whose albums were piled high and sold cheap by the supermarkets forcing the record stores to try to compete only to fail is the most infuriating.  As the film critic Pauline Kael bitterly observed, she didn't realise when she championed trash culture it would end up becoming the only culture.  The exact same thing has happened with music.

Obviously, that's something of an exaggeration.  There's still great music out there; you just have to work ever harder to find it.  HMV's demise will make this even more difficult.  I hold no affection whatsoever for the brand, I should make clear; if there was an independent record shop where I live then I would have gone there instead.  There isn't though, and for millions of other people around the country this is also the case.  I also realise that certain branches of HMV were/are better than others: my local one still has three quarters of its top floor dedicated to music, and so almost always had the new releases and obscurities in stock on day of release.  If they didn't, they were invariably in the next time I went in.  HMV did build up a deserved reputation for charging over the odds, but in recent years they've become far more competitive, and in any case, I'll always pay more for a CD than I will for a digital download.

The clear fact is that I'm increasingly in the minority.  All the same, it simply isn't true that there's no longer any place in town centres for record shops or DVD outlets: it might well become true in a few years' time, but for now physical albums still outsell digital ones.  HMV still has a significant market share, which suggests a buyer will be found, and I really hope one is.  After all, if Game can continue to trade when video gaming is going all digital at a remarkable rate, surely HMV can keep the doors open for a while yet.

This said, the warning signs have been there for an awfully long time, as others have pointed out, and the management was incredibly slow to react to changes.  The ones they have made were foolhardy in the extreme: it's one thing trying to specialise in headphones, something that no one else does, but don't then give over floor space to tablets and all the other electronic gumpf that's sold by everyone and their dog.  You also only need one or possibly two pairs of decent headphones, and if you take good care of them they should last you at least 5 years.  Customers spending over £100 (if that) with you every 5 years doesn't make for a grand business model.

It's not simply a case of HMV being responsible for their own downfall though.  Take a look at the other major retailing story of last week, that Play.com will be essentially shutting down and only continue to operate as a portal for other sellers.  The Channel Islands VAT tax dodge that gave Play.com and other online retailers such an unfair advantage over bricks and mortar stores was closed far too late (yes, HMV.com was based in Jersey too, but it was never enough to make a difference).  Then there's Amazon, and its only recently publicised corporation tax avoidance scheme, something else HMV couldn't compete on.  Add in the often exorbitant rents demanded by landlords, especially in the main shopping centres, and all the other costs, and it's turned into a struggle where the opposition hold all the trump cards.

Then there's the impact of piracy.  Some will doubtless vehemently disagree with me on this, and I've been just as guilty of it in the past as everyone else, but it really is now the case that 16-year-olds expect to get almost everything they consume online for free.  Sure, they might spend 79p on the odd song from iTunes or wherever, but pay £8 or £10 for a CD?  They wouldn't dream of it.  Having everything instantly available via a search on Google won't kill the music industry as a whole, or any other industry for the matter.  What it will eventually do is kill some of the things you love, whether it be the Guardian or Independent, the indie band that made a great debut album that simply didn't sell and so won't get a chance to record another on the same scale, the DJ/producer who gives up on pressing vinyl or even releasing tracks as he can't make money out of it, or any number of other things.  The same thing that's happening on the high street will happen on the internet, the big names squeezing out everyone else, the odd one occasionally being replaced by something new that improves on an old format.  Those of us who did illegally download music and had our tastes expanded as a result, leading to us buying albums we never would have discovered previously are now sadly in the extreme minority.

And yes, I hate the big 4 as much as everyone else, and I can't stand successful artists pretending to care about upcoming bands having the same opportunities as they did when in reality all they want is their own royalties to keep rolling in, yet the fact is this can't carry on for much longer.  This cartoon from The Oatmeal went around as though it was the gospel truth of what needs to happen next, when it's anything but: musicians cannot get by on a few people personally paying them $5 or the equivalent for an album without drastically increasing the price of tickets to concerts or club nights, just as the $10 monthly Spotify fee isn't going to amount to anything other than fractions of a penny to individual artists.  

Streaming is something I personally don't understand (unless it's actual radio): it's fine when you're out somewhere and where quality doesn't matter so much, it's true.  Back home I want to be able to listen to music in the quality I want, preferably in a lossless format I've ripped from a CD or vinyl I can do whatever the hell I like with as I actually own it.  Failing that, a lossless download is fine.  320 mp3 for the odd track not available anywhere else is pushing it.  For a whole album, regardless of the price, forget it.  And if I want to try something first, it'll almost certainly be up on YouTube, or the artist's soundcloud or wherever else.  It feels really strange to have almost overnight become weird (or weirder) for wanting to have a physical product, rather than something that is never really yours, or which can be lost if it isn't in the "cloud" when things go wrong.

Without the likes of HMV, fewer albums will almost certainly be pressed to CD in the first place, except for the ultra limited editions we'll have to get ever more accustomed to.  Moreover, it will damage high streets as a whole: if my local branch closes, I'll have no reason to go anywhere near the town centre unless there's something at the cinema I really want to see, a far rarer occurrence than my regular trips to HMV to pick up the new releases and anything else that tickles my fancy, which will in turn harm the market traders as well as the other shops I might have popped in to.  On this at least I'm far from alone, and a major impact is bound to be felt.

Ultimately, it does come back to the music industry and all its hangers-on.  Another of the reasons HMV didn't have a good Christmas is that last year was one of the worst for mainstream music in recent memory.  When mediocrities such as Adele and Florence Welch are celebrated and praised as though they were the saviours of music itself, when every other song sounds almost exactly the same, when the perfunctory results in the biggest reward (Emeli Sande's album was the biggest selling of last year), you can't be surprised when consumers start turning their noses up.  Let the sky fall?  Hasn't it already?

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"Having everything instantly available via a search on Google won't kill the music industry as a whole, or any other industry for the matter. What it will eventually do is kill some of the things you love, whether it be the Guardian or Independent, the indie band that made a great debut album that simply didn't sell and so won't get a chance to record another on the same scale, the DJ/producer who gives up on pressing vinyl or even releasing tracks as he can't make money out of it, or any number of other things. "

I'm surprised you're repeating this argument which to my mind, has as much merit as the "Home taping is killing music" argument. It didn't.

Sure, the internet has been very disruptive, but wasn't the new technology that effectively created the recording industry also disruptive? The sheet music industry, among others, certainly thought so and were vocal in claiming that this was 'The End'. And what about everything in between, radio, TV, VCR's etc. Every new technology brings howls of outrage along the lines of the 'Work of the Devil' that we first heard from the gatekeepers of the written word when the printing press came along.

So yeah, things are disruptive and even painful for some right now but, even just a cursory glance at our history shows one constant, the human desire to express themselves creatively.

I'll happily admit I might be wrong about this. What I will say is go read the post the Future of the Left's singer made when their album before last was leaked online 8 weeks before release. As I said, piracy and the current changes won't kill music in any shape or form, but eventually it will damage if not completely destroy certain things we loved.

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