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Record Store Day shows the limitations of HMV

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I like to think of myself as a fan of music. Like most of the population I listen to music on my way to work, when I am relaxing at home, and when I am out with friends.

My CD collection however stopped growing around five years ago when I discovered music downloading, and music as a physical product has since made little impression on my life.

The idea of Record Store Day then, an international celebration of an outlet I have rarely used in half a decade, was not instantly appealing. I was however very pleasantly surprised by what I saw and heard.

At London’s Rough Trade East on Saturday I was reminded what is so great about music stores at a time when the format seems in danger of becoming extinct.

Entertainment retailer HMV, the last bricks and mortar business in the sector still standing, is the best example of how high street traders of music and film have been struggling.

Like me, most consumers of music are doing it online and not even at record stores’ transactional websites but through online only, downloading or streaming specialists like Amazon, iTunes and Spotify.

Add falling national retail sales into the mix and you start to get an idea about why HMV had to post its third profit warning since the start of the year at the beginning of this month.

The Rough Trade store in east London however provided the kind of intimate, informed and interactive experience which is so often missing from HMV stores.

It might be due to my own musical preferences but the recommended listening at the numerous in-store listening stations seemed far more accurately grouped, staff seemed to know more about the products, and the product mix was more focused on the store’s particular customers.

Saturday was not a usual trading day of course as whilst I enjoyed the acoustic set from Soundtrack of Our Lives at the shop near Brick Lane, close to 200 performances had already taken place at the 180 participating independent stores in the UK alone.

Live gigs do not happen at Acorn Records in Yeovil everyday, but I bet its customers get a good localised service and I am willing to wager they are loyal.

HMV is struggling now because it tries to offer too much with too little specialisation. The very music consumers who made HMV so successful, and previously led to the decline of the independents, now buy their Lady Gaga releases over the net.

Stores participating in Record Store Day tend to predominantly sell one genre of music, and its customers are picky about what they listen to.

Their trade too is affected by the instant knowledge banks which are online blogs and forums but have a better chance of attracting music explorers than HMV does.

Music has long been just part of the product mix at HMV, and the group is trying to diversify further, but this will not bring music fans back through its doors.

If you are a big fan of Sixto Rodriguez and want to find out more about obscure 1970s folk musicians, HMV is likely to be a dead-end but there might be an independent near to you that can help you out.

The growing ubiquity of digital music and online retail will make it hard for any record store to succeed in the coming years but it seems that specialising will give retailers a fighting chance.

After leaving the store on Saturday evening I was a lot more confident that bricks and mortar music stores can survive the digital revolution but even more confident that they will not look like HMV.

Published on Monday 18 April by Editorial Assistant

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