HMV was a place for open-minded obsessives – why The Guardian are so wrong about the music giant

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HMV in Liverpool ONE

HMV was berated by Guardian columnist Penny Anderson, former employee and Getintothis contributor, Ian Salmon on why her words are so wide of the mark.

You wouldn’t expect to find knowledgeable advice (though had you done so, it was always available).

Thank you, Penny Anderson; I presume we should all feel grateful for the small caveat which appeared in your oh so wrong-headed Guardian piece.

That art was followed almost immediately with “HMV was where you went to buy chart records (vinyl, cassette or later CDs) with your Christmas vouchers. It was never for open-minded obsessives or specialists, not for rarities or vintage; never really a hub where bands were formed and labels were launched; where you called in to check out what was new” is probably, to you, neither here nor there.

A small amount of fact checking would inform you that, no matter your thoughts on them, Kitchenware records (home of Prefab Sprout and The Daintees) literally started on the desk of the manager of HMV Newcastle, Snow Patrol worked in the Belfast store, Shed Seven in York. Trust me on this point, both were working for friends of mine. But let’s not allow facts to interfere with straight forward music snobbery of the very worst kind, shall we?

I’ll state my credentials, and bias, straight away. I worked for HMV for 27, mostly glorious, years. HMV was never retail. A role in HMV was far more than that.

Getintothis editor Peter Guy on why HMV would be a huge loss for all music lovers

I entered Revolver Records on Lord Street, Southport in 1986; a chain that most were unaware was a subsidiary of HMV (in the way that Penny Anderson didn’t appreciate, when lauding Fopp in her article, that HMV own that chain and the dissolution of the parent company will also see the subsidiary vanish from the high street). I stayed until early 2014, surviving the first closures at the very last minute, not surviving the second. I ran stockrooms, I ran shop floors, I supervised, I managed.

And, crucially, I worked with the most knowledgeable people you could ever want to meet. I worked with specialists, I worked with pluralists. In a generally pre-internet, and definitely pre-Google era, I worked with people who could find you the answer to anything. In fairness, I was one of those people.

There are many reasons for HMV once again entering administration: downloading, streaming, appalling business rates and high street rents which will never reduce even as store profits do, the Tories politically motivated attack on the working class through austerity meaning that those who shop on the high street struggle for disposable income, the employment of a 20% VAT rate which always damages those with the lowest wage most disproportionately and damages retail immediately, but not the staff. Never the staff.

And it’s the staff we really need to talk about. It’s the staff, the 2,200 members of staff who have discovered in Christmas week that they may be about to lose their jobs, who are the subject of the absolute condescension of Ms Anderson’s article.

Never for open minded obsessives”? Do you have any idea how obsessive you have to be in order to work in a shop that sells everything? How obsessive you have to be to learn about that everything? Do you know how good you need to be to find a tune that a customer hums at you that they heard once on the TV?

More than just a place to buy music: the vibrant life and sad death of a record shop

The staff in HMV may enter their role thinking they’re experts. They soon realise how much more there is. Those people in the pink shirts? They can tell you about music, games, DVDs, books, Funko Pop figures, record decks, headphones…

They’re authorities. And they’re authorities in ways that those in “specialist boutique record shops” may never need to be. (Though, in fairness, as my own caveat, they very well may be.)

They’re the people who will find you the song you need as a gift, the song you need for a funeral. They will find you the latest Pixar Blu-Ray. And while they’re selling it to you they’ll talk to you about Studio Ghibli. They’ll talk to you about the Coens and compare them to Sullivan’s Travels.

They will point out to you that, “if you like this, you should try this”. How do you think The Stone Roses started? We spent an entire summer recommending that album to anybody who bought anything with a guitar on it.

And they do all this because they love it, because they’re obsessives. Because they didn’t apply for a job in retail sales, they applied for a job in a record shop and they wanted to work in the biggest one there was.

The idea that HMV wasn’t somewhere that you could go, hang out and talk about music? A ridiculous myth. It’s expected, it’s wanted, the company always wanted every single member of staff to talk to customers about what they were buying. They demanded knowledge, they demanded obsession; it was part of the interview process. If you weren’t obsessed with something you weren’t getting the job.

To emphasise this point, in closing: 1994-2002, Church Street, Liverpool. The best record shop there has ever been. Or ever will be. Yes, I’m biased. I’m also right. I’m still a punter, I was always a punter, I know what a good record shop looks like.

We had the best there was. Our dance section? The size of 3 Beat and rammed with white labels. I hate dance music, at that point I knew more about it than most people you will ever meet. Janet and Steve who ran the section though? Unreal. You will never meet anyone with more love and depth of knowledge for their area of expertise.

They could identify anything, could get you anything. They were respected, they were acknowledged, they were expert. Hip hop? The section we called ‘urban’? You know the alley from Top Man to Costa in Liverpool ONE? Yeah, that was the size of the hip hop section. Obscure releases? Interesting imports? First shop on them. While still selling the top 40 in droves. Classical? Classical was a shop in itself. Trevor, who was in charge of all that highbrow stuff the rest of us weren’t sure about knew more obscure work than anyone I’ve ever met.

Expertise? Simon, one of the best, most genuine, most intelligent people I have ever been fortunate enough to know was working on his Phd. In the structure of Beats and rhymes used in rap. Simon was genuinely a doctor of hip hop. We had expertise like you’ve never seen. That company had expertise and that expertise continued despite the way the market went. That expertise is still there. I was talking to friends on Christmas Eve in the Liverpool ONE store, talking to them three days before they found out that their jobs are threatened yet again; they’re experts and if HMV is lost this time, that expertise is lost.

Penny Anderson may be correct in one assertion; HMV’s time may be over. It may be outmoded now. In a time where we can access the entire history of popular music at a click, the physical is probably no longer so necessary.

But to disregard what it was? To claim that, “not one misty-eyed recollection involves buying the music that changed my life from HMV”? That may be true for that particular writer but there are thousands out there who would disagree. The wide response to her article shows there are thousands who disagree.

Joe Strummer said: “Music can’t change the world but it can change the way you walk through the world.” Every one of us that worked for HMV knew that, respected that, was aware of exactly what we were doing. Every single day of our lives we were providing people with something that they would value for ever; something important.

The nostalgia business and the rise of the box set

It was never retail. None of us ever did the job because we wanted to ‘be in’ retail; we did it because we loved the music, the film, the games. We did it because we were exactly those “open minded obsessives” that Penny Anderson claimed we had no place for.

Two thousand people are at risk of losing their livelihood. In publishing such a petty minded piece, The Guardian does each and every one a massive disservice.

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  1. Top man Ian. I was dumbfounded when I read that article in the Guardian. I love HMV (and FOPP), been shopping there since 1988 and buy about 80% of my Blu-rays, DVDs and some CDs/vinyl there, usually instore. I spend £1000’s in HMV every year and prefer to support them over Amazon, Zavvi or other conglomerates who don’t really deserve my hard earned cash. I prefer to see the product in store and I always found in recent years HMV have been very comparable price wise for new films on Blu-ray and DVD (i.e. 2 for £20 DVD, 2 for £25 chart Blu-ray, Amazon are mostly £9.99 or £14.99) and most supermarkets are similar, they have pretty much all the same prices for new product. I do however, think vinyl and 4K Blu-ray new product is over-priced and that is perhaps some of the problem but it also comes down to what their suppliers have been charging them. The purehmv scheme is fantastic, I reckon I saved over £1,000 in gaining points and using them for store credit to spend in their stores again. I like chatting with the staff in Argyle Street, Glasgow and FOPP stores and some know I am a a regular customer and some of those staff have been there amongst the different stores in FOPP and HMV for decades. From buying VHS, LPs, CDs, 12″ singles, cassette and CD singles, DVDs, Blu-rays, 4K, vinyl, HMV has so much to offer and see it first hand and its the experience i love. Buying online does not give any of that so I really do hope it is saved and has some key city stores retained but it does need to diversify, for example how come it has not supplemented its presence in getting some of the online/digital download pie and it has not opened up to offer product to international customers like its website says it planned to do in the FAQs. This amongst the crippling business rates, rents and sometimes greedy suppliers with high RRP for product are several factors that have led to not making enough revenue. Retailers need to diversify and offer what online can in store, i.e. ow about offering to listen to music, play film trailers/clips in store before you buy, I remember Virgin Megastore had tthat for music in the late 1990s/2000s and when 12″ singles was all the rage in 1990s, one could actually play the vinyl on decks in store which I did often before I bought them too many lol. I do hope it will see a second revival and can mark its upcoming 100th anniversary in 2021 alive and kicking.

  2. Stephen Hardaker on

    We don’t need to take Penny Anderson’s article too seriously – it’s clickbait and as such is rarely representative of the facts. We were there and she clearly wasn’t. I mean Pin-Ups FFS! We all know the pinnacle of Bowie’s recording career was Let’s Dance and we can leave that as undisputed fact.

    I worked with Trevor for three years, navigating the good ship Classical on Church Street and can vouch for Ian’s comments. I wasn’t company minded enough to stay the course but I loved the store like a punter and had two objectives in mind behind those glass doors. Firstly I wanted every intimidated scouser walking in there to be able to order whatever piece of music he’d heard on Inspector Morse or the World Cup without feeling like a dickhead. The second objective was to have a range of music that would always keep you guessing.

    So it happened one day a guy walked up to the counter, looked at me and said “I think you must have the best range of music I’ve ever seen” and walked off.

    I left the company shortly after that.

    14 years later, when I’d read about Hilco’s takeover, it put me in mind of a morning meeting that Ian had held in about ’98. We were being asked to promote something called a “search engine” on a CD-ROM by some company with a wanky name.The name of the company was Yahoo!

    Seriously Ya-hoo??!

    There were fits of laughter. Nobody, including myself could see what computers had to do with the music retail industry. Clearly the suits had the same opinion.

  3. So so true. I worked for the rival Virgin and no -one in that shop thought they were making a career ‘in retail’ either. At least half of them at any given time were in bands. It was a matter of pride that we knew about all kinds of music & everything else available. If we didn’t there was always someone who did! I haven’t read the article by this woman but it seems to be another example of a journalist who, rather than actually doing some research before writing about something simply produced and mash up from a cursory glance at wikipedia & a personal (uninformed) opinion. I really hope HMV & Fopp survive and thrive.

  4. I am disgusted with the shift in the Guardian, it seems to be replacing the S*n. My hope is that it follows all other forms of toilet paper. I for one will never again pay for such biased, single minded ,isolationist piffle.

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