What do we actually want from HMV?

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As HMV reopens stores in Birmingham and London, a few thoughts on some of the pushback the chain seems to be getting.

In December 2018, the entertainment chain HMV went into administration for a second time, with seemingly no way forward for the business. Stock was being sold off, and there was no prospect of a buyer.

Until, well, there was. In early 2019, a deal was concluded with a Canadian man called Doug Puttnam, the owner of Sunrise Records. He snapped up the chain, kept the vast bulk of stores open, and promised to focus it more towards vinyl music. But – crucially – he pledged to keep stocks of DVDs, Blu-rays and 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays.

Fast forward to this week, and two HMV stores have reopened their doors.

In Birmingham, the shop in the Bull Ring centre has been refitted as part of ‘The HMV Shop’ branding the chain has now adopted. That’s on top of the enormous shop that opened a few years back in the city centre.

And, with great fanfare, Friday November 23rd sees the reopening of a HMV store in London. Its Oxford Street store reopens on the site where it originally sat nearly 100 years ago, having spent most of the last year or two as yet another American candy shop.

The news of HMV’s return and continued expansion has attracted a mixed reception, though. On the one hand, hooray! A chain that still sells physical music and films is steadier that it’s been for years. On the other, well, the breakdown of what’s in a HMV store in 2023 is clearly not to everyone’s liking.

I walked past the Oxford Street store a few days before it reopened, as boxes of products were being put on shelves. The shutters were up as things were being wheeled in, and, yep, the first thing you’re going to walk past is shelves of Funko Pops. Then assorted memorabilia and pop culture gifts.

Keep going, and you’ll get to the 8,000 or so discs that the store will be stocking. They weren’t immediately visible from the front entrance as I took a cheeky peek inside.

I’ve read a reasonable amount of pushback about how traditional HMV stores are turning into The HMV Shop, and relegating what used to be the company’s bread and butter to shelves at the back. In fairness too, it’s very clear that the margins and priorities are in the world of vinyl music and assorted pop culture memorabilia/tat. I took my dad into a branch near me just after it was refitted, and he walked out declaring that it was the worst record shop he’d ever been in.

I felt then, as I feel now, that he’s both right and wrong. That the HMV where a good half of the store is devoted to CDs – which is what he wants – died at the end of 2018. The business simply didn’t work, and when HMV crashed, there was a very real prospect that the days of a high street physical media store were over.

But also: it’s a physical media store for the 2020s. And outside of Fopp – also owned by HMV – it’s the best record big record store around.

There are small hints going around the world of film of a resurgence in physical media, of people buying films on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray. In 2023, you can’t even walk into a supermarket now and reasonably expect them to take the top ten releases. I went to a huge Tesco a few weeks ago, for instance, and the only concession it made to the fact that DVDs and Blu-rays exist was a Barbie cardboard stand with a few discs on it.

I’d imagine that those brought up on the old HMV are going to, in the first instance, be a little disappointed when they visit that Oxford Street shop. It’s not their HMV anymore. But the trade off, I’d suggest, is that if you’re willing to walk past a plastic head of some Star Wars characters in a box (I’m not a Funko fan I’m afraid), then there’s a shop that’s willing to stock a sizeable collection of films in physical form.

What’s more, not just the big films. Not just the top ten. A range, that goes into catalogue titles as well as Fast & Furious boxsets. A place where you can still go and browse, and spend time reading the back of boxes. The simple pleasures in life.

Sure, the range is a lot smaller, but – against a backdrop of chains such as Best Buy dropping physical media altogether in the US – it’s a minor miracle that HMV still exists. Yet alone to be in a position to have two stores opening in a week.

I’m not on the payroll of HMV either, to be clear, nor has HMV paid for this article. Full disclosure: I’ve twice got into chats with HMV about it helping the Film Stories project, and, well, pub talk really. The point is that I’ve not got a reason to go out of my way to be nice to the company. I just think it’s an important one, and I’m glad it both exists, and continues to expand.

I intend to walk into the new store at some point and spend some money. Not on a Funko Pop, or some cushion, or an imported drink from somewhere else in the world. But on some new Blu-rays, perhaps even a CD or two.

It might not be HMV anymore. It may now be The HMV Shop. But The HMV Shop still feels like a bright spot on the ever-dwindling high street. Long may it continue.

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