The question of who is going to buy EMI Classics has arisen once again in the past few days with the collapse of HMV. This followed on from the collapse of Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster, the film rental chain — all indicative of a fundamental shift in our purchasing habits. A spokesman for HMV, while delivering the bad news, characterised this shift as ‘seismic’, going on to opine that ‘it is quite heartbreaking to see all those great brands disappearing from the high street’.
Whose heart was being broken was not made clear, since presumably we are all getting what we want by other means, but it is interesting that the HMV story has some of the same ingredients as the EMI one, in particular length of service and all the nostalgia that goes with it. Where EMI has a catalogue full of resonant names from the past, HMV has been around for 92 years, its famous emblem — a dog listening into a horn — part of the musical landscape for as long as anyone can remember. Alongside that has been the iconic HMV store in Oxford Street, of which we all no doubt have significant childhood memories. I remember that when I first went in there the whole of the ground floor was given over to classical music, which was all one could hear. The slow retreat of the classical section to a far corner, and the advance of violent sounds to batter the ear on arrival, was a process that might stand as a paradigm for how life has changed. One may regret that change, but if one has an ounce of business sense it is clear that it should be respected.
The dog and the horn motif has an ironic angle. Even I, as a boy, used to think it represented something inappropriate to the playing of my shiny 33rpm LPs through speakers concealed in polished wooden cabinets, but in fact long before that it had gone through an update. The original image was taken from an 1898 painting by Francis Barraud of his dog Nipper listening to a cylinder phonograph. Some time later, the invention of the wind-up gramophone caused this to be substituted for the phonograph, but there, apart from occasionally resorting to using a silhouette, the process of updating ended. It is a tribute to our love of ancient symbols that this one lasted so long.
My heart is not broken at the thought, and neither will those of its putative rescuers be. Hilco, which has just taken over HMV’s £176 million debt from Lloyds and RBS, is not staffed by woolly-thinking idealists with a foot in the past. It employs people who ‘help companies identify the value in business assets, monetise those assets, and leverage the assets to obtain debt or equity capital’. One can tell from this statement that they are no-nonsense business executives who are only looking to the future — in the first instance, one feels, theirs; and indeed a glance at the company’s recent history confirms this. In 2009, it bought the bookseller Borders, making the usual noises about being convinced that the company still had a place on the high street, etc., etc. Within days its five biggest stores were sold and less than five months later the business disappeared altogether, with the loss of more than 1,000 jobs.
The president of Borders said at the time, ‘We were all working hard towards a different outcome, but the headwinds we have been facing for quite some time, including the rapidly changing book industry, eReader revolution, and turbulent economy, have brought us to where we are now.’ I fear these exact words will be heard repeatedly over the next weeks.
With the HMV sell-off, we are still at the stage of the high-ups making morale-boosting statements. According to one newspaper, ‘the bosses’ are ‘confident’ that they can find ‘a successful business outcome’. Apparently these ‘bosses’ are still ‘passionate’ about the chain and are falling over themselves to pay tribute to the 4,500 people who work for it. Such statements let everybody down. These employees are about to lose their jobs, as any fool can see. HMV has recently been charging well over the odds for its merchandise in order to stay afloat and there is simply no place left for it. A small minority will make a lot of noise about how they regret it — as some of them still do about the invention of the CD — but they are fighting a rearguard action that will cut no ice with Hilco. The sooner we accept what is really going on out there, the better for our blood pressure.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 2 February 2013