When I think about HMV, I remember the “two for £10” CD offer that I’d often share with my Dad when I was a pre-teen. I would search for an album by an artist I was keen on at the time – typically a debut by a female singer-songwriter such as Gabriella Cilmi or Amy Macdonald – and he’d find something like an early Bob Dylan album that had previously only been available on vinyl. We would go to the till together and each walk out clutching a brand-new disc for our collections.
Particular branches of HMV bring back specific memories. It was in the Bluewater branch, Kent, that I bought Emmy the Great’s second record Virtue (2011), kickstarting my love affair with the idiosyncratic folk-pop singer’s music that is still strong today. Having loved Metronomy’s third record The English Riviera, I remember seeking out the band’s first two albums in the HMV of Broadway Shopping Centre, Bexleyheath, the dreary south-east London suburb where I spent so many weekends. Sifting through the racks, I found them: Pip Paine (Pay the £5000 You Owe) and Nights Out. When I went to pay, the man behind the counter asked me if I was sure I wanted the CDs. “Their older stuff is a lot more obscure than The English Riviera,” he said, as though my 15-year-old girl brain couldn’t possibly handle it. “It’s not pop.” A decade later, they remain two of my all-time favourite albums.
Because HMV played such an important role in my adolescent musical life, I was thrilled to hear that its former flagship shop on London’s Oxford Street will reopen after a four-year absence. Its site, at 363 Oxford Street, is historic. It was opened in 1921 by the composer Edward Elgar. Later in the century it hosted a rooftop gig by Blur and welcomed the Spice Girls to turn on the 1996 Christmas lights. In 2000 the shop moved to a larger space at 150 Oxford Street. This is where I bought my first pair of over-ear headphones. They were bright green and I wore them until they fell apart.
[See also: The death of the groupie]
HMV returned to 363 Oxford Street in 2013. This is where the “His Master’s Voice” sign sat, next to the iconic logo of Nipper the dog peering into a phonograph. The branch closed in February 2019, along with 26 other HMV shops in the UK. It has since housed one of the area’s many American sweets businesses. The closure was a compromise that rescued the brand from collapse after it had gone into administration in December 2018 – for the second time in six years. Its financial difficulties were shared among high-street entertainment retailers, as music fans became more likely to stream songs via Spotify and film-lovers bought fewer DVDs, relying instead on platforms such as Netflix. The British high street as a whole suffered from the migration to online shopping.
The return of HMV to 363 Oxford Street marks its “dramatic turnaround”. The outlet made a profit in 2022. It also indicates a changing entertainment industry: one in which, despite the proliferation of streaming platforms, music and film fans are still keen to have in-store experiences such as browsing and buying material items. The desire for physical records is statistically evident: in 2022 vinyl sales grew for the 15th consecutive year to 5.5 million units, the most since 1990.
It is the vinyl revival that has helped bolster independent record shops such as Rough Trade, which beside its two London branches opened stores in Nottingham and Bristol in 2014 and 2017, respectively. That success bodes well for HMV in the West End, and the latter development should signal good fortune for the indies too: the music industry is an ecosystem, and any shop that promotes a record-buying culture is healthy for the whole. It was in HMV that I learned how much I valued music, how many weeks’ pocket money I’d be willing to exchange for a CD. Today I am more likely to shop independently or buy records directly from an artist, but recorded music remains something I cherish. HMV taught me how.
I hope HMV tries to replicate the thriving Rough Trade East, off Brick Lane. I’d love to see the new Oxford Street branch hosting in-store gigs and artist signings, giving fans – especially young ones who might not yet be regular gig-goers – a chance to see their idols up close.
Given the sales figures, vinyl will likely take up considerable space on the shop floor. I don’t hold out much hope for CDs. Judging by existing regional branches of HMV – as well as the Bexleyheath store, which reopened in 2022 after being closed for almost a decade – pop culture merchandise will be a mainstay. In my dream world, no record shop would be overrun with Funko pop figures and Star Wars collectibles. But if filling the shelves with these items is what allows HMV shops to stay open, then I welcome them. Anything that gets people inside a record shop – and closer to discovering the joy of flicking through the racks – sounds good to me.
[See also: Is Substack the future of media?]