diamond geezer

 Friday, October 11, 2013

Remember record shops? Back in the 20th and early 21st centuries these were street-based retail outlets selling music and other entertainment media in physical formats. They were once very popular, but became steadily less profitable as people turned instead to cloud-based audio-visual solutions delivered via rental streaming. Today only a few of these archaic disc repositories survive, supported by a rump of consumers who've not yet embraced their digital future. I've been to visit one, simultaneously very old and very new, because I suspect you haven't been yet.

HMV opened its first shop on London's Oxford Street in 1921. "His Master's Voice" was the record label of the Gramophone Company, purveyors of spiral vinyl, which would later evolve into EMI. Their flagship store was at number 363, with a recording studio upstairs where the Beatles' first demo disc was cut, and an increasingly large stock of LPs as the decades rolled by. A much bigger store opened later at number 150, a cavernous space on several levels, and the two coexisted successfully for some time. Later the original shop closed in favour of a new bigger store across the road, but this Oxford Street duopoly lasted barely ten years before the newbie shut. Administration beckoned, but the store at 150 survived as part of a slimmed-down rump nationwide. And now, about a fortnight ago, the original HMV at 363 has reopened to sell its wares again.

They've done a nice bit of branding outside. The modern 'hmv' logo is muted, appearing at lintel height and also on a thin vertical perpendicular sign. But in dominant position across the entrance are the words "His Master's Voice" in imitation neon, alongside an illuminated Nipper the dog staring into a gramophone. The design is deliberately reminiscent of fifty years ago, indeed it looks like a fairly convincing copy of way back then, but without the words "Home Entertainment and Electrical Housekeeping" emblazoned underneath. Enough to tempt customers old and new back inside, it seems.

I'm sure I remember the store being bigger. Maybe that's because last time it covered more than three floors, or maybe I'm just thinking back to Footlocker which was mostly empty space. The front's all chart albums and film racks, as you'd expect, with the usual two for £10s and prominent back selection. If all you do is wander in off the street and back out again, your chance of spotting One Direction is maximised. Here too are a suspicious number of sideline offers, things like t-shirts, mugs and calendars, generally grouped by theme such as Doctor Who or Twilight. Why sell just the video if there's considerably more mark-up in ceramics? And then the whole of the back of the store is for games, because they're the future, plus they have a hefty cover price. And racks of headphones, obviously, should you want to walk the streets of London looking like a Shoreditch Cyberman.

The two escalators aren't well labelled, so it may be pot luck that takes you to the "film and tv" basement. People still want DVDs, it seems, and Blu-rays of films they've already bought once on other formats. World cinema gets a wall, and musicals a third of a rack, with a fair-to-middling chance of finding the film you want (but best ignore Sharknado, £9.99). Down at the television end of the floor the big thing these days is box sets, in greater bulk than I remember seeing before. Waste away your weekend by watching something you could have taped off the telly if only 'series record' had worked, or avoid paying a Netflix subscription by forking out £50 for four-fifths of Breaking Bad. If HMV manages to stay financially afloat into the future, our appetite for long term sofa marathons will have assisted.

And then there's the real HMV, the record department, upstairs. It's almost all CDs these days, which isn't bad for a generation-old format. All your actual chart records and cut-price compilations are at the top of the escalator (can you believe we're now onto Now 85?). Rock and pop from A to Z gets the lion's share of the space (although it'd have to be a lion cub to live comfortably here). One long rack features the back catalogue of the Beatles, Clash and Led Zeppelin, a direct appeal to the wallets of tourists and middle-aged fifty-quid-men. Classical is diminished to one corner, now with a rather limited Naxos-heavy selection. Specialist genres such as heavy metal, soul and dance also have their place, with enough obscure new artistes amongst the classics, although not the in-depth catalogue of old. If what you're after's not obvious, the pink t-shirted staff hurrying around should be able to help - there are certainly enough of them.

What happens next, of course, is that the HMV megastore at 150 Oxford Street closes down. Sports Direct have their eye on its prime retail space, swapping entertainment deals for budget footie strip and hoodies. And then HMV's sole presence down this key West End Street will the modest building in which they first started, holding out against the barrage of fashion shops that now thrive here. It's encouraging to see a 90 year-old business reborn, holding out against the inexorable rise of Amazon et al. And those of us who like to own our music, rather than rent it out, still have longer to browse and buy before His Master's Voice falls silent.


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