HMV Shutters Canadian Stores

“If you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”

Set a 12-year old Spektz free in the mall back in 1998 and the bus ride home is going to be loud. We’re talking about an XL slushy worth of sugar scorching through my veins as I skateboarded through the neighborhood with a backpack full of fun. At that point in my life, the only attraction to a retail center like a mall was the music and the food. With news that HMV was going to be closing 102 stores across Canada, it feels like there is a new generation that will lose out on the experience of exploring music outside of their homes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are kids under 10 that are spending big on iTunes, tuning into OVO Radio to listen to Future f*****g up some commas and still making it to level 6,000,000 on Minecraft. But that wasn’t what HMV or music in retail was about. To have the entire world of recorded music at your fingertips is really to have nothing because of a phenomenon known to marketers as “paralysis of analysis.” In short, with well over 30MM tunes on Spotify, there’s nothing to listen to.

Imagine the iTunes store was literally at your fingertips. Enter through the right door and there will be beanbag chairs and listening stations and people who look and talk like you that want to help you discover new music. They don’t work on commission so nobody is forcing the new Cappadonna album into your bag, but once you hear “Run” a few times on those gigantic speakers, it will be hard to put it down. Hell, there is even an all-black album cover with a mysterious purple mask shaped like a Wu-Tang symbol over in the corner of the store. Wu has never done any wrong and the album cost a few hours of minimum wage but its imported, rare and you discovered it yourself. This is how you end up with multiple copies of La the Darkman’s Heist of the Century in your archives and knowing every word to the extended Wu family catalogue, including the two ill-informed purchases of Wu-Tang Killa Bees THE SWARM.

This was HMV for millions of kids. The ephemeral daily charts of iTunes didn’t exist yet so the clerks were their own local versions of Tuma Basa and Austin Kramer. They had fucked up shoes, chains attached to their wallets and they stunk like patchouli or kush, but they weren’t hooking up a pre-teen anyways. No matter how old we get, how many commas are in the bank account or how much XO we pour up in the green room with our heroes, we’re all impacted by ‘influencers’. No, not Instagram eye candy with lots of followers — they aren’t so bad — human beings with heart beats, enthusiasm and hatred for new vibes and stripes on their sleeves that earned them their roles.

Right or wrong, the charts today are powered by numbers and not curators. They work great for the low cost, high volume marketplace that iTunes created but our passion for music has never been about that. What now exists is a curated list of records that sound very similar and charts that create self-fulfilling prophecies. The labels pump the records into top spots in Playlists which comprise almost 70% of our listening habits(effectively creating a new payola scandal for the 2020 Elliot Spitzer to navigate) and the marketing dollars amplify their reach, which puts them at the top of the charts. This is like having your record on the first page of Google and for a select few artist, like owning the keywords, having it at the top as an advertisement.

The problem with this is that we don’t tend to explore much further than this. The UX is designed to trick our brains into thinking “This is my menu of options,” instead of reminding us that there are literally 29MM other records to browse through. Want to ask that iTunes sales clerk what they recommend? I can’t tell from behind this stack of Amazon Echo boxes but it looks like her name might be Siri?

Either way, by confining our brains to a box of 30 records, we listen to basically just those 30 records which means they stay at the top of the charts. Want proof? Ten records (10) hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 2016. A decade prior in 2006 when iTunes was reaching market saturation (five years after launch), nineteen records (19) did the same. By the end of this year, it will be single-digits and all of this contributes to the demise of brick and mortar music experiences.

HMV was a vacation. If the nearest city was 300 miles away from your reserve in Kenora or the summer cottage you were stranded at in Iowa, the record store literally teleported you into another world. Retail experiences are powerful like that. It’s for the same reasons that Barclays bank in UK shut down 75% of their branches and transformed the remaining ones into ‘experience centers.’ The power of IRL, the control of the physical environment, the scents, the finishes, the way you’re greeted (or pat down) at the door all combine to form an experience that cant be replicated digitally (sorry, Oculus, DAQRI et al.)

Owing +$43MM isn’t like renegotiating on that cup of sugar from a neighbor. When you get so far down that you make DMX look like a responsible accountant, the time has come for change. Receivership isn’t unexpected for the company but the impact is devastating. Canada was the world’s 7th biggest territory for music, generating more than +$335M (USD) in 2015 alone. Over +$118M came from physical sales, an astounding 35% of revenue and a growth of +5% since the year before. Unless you’ve been living under a rock with your Sony Walkman and an endless supply of Duracell double-A’s, that is massive contrast to the rest of the sinking industry (caveat: 80% of the author’s wardrobe has maple leafs on it).

I’m not attached to HMV as a brand because even as a kid, I knew that buying from independent and second-hand music stores was infinitely more enriching than from the big guys but these are some of the last veterans of an important battle. Over the next few weeks and months, the remaining stores will be liquidating their stock. Take a stroll into your local music retailer and look around. Run your fingertips over the labeling cards from A-Z and if you see an artist whose music you love, buy the disc and steal the card as a keepsake. Chat at the arcane clerks that won’t put their phones away to listen as you annex the cardboard cut-outs of yesterday’s heroes that stand in the windows. Soak in the dusty experience.

I don’t know what happens next for music in retail but I promise you it isn’t over. Not with Tower Records shutting its doors, not with HMV departing Canada and not with every new playlist being drilled into our brains. Right now, in a nondescript basement, someone who loves music as much as you and I, is engineering the most incredible retail experience for people like us. Maybe we wear these weird VR masks, maybe we use powerful Thunderbolt WiFi Beats By Dre headphones that plug into our cerebral cortex and place us center stage at Glastonbury or maybe it all hinges on wearable tech. The truth is that nobody knows, but alot of industry people are straining their eyes and cocking their ears downwind.

In the words of the immortal David Bowie, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”

Still thirsty? Hit the international plug for that bass on Twitter, @Aspektz.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 1st, 2017 at 7:00 am and is filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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