Photo by me
It feels like another lifetime, but in reality it has only been just over a decade since going to HMV (or Virgin Megastore, the other record store chain in Cork City when I was growing up) was a Big Thing for my peers and I (and, if you’re reading this, most likely you too) to do on a Saturday. I’ve so many memories of buying albums in there, browsing even when broke, learning about bands from friends, reading the backs of CDs to try and figure out if the album would be any good, buying singles on tape…
Today, HMV went into receivership, staff (with their families and homes and bills and lives that all depend in some way on their wages*) were told the doors to the stores were to be shut and are likely to remain so, and another nail seemed to have been hammered into the coffin containing the decaying corpse of what is known as ‘the music industry’.
Things have changed. We know that, and most of us don’t really know how things can get any better. One thing they can’t do is go back to where they were, now that the genie is out of the damned bottle and we have access to music in ways we only dreamt of 10 years ago. Had you said to me when I was 15 that when I was 25, trips to the record store could be replaced by buying records ‘off the internet’, I could choose to download album tracks instead of whole albums, and I could have any album I wanted, for free, in a few minutes, I’d have raised an over-plucked teenage eyebrow. How great does that sound?
But what has resulted from all of these changes in the way music can be sold, distributed, and accessed? An industry floundering. Had I also been told that in my 30th year, musicians would be questioning how much they are getting paid for their songs to be listened to on legal streaming sites, that independent record stores were few and far between (though, thankfully, those we do have are a joy to visit) and that the traditional model of selling and listening to music was sailing down the Swannee with just some driftwood left in its wake with which to cobble together a new model, I’d have been confused. Wouldn’t we have prepared for this?
Yes, some companies adapted and changed, but some stayed stagnant. Large music retailers wanted to – of course – keep the important position they had on the high street, and diversifying into selling books and DVDs (and even relegating the music section to the basement, as HMV on Grafton St, Dublin, did) seemed to be the answer for some. But it wasn’t enough for HMV. Or Virgin Megastores. Or Zaavi. (Or Road Records.) It seems the case that with the evolution of music consumption, no amount of diversifying could ever be enough for the larger chains in particular.
This was initially supposed to be a post about YouTube, about how stumbling across a Jeff Buckley video that I’d never seen before reminded me of the time when the only information you could get about musicians you liked was from music magazines, more knowledgeable friends or, occasionally, TV shows. We all know what has happened to music magazines, and how relevant they are to the average person. And MTV, for example, with its 24-hour rotation of reality TV shows of questionable content, isn’t the resource it once was either.
The past is a foreign country, one where the musical currency was tapes and mix-CDs, torn-out magazine articles and traded tidbits. The future of every facet of the music industry has yet to be written, but so far it is being scribbled on scraps of paper that end up getting tossed in bin.
I hope that in another 10 years we won’t have just nostalgia and rose-tinted memories to hold on to.
And yet, one small spark of hope: Vinyl sales are up…
*Some HMV stores in Ireland, like the one in the Crescent in Limerick, are holding lock-ins to get the wages they are rightfully owed. More power to them, and I truly hope they get their money. It shouldn’t be the case that the very people who kept the shops going on a daily basis are left with nothing.