Associate editor, musician GIL DE RAY writes on the demise of HMV, and the tragedy of establishment vision:
I started writing this as an earnest reaction to the Twitter rage from various members of the indie glitterati, mourning the death of HMV. The sentimental outpourings of nostalgia from some commentators, express this to be some kind of a tragedy for underground and independent music.
Sure it will undoubtedly damage a lot of labels who have stock tied up there on Sale or Return (SOR), and they will probably never get paid for what has been sold. It will damage those bigger indie labels who have releases planned for next year. Now they will be looking at shipping lower units. And with Brexit looming in March the idea of filling the subsequent short fall with export sales is a fantasy at best.
I understand the logic of all of this argument. But the reality is, it’s just another step towards the inevitable. Less people make money from music. And the greater reality of less and less people making money full fucking stop. It truly is a race to the bottom. Unless we decide to change.
I speak as a musician, I live and have lived every part of it. My first real job was working as a sales person for Rough Trade Marketing and Distribution. Later it became absorbed by Vital/PIAS. I sold the records to the shops. Mainly the army of independent shops who in general supported independent music. But also the likes of HMV. Some shops tried to compete with the chains and disappeared. Others went their own way and thrived.
I always found the nature of chains abhorrent. They would only take stock SOR, demanded huge discounts and had insane payment terms, sometimes up to 180 days. No independent store would ever be offered anything similar to that. HMV had the jump from the start. Always. In capitalism, buying power is king.
HMV’s owners’ Hilco blame rising rates for their troubles. Rich considering that since they took over HMV in 2013 they have paid no corporation tax despite dishing out juicy dividends to share holders, and paid themselves £50m in fees, according to The Times.
Is everyone really in the same boat?
A question that should be asked and isn’t due to the fervour for nostalgia is this:
How can a business go bust that only pays wholesale for what it has sold, six months after it shifts those items? Corporate governance. It’s the last days of disco for real.
My entire life has been dedicated to music in one way or another. Firstly as a fan (still am). Secondly as an artist (still am). Thirdly as a paid employee. When the wheels came off the vinyl market, I was running a brokerage for the biggest independent vinyl pressing plant in the UK. I also worked for Low Life records. When digital happened the industry closed shop. The chains wouldn’t stock vinyl, and the major labels wouldn’t press it. The digital genie was out of the bottle and it was never going back in. I lost both my jobs. Some labels survived. Just. With the subsequent resurgence in vinyl, the majors found a way to clog up the pressing plants again with re-issues. For the bigger indies that survived from the 90s on a diet of bands who made their names in those halcyon days, the present has been a happy hunting ground. They survived what most musicians and artists could not. When marketing budgets weren’t being absorbed by the entropy of digital aggregation. But they now face the same threat the rest of us still involved in making music have been dealing with for years. How to survive with no income.
So who are we really mourning?
The lives we had before the digital apocalypse?
Surely not just another high street corporate brand that couldn’t survive in its own rigged system? The truth is, since 2013, HMV was never designed to do anything other than absorb debt and pay out dividends to shareholders. That’s the business model for the noughties and teens. Suck it up. Music may be valued spiritually more than ever, it is in everything we do: more people go to festivals, more people are listening to music, technology allows more people to make it. The streaming companies are making a killing and paying artists nothing. For most artists like myself, money has never been the motivation.
And now there is no money, there is only the creation of the art itself. Some of us had to get used to that sooner than others, I guess. Musicians and artists will always be at the forefront of change. There will be a dwindling minority of artists making money from music, the major beneficiaries will remain the PR companies and streaming sites. And of course, the faceless shareholders in companies like Hilco, and the FANG giants (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google).
If we want to mourn anything, mourn that.
Music can be a road map for society as a whole. Embrace technology, transcend the past and make everything free. A Universal Basic Decency. Along with everything else, nostalgia is killing music. And it needs to stop. HMV may well have propped up many mid-level labels over the years, but the environment they evolved in, and thrived in, has ultimately destroyed itself.