(A non-food-related rant)
When I bought my first MacBook last week, I spent an enjoyable weekend doing very little apart from setting it up – part of this included re-aligning my ten-thousand-strong iTunes library, as one of the little Non-Apple>Apple niggles was that my playlists didn’t copy over. My housemate, the perfect technical troubleshooter, told me how to remedy this but by that point I was relishing a snowy Sunday re-making such gems as ‘Mike’s Slightly Funky 80’s Salsa Megamix’, ‘Music for when I have a coffee, hangover and it’s the late afternoon’ and many more besides.
During this operation, I noticed that my ‘Best Ever’ list was missing a major factor; ‘Chicago’ by Groove Armada. I searched and searched for Vertigo, one of my favourite albums that starts, but certainly does not end with ‘Chicago’, but could not find it anywhere. I assumed that seeing as during my chef days at Bella Pasta I had played the disc to death, it would still be sitting on the shelf above the pizza station, so I made a beeline for the iTunes store. I got sidetracked with something else and forgot to buy it.
A day or two earlier, HMV entered administration, becoming the third High Street casualty in the United Kingdom this year, and arguably one of the highest in profile. Stores around the country entered into a closing down process, initiated with three sweet words – Blue Cross Sale. His Master’s Voice first sold disc records from a shop on Oxford Street in 1921, and last Monday this was exactly where I found myself. It had dawned on me that Vertigo was in fact the first CD I had ever bought – at least without the input of Mum and Dad – in the HMV in Cheltenham, at a time when electronic music was to me, an alien-like and wonderful thing that was begging to be explored. The beauty of the Cheltenham HMV – like any HMV, like any record store – was in the exploration, the knowledge that if you had infinite time and unlimited £11.99s, there was virtually nothing musical or cinematic that could not be purchased. Back in 1999, I bought Vertigo simply because it was at the front of a line of CDs and my head chef mentioned a few weeks’ before that he liked a thing called Groove Armada.
After Vertigo came a punt on a record label called Defected which pretty much defined my subsequent musical tastes. In My Memory by (DJ) Tiësto was bought on a whim, and what a whim it was! I still remember walking out with You Think You Know by Shakedown, clipping the disc into my walkman and grinning from ear ear all throughout the four minutes sixteen seconds of ‘At Night’. Music does that to you. Of course, for every coup there was a dud. Colours by Circulation was bought on nothing more than the simple fact that the CD box was mysteriously minimal; turns out the contents were similarly vapid. An ill-advised sidestep into rap lasted one CD, and I threw it out so quickly I cannot even remember what I bought, whereas The Best of Madness was immediately cast aside for being well, a little bit too mad, though it has reëntered personal circulation in my 80s renaissance of 2011 to 2013. For me, HMV was always about the thrill of the chase. As I began to understand my musical tastes, I searched for particular CDs and if Cheltenham didn’t stock them then I would visit London, and the Oxford Street branch, where they would almost always be guaranteed to be hidden on a shelf, usually under a different letter in the wrong section.
So on Operation Groove Armada at Oxford Street last week, I quickly regressed into the patterned routine of “…well I could get Vertigo or seeing as I have never bought a dubstep album, there is one here with a nice cover, though thinking about it, I really need to see what the fuss with Adele is all about”. I recomposed and found Vertigo. I left without it, or indeed anything else. I bought the album on iTunes that evening for a little over five quid, and Vertigo exists once more – albeit virtually.
I had come to HMV prepared to spend a little more than iTunes prices for the album (this is of course one of many reasons for HMV’s painfully long demise). I was not prepared – even in my slushy, sentimental state – to pay more than twice as much, even when the Blue Cross mark down of 25% is added. I moaned to a friend about it this afternoon. She said;
“Will they ever learn?”
I don’t think it was a case of anything to learn, HMV was too far gone (one journalist likened it as ‘not being able to teach an old dog new tricks‘). Like frequently typecast archaic businesses such as the sweetshop with jars of humbugs high on a shelf, or candlestick-makers, it feels like the music store has lost its place in society. Even HMV began to doubt itself in its later years, favouring technology to tunes (I’ve never seen so many pairs of headphones in one place). Even the happy-go-lucky browsers and chasers were finding the fruits harder to find. The exception seems to be the flagship store on Oxford Street – the one store, I’ve been told, that is making any money – and certainly there could be hope for the old dog yet, as bankruptcies are rarely black and white. But it breaks my heart that not only have we possibly lost a British institution through no fault of anyone or anything (I refuse to blame companies like Amazon for what happened), but simply through changes in cultural paradigms and how, where and when music is bought (or not bought, as is often the case) but also that there are so many jobs at risk as a result of these factors.
I echo the sentiments of Tom de Castella, who last week wrote a particularly poignant piece on what the death of HMV means to him. He lamented missing the weight of the CD in his hand – the sense of anticipation, excitement and potential as he walked up to the counter to pay. That feeling is certainly kindred - a bag heavy with HMV goodies was always tantalising. I will miss cover art and sleeve notes; at least in the case of Vertigo, I still have the latter. But for me – and seemingly a lot of other people – the perceived value of tangibility was no longer enough, and the weight of cash in the pocket, rather than a CD in the hand, won the day.