WITH news of HMV’s plight and descent into administration coming as little surprise to many, what did surprise me last week were the markedly different reactions from those within and outwith the music business.
Music consumers largely seemed nonplussed about the imminent closure of the longest-running music retailer on these islands. Some were even proclaiming that “it serves them right”. On the other side were the musicians and record labels whose reaction was more akin to abject horror and a fear as to what will become of our industry in a new age when music ceases to be available on our high streets.
When I was asked to write this piece, my initial temptation was to write a dewy-eyed eulogy of record shops past and present. But I thought a look at how the current predicament came to pass might be more illuminating.
In 1995, the year we started our group Mogwai, the way we bought and listened to music would seem unrecognisable to a teenager today. The only way to hear music was to listen to it on the radio, buy it, or tape a copy that someone else had bought. Every town had somewhere to buy vinyl and CDs, and record companies small and large were doing very well. Incredibly, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis sold more than four million copies in the UK that year.
Fast forward to the present day and it looks as though someone has turned off the lights. We are on the brink of a situation where the last high street store to sell music is near closure and it is hard to see how this trend can possibly be reversed. It’s true that in a digital age the decline of physical product is inevitable. What worries me, however, is the damage that is being done in the process.
One of the main causes of disgruntlement from the music consumer in relation to the major chain music stores is how expensive CDs have been in the past. There is no doubt a thick stream of greed was involved in the introduction of CDs and the opportunity to fleece people as they replaced their vinyl collection with their shiny new counterparts.
Paying £15 and more for a product we now think of as something you get free with a magazine is absurd, though I would argue that the pendulum has swung too far and they are now very much underpriced. I would also argue that the finger of blame would be better pointed at the door of the record labels than the stores selling them.
My last purchase from HMV (on the morning of the day they announced administration) was of a handful of back catalogue CDs to play in the car. They were £3 each. A seminal album in the highest quality available for less than a pint of beer? In less than ten years, CDs have gone from being essential items to disposable ones.
Online retail has been another factor blamed for not only HMV’s demise but that of the high street in general. In HMV’s case, its main competitor was Amazon. The last Mogwai album’s sales on Amazon were almost identical to those in HMV, the two largest sellers by some distance. Internet shopping is undeniably convenient – I regularly do it myself, as will most people reading this. But those in the record retail industry also feel they have not been given a level playing field due to Amazon not paying its fair share of tax or VAT (2011 turnover £207 million; tax paid £1.8m). What has become very common is for people to look at the latest releases in a high street store then buy them online on their phones for a lower price. You don’t have to have a bleeding heart to surmise that this isn’t very fair.
Apple’s iTunes and other digital music sellers have also made a significant dent in the physical music market and in this instance I do feel that HMV must take some of the blame. As a trusted brand, HMV could quite easily have used its position to establish digital music sales far earlier and far better than it did. Filling its shop floors with iPods was surely an act of cutting one’s own throat, and I had a discussion with someone working in Waterstones recently who felt the same way about its stores selling Kindles.
While all of these factors have clearly played their part, the single greatest threat to music retail and the entire creative sector is the fact that large portions of society feel that copyright material isn’t something they have to pay for. Whether through illegal downloading or via streaming sites such as Spotify, massive swathes of the music that is being consumed is not being remunerated for in any meaningful way. While music retail is clearly bearing the brunt of this cultural sea change, my main concern is that as the “music is free” generation grows older and instils this attitude in their own children, too few people will be paying for music to sustain a music industry of any substance.
For the creative industries to continue to maintain an existence, we as a society will have to reassess our attitudes as to how we value copyright material. I wonder how many parents of teenagers with iPods full of stolen music would feel if they also had wardrobes full of stolen clothes?
• Stuart Braithwaite plays guitar in Mogwai