Friday, 12 April 2013

12/04/13 - Nipper's Reprieve

So, it would appear that HMV has been saved from the jaws of calamity, maybe. Having finally relented to the harsh reality that very few people want to pay £17.99 for a new CD when will charge you a tenner for it and deliver it to your house for free, the beleaguered retail chain collapsed rather spectacularly in January. It was all rather bitter and acrimonious, with disgruntled employees live-tweeting the brutal slash-and-burn chaos from HMV’s official Twitter account. But now, just as it looked as if all hope was lost, an outfit named Hilco, who already own HMV Canada, have bought up 132 UK HMV outlets and potentially saved 2,500 jobs. Which can only be a good thing. Let’s just hope they pay a bit more attention to what consumers actually want from now on. Nobody’s going to pay £40 for one season of Family Guy.

The story behind HMV is actually rather sweet. You may be aware that the letters stand for ‘His Master’s Voice’… but do you know why?
Well, it stems from a painting by an artist named Francis Barraud. When his older brother Mark died in 1887, Francis inherited his Edison phonograph, complete with recordings of Mark’s voice, as well as Nipper, his fox terrier. When Francis played the recordings, Nipper would bound toward the phonograph, eager to follow his master’s voice and find where he’d disappeared to. In 1899 – a few years after Nipper himself had also died – Francis painted an image that would become what we now know as the HMV logo.
He initially tried to sell the piece (rather racily titled ‘Dog looking at and listening to a phonograph’) to the Edison Phonograph Company, but the phonograph industry wasn’t doing that brilliantly at the time, being usurped by superior technology, so it was a bit of a non-starter. In an effort to contemporise the piece, Barraud decided to replace the black phonograph horn in his painting with a brass one, and visited the London offices of the newly-formed Gram-O-Phone company to borrow one. On seeing a photo of the original painting, company owner Emile Berliner offered to buy the painting on the condition that the Edison unit was replaced with one of his own gramophones. The ensuing reworking, titled ‘His Master’s Voice’, was bought rights-and-all by Berliner and registered as a trademark in the US.
To cut an extremely long and complicated story short, the rights to the painting eventually fell to Victor Records (latterly RCA-Victor) in the US and The Gramophone Company elsewhere. When the latter teamed up with Columbia to form EMI, ‘His Master’s Voice’ was used to promote their range of HMV-branded gramophones, records, TVs and radios. When the first HMV store was opened on Oxford Street in 1921, Nipper was proudly displayed inside and out.

Now, like many Britons, HMV played rather a significant role in my childhood. It was one of four music retail touchpoints that formed the basis of much of my shopping throughout my teenage years, largely because of its relentless sales. I spent an absurd amount of my student loan in HMV too. And while the diversity of stock narrowed significantly over the years until most branches seemed to be largely focusing on the rap and r’n’b market, they always seemed to find a little corner in which to showcase some interesting and random new releases in the rock and indie areas; I don’t know to what extent this was the case in all branches, and whether they even did it in recent years (I very rarely went to HMV after about 2004; I doubt anybody else did either), but in the Portsmouth branch on Commercial Road they’d always have hand-written notes from the manager or staff next to the new releases, saying things like ‘you need this record – it sounds like Teenage Fanclub on mushrooms’ or ‘if you ever wondered what it would sound like if The Stooges had a noisy argument with Super Furry Animals, this is the record for you’. It’s what kept me shopping there, really. I love that personal touch, and the evidence that the staff actually care about music, rather than it just being a soulless business that could be selling anything. This is an outlook that informed two of those other aforementioned music retail touchpoints, which were:

Gatefield Sounds
I count this as one touchpoint, but it was (and possibly still is) actually three shops, all well known to the music geeks of east Kent. The home store was a tiny little place on Gatefield Lane in Faversham, and there was a second one on the High Street in Whitstable, and a third on Herne Bay High Street. I grew up in Herne Bay so I knew the latter best, although taking a short cut through an alleyway on the way to school in Faversham one day, I stumbled across the Gatefield mothership and was blown away by it – it was a tiny little low-ceilinged store that stocked all kinds of random indie singles on 7”, offered multibuy deals if you wanted to buy a single on multiple formats (because, back in the good old days before all this digital nonsense, a band would release a single on vinyl, CD and cassette, and offer different b-sides on each), and sold random albums that you might otherwise have never heard of for cheap. I remember buying the obscure album by Izzy Stradlin & the Ju Ju Hounds on tape for 99p. Brilliant.

B-Side the C-Side
A peculiar little shop which coincidentally happened to be right across the street from Gatefield Sounds in Herne Bay, B-Side the C-Side was a sort of cross between a record fair and a charity shop. It was run by the kind of guy that you can imagine the dude from High Fidelity turning into after a few decades of not selling many records, and had vast, unordered stacks of records and CDs. He seemed to ignore the pricing guides in Record Collector and stickered everything up according to how good he judged the music to be; a scratched and worn LP of the Stones’ Goats Head Soup would be £40 because ‘it’s a fucking great record that, lad’, while the stack of white-label Marion demos and Japanese Menswe@r imports would be pennies because he’d ‘never fucking heard of them’. It always felt kind of awkward being in there because a) there was never anyone else in there and b) he would judge you very harshly on your choices. But it was worth incurring his wrath, because it meant that you wouldn’t be spending much money. It was a great place to buy Lemonheads LPs because he thought they were ‘soft shit’.

…the fourth touchpoint was Our Price. It wasn’t that amazing a shop, but they always seemed to have tit-for-tat sales wars with HMV, so you could pinball between the two to see who’d marked things down the most.

The reason I stopped shopping at HMV was twofold. Firstly, my musical tastes increasingly moved toward the kind of thing they wouldn’t sell, while they increasingly moved away from selling things that weren’t happy sitting in the ‘urban’ section. Throughout my teens I’d been a nerdy reader of Record Collector and spent all my pocket money on random music from dealers like Esprit and Sister Ray by mail order. (Esprit has since become, and really is very good indeed, you should check it out.)
And secondly, whenever I want to buy a new album, I just get it from – they’re usually pretty cheap, and they have free delivery on everything. Did you ever try to buy anything online from HMV? It was a pain in the arse. Play does it all in a few clicks.

On the whole, it’s a good thing that HMV’s been (possibly) saved, I’m happy about that. But only because it means that loads of poor unfortunates have been saved from the dole queue. To be honest, I don’t give that much of a toss about HMV as it is today, it’s just another shop. But my inner child is glad that Nipper’s legacy isn’t dead just yet.

What I’m really hoping is that somebody will finally buy up and re-open Zodiac Records at the end of my street. That looks like a very interesting place...

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