HMV dying has nothing to do with Amazon's tax avoidance

How do you fight a behemoth which needn't profit?

The death of HMV is undoubtedly due to competition from Amazon in particular and the internet in general. There's a lot of rosy-eyed reminiscing about the chain from people who apparently haven't been in it for a decade or so – it was, in many ways, a terrible shop – but the fact that it represents (represented?) 38 per cent of the entire physical music market suggests that it isn't just dying because it was run badly. There may be something fundamentally untenable about high-street music retail.

(Though that untenability only necessarily applies to chains; it may be the case that independent record shops, like Rough Trade, have something to offer which the internet can't out-compete them on)

But I'm uncomfortable about the meme going round that Amazon only has the advantage it does over HMV because of its tax-avoiding ways.

It's certainly the case that Amazon's, er, tax planning gives it an advantage. For instance, it charges 20 per cent VAT in ebooks, but only returns 3 per cent of it to the Luxembourgish exchequer, taking advantage of the discrepancy in the rates between where it is based and where it carries out its business. And, until the loophole was closed in April last year, Amazon managed to avoid charging any VAT at all on goods below £18 by shipping them from the Channel Islands.

But even without those avoidance strategies, HMV would have found it impossible to compete with Amazon, because it's a company which simply plays a different game from all others.

Amazon's entire strategy to date is to release loss-leader after loss-leader, building its share of the market – and the number of markets it operates in – to astronomical levels, all while promising jam tomorrow.

Take the Kindle owner's lending library. That's a project which offers free access to ebooks for Amazon Prime subscribers – Amazon's flat-rate free next-day-delivery program – who have Kindles. It is clearly a loss leader, aimed to drive Kindle sales and Amazon Prime subscriptions. But both of those are, themselves, loss leaders. Amazon makes no money on its flagship Kindle model, the Paperwhite, and while it doesn't reveal the figures, most analysts agree that it also loses money on Amazon Prime.

The company has revenues of the same magnitude as Apple, but profits at the same magnitude as Games Workshop. It has managed to convince an entire class of investors to give it money and not ask for anything back save continued growth. In short, it's a multi-billion pound company being treated like it's a start-up.

That is something which HMV cannot compete with. Even if online retail didn't have intrinsic advantages over brick-and-mortar – with lower fixed costs, larger potential markets and a near-infinite potential for keeping things in stock – and even if Amazon paid full British tax on everything it does, HMV still couldn't offer prices that matched Amazon's, because HMV has to make a profit on what it sells.

That's not actually a bad thing in the short-term. What Amazon's strategy amounts to in the short-term is a massive transfer of wealth from its investors to its customers — at least compared to the non-Amazon alternative. In the long-term, it must result in one of two things: the bubble bursting, and the company being forced by shareholders to stop sacrificing profit for market share; or a consolidation of its monopoly, allowing it to raise prices because every other potential competitor has been driven out of business. Neither of those outcomes sound as good.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage