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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

If HMV goes the Long Tail goes with it

I bought this old Bonnie Raitt album for three quid in HMV last week. It was among a bunch of Warner Bros offers.

I then went to the Bonnie Raitt section to see if there were any other titles. There weren't. "Give It Up" was the only one. This is odd because Raitt has made 16 albums and most of them will still nominally be in the catalogue.

 HMV has always prided itself on catalogue. It was the place you came to get the things your local record shop couldn't afford to stock. It certainly did when I worked there and it still did a few years ago.

HMV must have slowly stopped re-ordering records like Bonnie Raitt's - and there are tens of thousands of artists like Raitt from all generations and styles - as they went out of stock. You can't blame them. If they're struggling to pay the rent and make payroll they're not going to buy in stock that they might not sell for another year, if at all. And if HMV, who represent 38% of the UK record retail market, stop ordering records like that then after a while record companies stop manufacturing records like that.

Now that HMV is headed either for extinction or a very different business model under a new owner then they're likely to stop completely and if you want Bonnie Raitt you'll have to download it or wait until the rights owner decides there's enough of a market for a giant reissue programme. There, my friends, goes the Long Tail.

The Long Tail was a theory expounded ten years ago in a book by Chris Anderson. It was sub-titled "how the future of business is in selling less of more". It was a theory that lots of us took to, because it was encouraging to anyone who needed to make a living without "selling out" to the mass market.

HMV, particularly in its big shops, was a key patron of the Long Tail. It would stock your cultish folk record. It would keep the entire catalogue of classical composers. It would order your music magazine. When Virgin went HMV was the only place keeping the Long Tail going.

It's a mistake to think that when HMV's gone it will instantly be a better day for independent record retailers. The majority of music sold in this country comes from the big hits which are increasingly sold as downloads. For the hit CDs, the Adeles and Mumfords, the supermarkets will continue to pile high and sell cheap.

That leaves the few remaining record shops to sell the rest. That's if the record companies, once 38% of their market is taken away, think it's worthwhile to produce it in the traditional way and to support the star-making machinery and the distribution experts, salesmen, PRs, pluggers, reviewers and image-makers who have traditionally laboured in it. The big record companies may not think it's worth their while and the small ones won't be able to afford it.

This would be not just the end of another large commercial organisation which really should have seen the writing on the wall years ago and anyway last time I went in there they didn't have the second album by the Blue Aeroplanes and we never go there anymore because we prefer to support our plucky little indie. It's also the end of a whole way of doing things, a way which has been unchanged since the 70s, a way which many people have come to confuse with the natural pattern of real life.

Put it this way. This time next year people may have stopped saying "have you heard the new album by....."