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The Disappearance of the High Street Record Store Risks Losing a Powerful Arena for Music’s Collectivity

The demise of HMV can be mourned as the decline of owning tangible media – but something greater is at stake

On the same day that HMV announced it was going into administration for the second time (28 December 2018), Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, a groundbreakingly interactive iteration of the critically acclaimed series of dystopian standalone stories. The timing was coincidental, but acutely symbolic nevertheless. First opened in 1921, HMV is Britain’s most famous high-street chain for music, films and other media. The snappy, modern-sounding acronym disguises but maintains its eccentric, old-fashioned name: ‘His Master’s Voice,’ the title of an 1890s painting of a terrier recognizing the sounds emanating from a cylinder phonograph. Bandersnatch was most noted for allowing its viewers to make choices about how the story developed using their remote controls, but equally significant was the episode’s setting, breaking with the present-day or future contexts more customary in sci-fi satire in recreating the sights, sounds and media interfaces of 1984 (and as such was almost suspiciously similar to another hit Netflix property, Stranger Things). Bandersnatch was a quintessentially 2010s production: cutting-edge digital framing and retro content, consumed via a streaming service but nostalgic for the tangible, ownable paraphernalia of the analogue era – even as the leading purveyor of the latter shut up shop down the road.

Minutes into Bandersnatch our protagonist Stefan rides the bus into town, whereupon viewers choose between two cassettes to be loaded into his Sony Walkman. Later he browses records not at HMV but at stationers WHSmith, as if to highlight to the vanished ubiquity of vinyl. Stefan flips through the racks and eventually holds two covers side by side; once again the viewer can choose between them. He brings the choice home, removes it from its sleeve and places it onto his turntable, spins it, lowers the needle, and (what is actually digital) audio fills the viewer’s room as Stefan gets to work. The way the camera and the narrative linger over cassettes, records (and VHS in other scenes) and all the procedures necessary to consume them would have struck any viewer from the 1980s as a bizarre hindrance to the story in its inexplicable attention to the mundane. Not the audiences of 2018, where even millennials, having grown up with mp3s and streaming, can be expected to recognize and revere the exotic old ways. But it was not enough to save HMV. Neither Black Mirror nor the much-trumpeted vinyl resurgence of this decade can quite be said to represent the heart of the mainstream culture HMV catered to for nearly a century – as opposed to platforms like YouTube, Spotify and Netflix.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Netflix

One of the effects of the turn to digitally mediated and networked culture in the past two decades has been that certain forms of cultural consumption that were once deemed natural, even transparent, are now thrown into relief. Consumers of the twentieth-century would not generally refer to ‘vinyl,’ of course, but to ‘records.’ It was only the comparison with CDs and mp3s that made vinyl ‘vinyl.’ Similarly, today’s record labels and music magazines often refer to ‘physical releases’ as opposed to releases consumed as a download or via streaming. Technically speaking, a download is also ‘physical,’ it’s just that its physicality is electrical and microscopic. A more apt term might be ‘tangible’, denoting physicality on a scale amenable to what is for most humans straightforward tactile or sensorimotor interaction. Both vinyl enthusiasts and cognitive scientists claim that tangible interaction is a deeper and more meaningful way of relating to objects in one’s environment. Even if we think of music itself as invisible and intangible sonic vibrations, the ability to pick up, unpack, turn over and shelve its vessels has proved important for many.

It seems unlikely, however, that in the foreseeable future any tangible medium for music could overturn the dominance of streaming, whether vinyl, CDs or even the USB sticks or SD cards that are occasionally distributed to house digital files. It’s a matter of time, space, cost and ease, at which (at least as far as the consumer is concerned) streaming will win every time. Even if they were once the norm, tangibility and (arguably) better sound quality are left at the margins amid an overloaded yet cash-strapped work schedule and a poky flat. And for those of us who do have the means and inclination to pursue tangible media, online shops like Amazon or Boomkat cater better to specialist tastes than HMV ever did, and have their own equivalents of the spontaneity of shop-browsing, too, in the form of customer newsletters and algorithms that trace taste.

Record shop, Soho, London, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images, In Pictures; photograph: Sam Mellish

Record shop, Soho, London, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images, In Pictures; photograph: Sam Mellish

The same goes for owning one’s own copy of the music. There is a psychological and social dimension to this – the music becomes a part of one’s living space, a physical manifestation of taste with which others can interact, be impressed by and so on – but more significant perhaps is the continuity of access that owning music allows, as well as the terms of that access. Music and audiovisual media can and will disappear from streaming services, leaving audiences bereft. It can be easier to recall or re-encounter music you’ve forgotten if it’s in a repository of copies you can search. And one of the assumptions behind moving all media into the cloud is that the cloud has everything you’ll want anyway. There’s a popular myth that Spotify, iTunes and YouTube will allow users to access any music that’s ever been recorded, and it’s what they’d very much like you to think, too – but it’s not true. Even digital files can be a solution to any of these issues, since they can be ‘owned’ (downloaded and kept, albeit within a computer) and backed up even if they cannot be held and shelved. The turn to streaming in music consumption is only partially a consequence of technology, since across the world in recent decades, access to resources has increasingly become a matter of ‘renting,’ whether living spaces or the services and utilities managed undemocratically by private companies. Rents disempower renters, rents go up, and we are unlikely to see a publicly run National Music Streaming Service any time soon.

The demise of HMV can be marked as an opportunity to mourn the decline of owning tangible media. Without HMV, it will become a form of privilege much more than it ever was, but this is already practically the case. There are cultural consequences to this: vinyl has been seen as more authentic because it is classic, ‘warmer’ or more ‘physical,’ but it does not necessarily come from a place of personal or socio-cultural authenticity. If those without privilege are to make music, they are more likely to use Soundcloud, Bandcamp or YouTube than manufacture and resell thousands of copies of their own record. Besides which, it’s difficult for anyone with a view of music history that extends further back than the early twentieth century proliferation of recorded music to feel great anxiety over what is only a relatively recent exception to music’s non-‘physicality.’

Much more worth mourning than the demise of physicality, I feel, is what would connect the end of HMV with the end of Top of the Pops in 2006, the decline of radio listenership and the charts and the shift of MTV’s attentions: the loss of what could practically be regarded as a single, universal public for music consumption. With an HMV in every town, it could loosely be said that everyone was subject to the same musical milieu. This is not to say that everyone liked or was listening to the same thing, but that music could be a society-wide discourse, with all the implications for aesthetic and societal development that that implied. David Bowie was not buried in an algorithmically generated knot of videos and streaming albums, he was on the radio, on TV, and in your town: at HMV. With the fragmentation of this musical public wrought by the economics and technology of twenty-first-century musical consumption, what we risk losing is more important than an aesthetics of tangibility or materialism, it’s a powerful arena for music’s collectivity.

Main image: HMV, Oxford Street, London, 2019. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: John Keeble

Adam Harper is a lecturer in music based in London, UK, and the author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making (2011).

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