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....."


  1. Your experience of HMV is very different from mine! They *never* have/had anything slightly out of the ordinary that I was looking for (*especially* not folk for which they have always been terrible). They are possibly even worse for back catalogue DVDs.

  2. Raises thoughts about Just-In-Time inventory management and short-run press-on-demand albums like print-on-demand books if the album is to survive. Or, if not the album exactly, what? Something between the EP and the LP perhaps. Seven tracks apiece sounds good to me. Enough to establish a relationship; no room for fillers.

  3. shame but reflective of a generational shift. in the 90s my friends and i would easily spend a few hours browsing in HMV, Virgin or Tower(!). the choice pre-internet was terrific, and rather more enjoyable than the smoke infested (that again) local place. As you've pointed out now kids dont seem to want or need to buy any of their music. singles are on any number of video or streaming sites and they all have smartphones.

  4. I have a spotify account so I can listen to Bonnie Raitt's albums whenever I like, not to mention any number of artists I would otherwise never have been able to listen to. The model of shipping discs everywhere is just far too inefficient to compete. Also it's cold outside ;)

    By contrast, the internet is so efficient at delivering content that I can go on services like soundcloud and listen to artists who don't even have a distribution deal.

    The tails never been longer from my perspective.

  5. Anonymous10:23 am

    HMV stores in London and other cities may well have stocked a broad range but in their smaller shops carried a woeful range. I doubt they'll be missed very much by people who don't shop on Oxford Street

  6. Forget the second Blue Aeroplanes album, last week I went into to HMV Manchester and asked if they had the Ren Harveau album. Neither of the two sales staff knew who she was ('Sorry - we don't have him in stock'). This for an album that went top 5 a couple of months ago by a singer from - Manchester.

  7. Well said. Many times over the past year or so I've not been able to find the records I was looking for.
    I hope there is a future for HMV, there's only one indie a whole 30 mile radius of where I live which is a bit hit and miss stock wise, and I much rather have something physical to keep rather than a bunch of files on a computer!

  8. If you think any Bonnie Rait album is at the thin end of the long tail, you're not thinking of a long enough tail. Think more of artists you've never heard of, who maybe sell to a couple of thousand people *worldwide*. HMV would never stock this. An indie probably only would for a local band.

    Chris Anderson was thinking of retailers like Amazon, and especially downloads, because there's practically no minimum limit on sales any more. Having a download on your site costs almost nothing. If it sells one download, that's retail profit.

    Sites like Bandcamp have hundreds of thousands of acts, and mostly sell very low volumes of each. That's the long tail.

    Lois: you do realise you can buy CDs online?

    In principle, I'd like to support my local bricks & mortar indie. But they seldom stock the stuff I want, and ordering with them is significantly less convenient than ordering online.

  9. I’m afraid the demise of Virgin, all be it a swift exit on Mr Branson’s part, Zavvi and now HMV are as a result of the rush in the late 70’s to the Holy Grail of quality, the Digital Format. The creation of the CD at a time when that little silver disc could hold more information than the average Computer Hard Drive meant that no thought was given to copy protection.
    Do you remember the ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ logo on the back of those vinyl album sleeves? It seems Sony and Phillips had a bigger weapon than magnetic tape.
    The naive launch onto the consumer market of Digital Recording in the late 70’s / early 80’s provided the Pirates with what they had always wanted, infinite and consistent illegal reproduction.
    Sure HMV held 38% of the CD sales Market, but this is a Market that has shrunk by 50% since 2000. And don’t think for a minute that legitimate downloading has taken up the slack or will indeed continue to thrive in the long term in the wake of the High Streets loss.
    I foresee a radical change in the model by which music is enjoyed. Back catalogues will become the domain of the enthusiasts with File-Sharing sites allowing the virtual swap meet to develop. With established names like Bowie, Radiohead and others having shown in recent years that artists can and will publish their own new work in the absence of the old distribution system provided by the labels and retain much more of the control and the money from a willing paying fan base, this will become the norm if a suitable return is made before this is also shared for free.
    New bands already have a presence online and they find their fan base through word of mouth, viral marketing and their live performances. If this grows and develops into a sizable following, do you really need a record contract?
    Music may in the future return to grassroots with talent being the driving force behind popularity. It may also cease to be the cash-cow for major corporations to exploit as the art is reclaimed by those who make and love the art it for its own sake.

  10. Anonymous12:41 pm

    A large part of the 38% of the market currently owned by HMV will die with them. Supermarkets are already backing out of music apart from the extreme mass appeal artists. They will give up on these within 12 - 18 months. The suppliers' rich vein of margin lies in back catalogue, without this income they stop investing and producing.

    If you think there is going to be great new dawn of taste and variety you are woefully ill informed. When HMV stops the music, as we know it today, stops with it. It may take a while but this era, begun in the late 50s, is now over. We will be left with processed pop and a bunch of bands guardian journalists can express their elitism through.

  11. Particularly sad is it is another nail in the coffin of actual shop browsing (and the impulse buys that go with it). Amazon is great if you know what you're looking for, or are willing to click through their recommendations. The gem of a cd you never knew you needed will go unfound. 50-quid man (adjusted for inflation) is dead.

  12. @stevew but recording music costs less now than it ever has. There's more music being recorded than ever before. Diversity, we've got, and it's not going to go away. Much of it doesn't *need* profit-motivated big labels to finance.

    I suppose it all depends what you mean by "as we know it". We're due a sea change, but not necessarily for the worse.

    @Him Up North 50-quid man can now click straight from an article in The Quietus, or Julian Cope's Album of the Month blog, or whatever music blog or tweeter he's been following, to a buy link, and leach away £50 a week on all the gems he likes.

  13. Broadening the goods HMV put on their barrow - more tech, less music - gave me fewer reason to visit.(whereas Rough Trade East, I can't wait to nip in for a trawl). Over the last five years, I've picked up music recommendations and tips from music blogs and magazines.

    If you haven't seen it yet - Philip Beeching started work on the HMV advertising account in 1982. Find a few minutes to read his take on the rise and fall of HMV Three reasons why it failed

  14. My experience is exactly the opposite. I never buy mainstream CDs and whenever I have visited HMV they only have mainstream. As far as I am concerned the long tail went to the internet a very longtime ago and continues to get better and better with more bands and artists creating their own labels in either CD or Digital, or both formats. HMV lost the their way about 5 years ago. They needed more inventiveness to combat the the online revolution in the high street.

  15. Nothing could save HMV - the future (for good or ill) is digital downloads. All HMV, Waterstones and Blockbusters can hope to do is manage the decline down to a niche of collectors who actually like the physical objects.
    If you accept that what we want is the music/film/words, then CDs/DVDs/Books are just the media and shops selling them are doomed.
    Actually doomed is the wrong word. It suggests something that is going to happen, when it already has.
    Myself, I used to love shops - but I dont need or use them now apart from to find things to download. It's part of what killed the Word, you know...

  16. I began to notice holes appearing in the HMV inventory a couple of years ago. Where I noticed it first was in their flagship London store. Suddenly it wasn't quite as bountiful as it had been.

    You could still order an artist's back catalogue online, sometimes on the HMV website, but the older records were nowhere to be found in store.

    I don't know where a person like myself figures in the plans of businesses like HMV - I buy music on CD every week, but is my demographic large enough to matter? Nobody made their millions catering to dinosaurs and dodos.

    I'll tell you who was good at the long tail - Tower Records in Piccadilly. Their alternative music section was legendary. They'd carry the entire back catalogues of all these small, independent labels. I bought a lot of fantastic albums from there - music that made great big ripples. Whoever was responsible for that section knew what they doing. I saw things in there that I never saw for sale anywhere else. Maybe that's one of the reasons they went out of business, but while they were around what a shop it was.

  17. These feelings for HMV are surely just nostalgia for our youth. Record shops are dieing because the world has moved on. The change is all relative. It's neither good, nor bad, it just is.

    Music has never been more accessible or varied as it is today. Anyone can make, remix, distribute or access anything. The old control pillars of distrubution have crumbled away.

    Sure it'll be (even) harder for people to make livings as musicians, but I don't imagine it'll stop people making or wanting music. It'll find a way.

    The old music business might be struggling, but music has never been more alive

  18. Firstly the music under discussion "give it up" by Bonnie Raitt - a most beautiful album which boasts the track "love has no pride" written by Eric Kaz. How do I know this? Because when I first bought the record in 1972 I would like so many curious music fans of the time I would read the album from cover to cover searching for interesting facts about these talented artistes from across the big pond. The music, the lyrics, the band, the recording studio, the producer, the engineer, they all played a vital role in bringing this wonderful music to our ears! Today sadly it is much more disposable as so many things have become in the Internet age. Thankfully it will never replace live performances. So, if you really want to see something worth treasuring - bonnie raitt - 27th June at the royal Albert Hall. Thanks for listening.!

  19. There are two HMVs under discussion here. One is the one where David and I both worked in the Seventies. The other is the chain that's just gone under.

    Bonnie Raitt was in my section (Rock R-S - yes, they really did employ someone to handle just two letters of the alphabet). If I had ever let Give It Up go out of stock, I would have received a friendly but firm reprimand. Hell, I even received a friendly but firm reprimand for not having foreseen that someone might one day feel the need to buy the Roogalator album, promptly reordering it once we were down to "only" two copies.

    Different world. It shouldn't be forgotten, though, that those halcyon days lasted about fifteen years - roughly coinciding with what is now seen as pop's golden age (Beatles, via glam, to punk).

    Recorded music wasn't at the very centre of young people's lives before then and it isn't now.

    In the grand scheme of leisury things, HMV: The Ali Baba's Cave Years was just an anomaly, a wobble. A rather glorious wobble, perhaps, but a wobble all the same. And now it's stopped wobbling, that's all.

  20. I agree wholeheartedly with what Archie says, coming from a similar vintage and initial work direction.

    I just make one point on DH's initial post.

    The long tail isn't quite over. I reside in a world of Bloggers and my main area of collecting these days is Power Pop.

    I must have discovered 20 or more artists last year, all by word of mouth. led to samplers on things like bandcamp and I've bought and bought.

    Raided back catalogues and most.

    The sad thing for the UK Retail or otherwise, is that I've only been able to buy these via itunes or specialist retailers in the States.

    True, Power Pop is a fairly small part of the music loving world, but that's the only way I can buy.

    HMV's demise is cause and effect, they stop stocking because no ones buying and so no one buys.

    I went into my local HMV a couple of weeks ago, armed with vouchers and could find nothing I want, so I ended up spending them on ITunes cards, which is surely a summary of how the business failed.

    We also long for that Record Shop meeting place which isn't there anymore, music has always largely been 14 - 30 driven and those people communicate via Facebook, Twitter and Text now, not in their local record shop on a Saturday afternoon.

    If we are all honest, how many times have we been in HMV in the past three years and there lies your answer.

  21. Of course Chris Anderson moved onto trying to persuade everyone that Free was the new business model - and now Google are playing catchup with their Google Play store, as turns out people will pay for digital.

    It turns out that after a decade the impact of digital has been to push money towards the fat head - being on the Amazon Top 10 on the right of the screen, or the App Store chart is self-fulfilling - which is why people will reduce prices to nothing to get there.

    But there still seems to be a lively market for reissues - the new trend is for small labels, with a good understanding of their market, to licence material from majors. There is stuff being issued now, maybe in runs of 500-1000, that has been unavailable for decades.

    (I'm old enough to remember when the only way to get a Byrds album was to find a second hand copy, before the CD back catalog boom).

    Nor is it just reissues - there are labels out there doing new stuff in small runs and selling out - but as you note, this is appealing to niche audiences. And outside of London or Manchester, your chances of finding them in a shop are slim.

    Worse still is the illusion that Spotify and iTunes create of a 'complete' catalog when there are gaps that even your local HMV once covered.

    Although I guess we had the same cultural amnesia with every format shift.

  22. And a quick response to Martin's comment - Simon Cowell knows far more about how to make money in a file-sharing social media age than anyone at Facebook or YouTube and he is from the old major label world - but he knew when to start moving on to something else. Genius - crowd-source the A&R to the crowd and make them pay to do the job. Get the artists to sign a contract when they're complete unknowns, guaranteeing you income from the only tour and recordings that anyone will probably care about - the first one after they win.

    Equally, we've been in the world where people with no talent at all can make hundreds of thousands of pounds as 'celebrities' - and there are definitely pop and sports people who make more of their income that way than from the day job.

    That may be an overly pessimistic view, but even if HMV, Sony, EMI, Warners and BMG all disappeared, you'd see the same old faces turning up in whatever replaces them - they're been getting their fingers into the live, ticket and management markets for some time.

    (And isn't it amazing how judging by the fees, tickets must be the only thing that are somehow more expensive to deliver via an Internet business than they ever were from a physical box office).

    Anyway, that's an overly pessimistic view, but I just think that while millions of people are 'into' the same artist or festival, there is going to be a big money music industry - even if no recordings were ever sold again.

    In reality, multiple models will exist - just as there have always been grass roots live bands, band who made more money from merchandise than record sales, bands that people only knew about if they were 'on the scene'. The stuff I like is mostly as (un)popular as it ever was, and seems to be doing better with the Internet to connect people, rather than the slow percolation of information through fanzines. The downside is that no one I actually know in person cares less about the new Pye Corner Audio album, no one else in my 'social graph' likes the last band I saw live (The Family Elan at Cafe Oto) - but we do all have an opinion on how rubbish Jessie J is.

    My fear though is the hollowing out of the middle - let's say hypothetically band incomes are down 50% from the mid-90s boom years. For Madonna, that means less yachts, but for a band where the individual members might have been getting 18k a year - enough to go full time - they're now down to 9k, which isn't.
    All of a sudden, rather than pulling in 200 people, you've got to be popular enough to get 400 a gig, but that is quite a leap up - that's the bottom end of Radio 1 daytime play listing, not a session on 6 Music, or being a 'blog band'.

    But in a world where we're all listening to a different personalised radio station, is that even feasible at all???

  23. Doesn't the Long Tail live on Spotify?

  24. The change is all relative. It's neither good, nor bad, it just is.
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