Much like HMV’s demise, its birth too was marked by a curious bit of technological obsolescence.
When English painter Francis Barraud first painted the work originally titled Dog Looking at And Listening to a Phonograph, the namesake canine listened with great attention, with a somewhat mournful countenance, to a cylinder phonograph. The exact device depicted in the picture was a rare model made by Edison Bell Consolidated Phonograph Corp., Ltd, which the painter owned and often listened to.
Years later, long after he had sold the painting and it had become an immensely popular trademark image, Barraud said the image of his dog Nipper listening to the phonograph was the “happiest thought I ever had”.
Yet in the beginning the painting proved tremendously hard to sell. After completing the painting, and renaming it His Master’s Voice, the artist tried to exhibit it at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The academy refused. He then tried to sell it to magazines for reproduction. They too refused to entertain the rather curious image. Driven to desperation, Barraud tried to sell the painting to the Edison-Bell company. James E. Hough, who ran the London-headquartered company, also refused, remarking famously that “dogs don’t listen to phonographs”.
Finally Barraud found a buyer in William Barry Owen, owner and manager of The Gramophone Company on Maiden Lane in London’s Camden suburb. Owen offered to buy the painting for £100 (around Rs.8,500 now), but on one condition. Barraud had to replace the somewhat obsolete device in the painting with a much more modern Berliner disc gramophone—the kind of device that The Gramophone Company was in the business of selling. Barraud duly obliged, and on 17 October 1899, the modified painting was delivered to The Gramophone Company’s offices.
For the next 113 years Barraud’s painting and revisions of it have all but represented the world of music in general and the HMV company in particular almost all over the world.
And now, earlier this month, the HMV Group announced that it was “going into administration”—a restrained British way of saying that it had gone out of business. At the time of writing this piece it seems unclear if the company will be saved by new investors or through a restructuring exercise. The chances of a revival, however, seem grim. A day after announcing its near-insolvency, HMV closed all its stores in Ireland.
For music lovers—in Britain and outside—the news is both devastating and inevitable. HMV’s business model—big, expensive retail stores on high streets selling a somewhat desperate mix of music, games and gadgets—was utterly unsustainable. HMV has been steadily losing ground to digital stores and online retailers such as iTunes and Amazon, respectively. And even though the chain had somehow maintained a UK market share of 22% of all music and video sales, it still didn’t make enough to pay for its expensive stores and staff.
For music enthusiasts, however, this is not so much the decline of a company as it is the imminent end of a music retailing experience. For years HMV’s flagship store on London’s Oxford Street was the centre of the music world. It was the store that spawned a thousand imitators all over the world.
In the two decades after Barraud sold his painting to The Gramophone Company, the HMV trademark was well and truly established. So popular had the logo become that other music companies in the US and Japan had licensed the painting for use in those markets (thus creating a complicated international web of rights to the image that persists to this day. So even if HMV vanishes in the UK, Nipper should live on for much longer).
In 1921, The Gramophone Company opened the first HMV store at 363 Oxford Street. The store was inaugurated by British music composer Edward Elgar (the company had also thoughtfully invited Barraud to the function).
Nothing would be the same again. Depending on when you visited it, the outlet was the world’s largest, most modern, most innovative, or even the most important, music store. Indeed The Telegraph newspaper reckons that Elgar’s presence at the inauguration is considered the first-ever instance of an in-store appearance by a music celebrity.
Later the store also became the first in the world to allow shoppers to listen to music samples in personal booths. During World War II, the ground level of the store became an air-raid shelter. The proprietors, however, ensured that business carried on as usual on the floor upstairs.
On a bitterly cold morning in London recently, the original site of the great HMV shop no longer boasts of music or booths or large neon signs. Instead it features rows upon rows of shoes. In 2000, HMV moved to a new location a little down the road. The original location is now occupied by a massive Foot Locker (the location throngs with people. You can’t download shoes from the Internet. Yet). But once at this location music was not just sold but also made. It was at this location, in 1962, that a demo 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) disc was cut in the in-store recording studio by a band called The Beatles. Four months later, with a new contract from EMI, thanks to the demo, The Beatles were recording at the Abbey Road Studios.
Just 200 yards (around 182m) on and the newer store is just as cavernous. But even to the untrained eye it is no longer the refined yet edgy purveyor of music that it used to be. Instead there is more of a “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” approach to things. Xbox 360 consoles nestle next to DVD box sets, overpriced headphones and ridiculous books that none should sell, let alone read.
I asked a few browsing customers what they thought of the company going out of business. Most of them hadn’t heard of it. None of them seemed to particularly care.
HMV’s problem, of course, was that it could never pile them high enough as Apple or sell them cheap enough as Amazon. While the company continued to grow and invest and acquire other chains right up till the early years of this century, disruption in the form of digital music and online retail ambushed it too quickly. Within a decade, the HMV Group had gone from expansion into rapid consolidation.
Perhaps the economic crisis spawned by the US housing market crash was the last straw. As retailer after retailer began to abandon Britain’s high streets, even venerable old HMV has now found itself incapable of holding on to old business models and outmoded methods.
The news of HMV passing into administration has unleashed a wave of nostalgia in the media. Artistes, singers, composers, advertisers, businessmen and music fans all write and talk of HMV fondly. If only nostalgic fondness paid the bills.
At the site of the original HMV store there is now a round, blue commemorative plaque on the masonry outside. The plaque recounts the history of the store and its role in establishing The Beatles. And then it says in large white letters: “The World’s Most Famous Music Store”.
Unless HMV quickly finds some very smart or very gullible investors, that blue plaque will be all that remains of one of Oxford Street’s most distinguished residents.