A once-illuminated sign featuring a Jack Russell called Nipper sits above some hoardings on Oxford Street in London. Head cocked to one side, he appears disappointed that there’s no music emerging from the gramophone he’s quizzically scrutinising. There’s still a poster claiming it’s been the “home of entertainment since 1921”, but it’s reportedly now home to squatters, including Piers Corbyn.
HMV’s 363 Oxford Street branch is shuttered, the remnants of a once famous high street presence still lingering on its facade. The company celebrates its centenary this month, and after soldiering on through store closures and bankruptcy in recent years, had almost become profitable in its May 2020 financial results – despite, at that point, three months of Covid-enforced closure. Given the ride that the record industry and the high street has experienced since the beginning of the 21st century – including during the pandemic – reaching this anniversary seems miraculous.
The centenary marks the opening of this very store. On 20 July 1921, The Gramophone Company which, since 1902, had been making 78s displaying on their inner labels a variant of a painting by Francis Barraud called His Master’s Voice, decided to take their unofficial name and open the first HMV Shop in a former men’s clothing store. Composer Edward Elgar was on hand to mark the opening, and HMV – via Blur on the roof of 363 in the 90s to One Direction packing out the Manchester store in 2011 – has had in-store appearances ever since. “It virtually invented the idea,” says Gennaro Castaldo, director of communications for the British Phonographic Industry and former long-term HMV employee. “They always prided themselves on giving access to popular culture.”
When Bill Haley and Elvis kickstarted a cultural phenomenon with rock’n’roll, fans flocked to HMV branches to hear it. “On Saturday mornings, I’d be off to the HMV shop to listen in a booth to the latest records,” says Diane Humphrys, a Lewisham teenager at that time. “It was a big event: I dressed in the latest fashion – billowing skirts, wide elasticated belt – and I’d spend my pocket money on one or two 45s: Frankie Vaughan, Pat Boone, Buddy Holly … LPs were too expensive. I played them non-stop on my Dansette record player.”
After the manager of a certain Merseybeat four-piece crossed the threshold, its place in history was sealed. In February 1962, Brian Epstein popped into 363 to have some acetate discs made for the band’s Decca demo. The disc-cutter mentioned the group to publisher Sid Colman, who in turn mentioned them to George Martin. The Beatles signed their recording contract in front of a portrait of Nipper. When, in 2000, 363 finally gave way to the much larger 150 Oxford Street, Martin was on hand to unveil the blue plaque marking HMV’s most famous location, shortly before it was turned into a Foot Locker.
“When recorded music was rarely heard on the wireless, HMV Oxford Street was heaven on earth,” recalls Alan Johnson – former home secretary, author, and life-long mod. “[In the 60s], if you wanted fashionable clothes you went to Carnaby Street, and if you wanted a record by an obscure R&B artist who’d been mentioned by Jagger or Clapton, you went to Oxford Street. Just to be seen there was a mark of sophistication.”
Branches sprang up across the south east, and by the 70s, with singles sales for that decade reaching 540m, HMV – despite young pretenders such as Our Price and Virgin – was opening stores across the UK.
The 1980s will remain the halcyon days. Many will remember the pink and blue neon adorning the entrances; impressive window displays; Hacienda-like darkened interiors punctuated by bright blocks of colour; Bros, Duran Duran, the latest Now! compilation or Madonna blaring out at an obscene volume. “As a sales rep for Island Records back in the 80s, I saw HMV stores as the muscle on the high street,” recalls Phil Barton, now the owner of indie store Sister Ray, a Soho institution. “Better run than Virgin, cooler than Our Price and staffed at manager level by people who knew about music.”
Someone else you might have bumped into, when he wasn’t record shopping in “creepy music warehouses”, was broadcaster Trevor Nelson. “I loved killing half a day getting lost in the vastness of HMV Oxford Street. I used to go there during my peak years as an R&B and hip-hop DJ, so people were surprised to see me flicking through the classic rock section. It was the perfect place to listen to what the rest of the world was doing.”
You may even have seen the odd mislaid international superstar. Simon Winter, now the head of events and PR at HMV, recalls “In the early 90s, I was on ground floor tills, and Michael Jackson walked into the store – completely alone – up the famous spiral staircase to the video floor. Turns out Sony had arranged for Michael to make a visit, the taxi had been told to deliver Michael to HMV Oxford St, and had dropped him at 363 – not 150 where his team were waiting. Word got out, and within 10 minutes, 200 people were ramming the store. We had to get him into the manager’s office until he could be collected.”
By the mid-90s, HMV had experienced sustained growth for three decades; there were 300 branches across the globe, from Tokyo to Sydney and New York; it was gobbling up other chains such as bookstores Ottakar’s and Waterstones, and even arrived in Tunbridge Wells, just as I started secondary school there. “If you lived in a provincial town where not too much was happening, that tapped you into pop culture and music consciousness,” says Castaldo.
The faint drumbeat of dial-up internet did not sate HMV’s hunger for expansion. In 2001, Apple launched the iPod, but as late as 2009, HMV was acquiring 14 stores vacated by the recently collapsed Zavvi. “When a company’s driving force is to become bigger and bigger, it can tend to lose focus,” says Winter. Castaldo adds: “One of the great strengths of HMV was also potentially its Achilles’ heel. People had so much belief in the idea of a record store and the interaction – they couldn’t comprehend a different world where you would order online and have something sent to your home.”
With a double-pronged attack from Amazon and iTunes, and the failure of Get Closer – a blend of downloading and social networking – the bubble burst. In 2011, HMV announced it would close 40 stores due to falling sales. Two years later, it called in the administrators. Restructuring company Hilco bought the chain, and in 2014 HMV regained its crown from Amazon as top seller of music and DVDs, but it was a brief reprieve. The company filed for bankruptcy again, a relaunched 363 closing just after Christmas 2018.
Enter Doug Putman, CEO of similar Canadian chain Sunrise Records, who purchased HMV in early 2019. One hundred and eight stores were rescued, and Europe’s largest entertainment store, HMV Vault, was launched in Birmingham. Though three stores closed in 2020 and 363 Oxford Street remains shuttered, Putman says there’s a “95% chance” of a new flagship: “I want to have a London store really badly.”
“To me, the HMV experience is having great music playing, discovering new artists, and talking to like-minded people,” Putman adds. “Trying to be everything to everyone alienates your core customer, so you double down on what your customers actually want – and they wanted vinyl.” He’s referring to records, but the bug-eyed Funko Pop vinyl figurines of characters, from the likes of Marvel, Friends, and Pokémon, must also be important.
When stores reopened in April following the winter lockdown, footfall was up by 150% in comparison to when they reopened post-lockdown in June 2020; 10 new stores are planned for this year, and Ed Sheeran is marking the 100th birthday with a free concert at the HMV-sponsored Empire in Coventry. But creating a bricks and mortar entertainment chain fit for the 21st century might seem an insurmountable challenge. It somehow has to be competitive with both Amazon and cooler indie shops, and despite vinyl sales having risen 11.5% in 2020 compared with the previous year, the format remains a niche part of the overall music market. “Vinyl masks a downward trend in every other format HMV, and everyone else, stocks,” says Phil Barton. “How much longer for the CD or DVD?” There is now no other national entertainment retailer – even Sainsbury’s are phasing out selling CDs. Barton is concerned, despite those heartening financial results last year. “I worry HMV will go bust for good next time. The current owner must have deep pockets and an unshakable belief in the brand, because it is not going to get any easier.”
I put this to Putman, who lets out either an amused or nervous chuckle. “From a business perspective, HMV is great,” he insists. “I am unshakable about it. Not because I’m an idiot – deep pockets or not, you either believe in the business or you don’t. The fact that we’ve got through Covid is a testament to HMV and the customer.” Putman wants to create well-curated shops we can immerse ourselves in, and thinks friendly, informed staff – and, yes, Funko Pops – will be key to HMV becoming top dog once again. “My goal is to get it to a place to last another hundred years.”
The company supports the music economy by bringing business to distributors, record labels and more, but also in a more general way, by continuing to champion music as social and tactile in the age of streaming. “We all need a strong HMV on the high street,” concludes Barton. “They need to discover the untapped talent in their retail staff, stop selling sweets and mugs, tighten up their website, and then they will be able to celebrate with an eye on the future. Happy birthday, HMV – I’m rooting for you.”