Mourning the Great British high street and
An open letter to HMV with an idea on how to save the sinking ship
As another week passes, another shop on my high street closes, falling victim to that bargain-offering behemoth in the sky, the internet. Maybe I’m just bitter with regards to these huge invisible corporations because Amazon interviewed me for a job once and all I got out of it was a day out in Slough, a branded pen and a sheet of Amazon logo stickers, that’s probably true, but it’s not just that.
Recently I went into my local branch of Millets, only to see that it will have disappeared by next week. The problem, of course, is that anything you buy from Millets, whether it’s a tent, sleeping bag, or bag of sausage casserole that magically heats up and turns into food, you can get it cheaper online, as with everything that has ever appeared on the high street. I didn’t stand in the road chucking paint at the walls and screaming THE INTERNET IS THE DEVIL, because I’m far too idle to ever physically protest about anything, but I wanted to help out somewhat, so I went inside and bought a handy waterproof coat, or a ‘Kag in a Bag’ for £5, since I am poor and it rains a lot. When I was at the checkout, I overheard the staff talking to a woman who was openly mourning the loss of her local outdoors shop, dressed in black, with a handkerchief held to her eye, and they told her that Millets had been kicked out of the store to make way for a Sue Ryder charity shop.
Every British high street
While I can’t vouch for the veracity of the ‘kicking out’, I did let out a little sigh and audibly mumble “For god’s sake…”, as another charity shop is the last thing this particular high street needed. On that small Suffolk stretch of road there were already PDSA, Barnardo’s, Cancer Research, and British Heart Foundation charity shops. I can’t pretend I don’t love a charity shop; they are my first point of call when I want a board game I will only play a handful of times (Monopoly Europe printed in German, a language I can’t read; Lenny Henry: The Game) or if I want to add to my growing collection of 80s vinyl albums which I CAN play, but don’t often do so, yet nobody is going to visit a town whose shopping street is made up entirely of charity shops flogging crusty clothes and heinous ornaments. I understand charities need money, I’m not stupid, and I’m willing to give it to them, if I can get a good CD or something out of it, but it’s hardly going to save the high street, is it? People weren’t staying away from the town because the choice of charity shops was too limited, ready to head to their nearest bus stop and hop on a bus as soon as the long-awaited Sue Ryder shop opens (that is, if their local bus route hasn’t been cut to save money, like mine was). They stayed away because the town had absolutely nothing to offer (But at least the car park is free, which I do appreciate).
An all too familiar sight
Despite living in such an isolated part of the country, I am fortunate to live between three small towns (I like to think of this as the Boremuda Triangle), so I have a choice of which rubbish run-down town I want to go to. The biggest of these three towns, despite losing every other entertainment shop in the last ten years, still has an HMV despite the recent closures, which brings me on to my main point. Anyone who has stepped into an HMV in recent years will be well aware that they have tried to stay afloat by no longer specialising in music and entertainment, but instead by flogging shoddy merchandise, in the vain hope that somebody will stumble into the shop looking for a new CD release (that hasn’t been stocked) and end up making an impulse purchase of a ‘TEAM EDWARD’ T-shirt, or Justin Bieber – The Sticker Book, the latter which I was nearly tricked into buying because of the low price and short-term Christmas ‘lols’ this would provide, before deciding not to, since I hate planning anything that far in advance. The good people at Popjustice have addressed this topic far better than I can, due to their large amount of photographic evidence in this article where they investigate the various pieces of JLS merchandise sold in their local HMV.
So onto my main point…
Recently, I read in the news that supermarket to the stars, Morrisons, has bought out six branches of HMV, in order to turn them into mini high street supermarkets, which will then sit alongside the Tesco Metro, Sainsbury’s Local, and the five Co-ops already on the road, giving more choice when getting a pint of milk on the way home. But this gave me an idea and it is an idea that I believe will rejuvenate everyone’s favourite (only?) high street music store, and potentially even stop it from being completely wiped out in the next year. In my student days, I used to do my weekly shop in Morrisons, since it was within walking distance and you could often get 10 bakery items for under a pound at closing time, so I thought to myself, what are the best features of Morrisons, and one of the answers is, of course, the fresh pizza counter, where the huge pizzas are prepared in store. I then wondered how this feature could be applied for the high street music store, and this is my answer.
1) Instead of a pizza base you have a blank CD.
2) Instead of picking a variety of toppings to go on it, you pick a selection of SONGS.
3) The good people at HMV make up your mix CD for a fair price, while you wait.
For this to work, it would need to be made a fairly prominent feature in store, the same way the CD singles chart used to be in the old days. You could clear out of all the shelves in the middle of the story that only contain Family Guy DVDs and Owen Wilson films covered in ‘SALE £3’ stickers. Nobody buys them so nobody is going to lose out on profits there.
Once you’ve got a space you need to put up a massive garish digital display, basically a big flashy, neon lights version of the chart on the Official Charts Company website. This should feature all of the songs in the Top 40 Chart, or Top 100 even, plus all of this week’s new releases. Each song listed should feature the following information:
– POSITION – CHART MOVEMENT – Track name
(Big arrow – Last week’s placement – Artist
symbol etc.) – Weeks on chart – Song length, – Label
Using Justin Timberlake’s seemingly hour-long track Mirrors as an example, this is one way in which this information could be displayed. This would reignite people’s interest in chart statistics; just imagine how good all of this would look on a huge wall. There was a time when people would know what the number one single was, and more importantly, care. My mum, being the anorak she is, used to sit at her typewriter as a child and type out the week’s chart. Although I struggle to see the benefit of doing this, it shows an interest in the chart that is rarely shared by anybody today. Before digital music became the norm, you could go into Woolworth’s and look at the CD singles chart, where all of the songs would we lined up in order and it was exciting to see where your favourite artists were placing and who was flopping. The closest you get to that now is the variably trustworthy iTunes chart, or the Radio 1 midweek ‘Chart Update’ on a Wednesday, but there is no real visual aspect to this.
Being a bit of a nerd, I miss this visual aspect of album and single artwork, which is slowly disappearing for good. Artists and record labels are getting lazy when it comes to producing artwork for a single, but why should you spend money on creating an image that will only show up a little icon on someone’s iPod, which they won’t even be looking at. Artists would produce an image that would be eye-catching, and draw your attention to the song on this vast list of anorak-pleasing stats. Basically you would avoid single artwork like this:
Below this big board you would need scraps of paper on which people could note down their song choices, with available writing implements to help them with this. It would basically be Argos’s little blue pen scheme, before they did away with those and replaced them with the less exciting blue pencil. Even if people only came into store to pinch a small pen, this would increase traffic in stores and fill them out a bit, if only briefly, plus there’s a small chance these petty thieves might actually buy something (a set of One Direction coasters?). This form could look like this, for example (look HMV, I’m doing all the work for you here):
Pricing would have to be pitched so that you would get a good deal by buying a large number of songs. A song on iTunes used to cost you 69p before a few songs started being sold in a ‘Plus’ format for 99p, before this was rolled out to all chart songs. Amazon MP3 prices songs at 89p and 7 Digital prices songs at 99p. I think this is still a bit high for today’s music business. Of course in the olden days you would buy a CD single for a few pounds but you used to get a case, a disc, artwork and b-sides for that, whereas for a single MP3, you’re just getting a little bit of ‘space’, invisible data, some virtual information. To ask HMV to sell MP3 singles at less than this is obviously silly but imagine, just imagine, if you could put ten tracks onto a mix CD for five or six (5 or 6) pounds (£), making each track cost 50/60p. That’s not too much lower than the 69p of iTunes past and a far better deal. For many other things you get a deal when you buy in bulk, so why should it be different for MP3s? I admit this bit is hopeful.
With this being a CD of MP3 tracks, it will come in a case and that case will need artwork. For the sake of an example, let me pick ten of the more enjoyable tracks from this week’s Top 100 singles chart courtesy of the Official Charts Company.
Justin Timberlake – Mirrors,
Bastille – Pompeii,
Taylor Swift – I Knew You Were Trouble,
Adele – Skyfall,
Rihanna – Diamonds,
James Arthur – Impossible,
Olly Murs – Troublemaker,
David Guetta/Sia – Titanium,
Arlissa – Sticks and Stones,
Calvin Harris/ Florence – Sweet Nothing
You could have two options for the cover of your mix tape: the first being a patchwork design featuring all of the single artwork from your select tracks, as below.
The second option would be to ignore all of this artwork, into which has gone so much effort (ha!) and replace the cover with a stock greetings card-style cover from a selection featuring favourites such as Happy Birthday, Get Well Soon, I Love You etc. etc. This would not only see the resurgence of the mix tape and the singles chart, but also in the greetings card. Get Clinton’s Cards involved if you need do, all chip in together to try and save the high street! If you stuck a ‘Happy Birthday’ cover on it, it would be the perfect cheap gift for a pal, assuming you know their music tastes well, they’ll know that a little bit of effort has gone into choosing it, and that you didn’t be a full-on cheapskate and make something, you’ve at least spent a fiver on it. Or even better: you could get a fun celebrity cover to bung on the front, with a suitable lyric splashed on it, such as the one below. Of course there would probably be some imaging rights and copywriting nonsense that this would get caught up in, but maybe the artists who already have too much money would take a quick snap and sign it over to HMV for free for sole use on their mix tape/greetings card covers, after all we are saving the high street here and you can’t really put a price on that, can you? And who wouldn’t like a Le Bon Anniversaire birthday card? I think someone made one for me once, and I appreciated it.
So you pick your songs on your little card with your little HMV pen, you go to the counter and hand this over paying your five or six pounds, and the staff member says ‘good choices!’ or more likely makes a sarcastic comment about your music taste, ‘The Saturdays… interesting’ and they then tell you that your CD will be ready in 5 minutes. While you go and busy yourself by having a coffee in the coffee bar that has by this point been installed in each store in order to boost profits, or sit in a listening booth which has been reinstalled to boost interest in HMV, the staff member burns your tracks onto a CD and prints off your cover then assembles it all for you.
Perhaps if you’re easily pleased and can find ten songs in the chart that actually appeal to you, you might go through this process a number of times per year. Each of these mix CDs, if you are making them for yourself, will serve as a little time capsule of sorts, remind you what you were listening to at a particular time, making them a fun thing to look back on and laugh at your poor taste. Kind of like a Now That’s What I Call Music CD, but for a fraction of the price and without an extra disc of crap that you don’t want.
There are so many advantages to this:
- Increased interest in the top 40 and chart stats.
- Cheaper singles.
- More singles sold.
- Non-regular buyers buying singles.
- More effort put into artwork by artists.
- Nice gift idea.
- Rebirth of the physical mix tape.
- Increased traffic in HMV stores thanks to free pens.
- A fun atmosphere in HMV.
- A reason to actually go into HMV.
So, HMV, if you are reading this, this is my idea. There are probably a few downsides to this idea; I expect there’s a lot of complicated legal stuff that will need to be manoeuvred, you’ll need to install all of the necessary machinery and refurnish a large section of each of your stores, and you’ll have to get every single record label on board, but that’s all possible, right? You’re making a small initial investment that could possibly see huge returns in the long run. You can’t make enough money to keep the company afloat by just selling Mrs Brown’s Boys DVD box sets and the occasional Emeli Sandé album. Get rid of all the DVDs in store. Few of them are any good, and you can get them all cheaper online anyway. Focus on music again. Focus on making music interesting and accessible and a price that people will be willing to pay, and then you will see customers return. Diversification and innovation is the key to longevity.
I would buy this product, and I haven’t bought a single for about seven years.
Have a little think about it, at least, then call me, before every branch turns into another bloody charity shop.