Standing on the ornate steps of the National Gallery, Princes Street bustles around you with hordes of bodies sweeping over the uneven pavement. By walking in any direction, you collide with crowds of tourists armed with oversized bags from designer shops, locals doing their weekend rounds, or the elderly nipping in and out of department shops, enjoying their day on the town. From this view the high street is energetic, thriving and alive; it’s no wonder many consider this the pulsing heart of the city.
But national statistics and news stories paint a totally different portrait of UK high streets. Last year brought more news of falling profits in various sectors, and most notably the decline of big household names like Maplin, Poundstretcher and Toys ‘R’ Us. With survival doubts looming over many high street staples, few can deny that these are times of turmoil for UK retailers. Perhaps one of the most turbulent stories to arise from these trying days is that of the music and entertainment giant His Master’s Voice (HMV), whose famous logo depicting a dog staring into a phonograph is now an internationally recognised symbol of the UK’s music industry. Almost 100 years of retail history have brought a long series of ups and downs for the firm – from the high-rolling glory days of the music industry boom during the 1960s and 70s, to plummeting sales during the 2000s.
Recently, it seems that HMV has been fighting an uphill battle against the tides of the modern world – music streaming and download sectors are growing at extraordinary rates, forcing physical purchases into redundancy. The first signs of danger came as the firm sold off Waterstones bookshop to help save dwindling profits. Then, in 2013 HMV went into administration, before a miraculous buyout saved the chain, allowing it to survive and sell records for another day. When the company fell into administration for a second time earlier this year, many thought it would be the final record scratch for this iconic brand. Enter Doug Putman, a young, fresh-faced Canadian entrepreneur who has just saved 100 branches of HMV stores in the UK, salvaging around 1,600 jobs nationwide. “We see HMV continuing on in the UK for a long time … the customers love it, we get amazing support,” he optimistically told the BBC’s Today programme. Putman runs the Canadian music entertainment shop Sunrise Records which, like HMV, also saw massive profit losses in the early 2010s which led to mass closures.
A recent change of business strategy has brought the company back up to prominence, and Putman hopes to do the same with HMV. The recent success of Sunrise Records has been attributed to positive customer thinking, with the company conducting research into each individual store and tailoring the stock for each area. Sunrise has also found great success in putting an emphasis on local artists and bands, with Putman indicating that he would like to see more live performances, album signings and publicity events in UK stores. This would be a fantastic thing to see; it harkens back to the age when record shops were the life-blood of the music scene, assisting new artists and engaging fans.
Vinyl, of course, will also be a huge focus for the company as sales of records continue to grow – according to the British Phonographic Industry, 4.2 million records were sold in the UK last year, a 25-year high. As a collector himself, Putman understands the satisfaction gained from flicking through stacks of dusty sleeves trying to find hidden rarities and gems. He believes that HMV can win the fight against online consumerism by offering unmatched customer experience. “People love to come into a store, have an experience, talk to someone who understands music, loves music,” he says.
It is very hard to say what will happen to HMV, and harder again to believe that there aren’t more rocky roads ahead for the company. But with so much fierce competition, new ownership might bring the much-needed change of focus for the company – perhaps the vision of record shopping being a social activity is what will bring HMV back into prominence. For now, let’s enjoy digging around the few branches remaining, and try not to spend too much money on limited edition LPs and gifts for the parents.
Image: David Hawgood via geograph.org.uk