HMV: Forget video killing the radio star, it's record shops we should be worried about now

If like Virgin and Our Price HMV topples, we’ll lose more than just a high-street institution, says John Walsh

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The Independent Culture

Call me Cassandra but there’s a retail crisis looming on the horizon. Next year may see the final demise of the high-street music shop.

It’s been in trouble since the new century dawned. Where once there were umpteen chains of record shops – Virgin, Our Price, HMV – now there’s only one. It’s HMV and it’s in trouble.

In the mid-1990s, it had 300 stores. Now, the number’s come down to 230, and the future of the chain is under threat. Trading figures in the run-up to Christmas have been worse than expected.

HMV’s share price has plummeted by 40 per cent. The new chief executive, Trevor Moore, said the company was unlikely to meet its bank loan next April. He said that closing more stores and putting the company into administration was “not part of our plan”, but business analysts say its troubles are “potentially insurmountable”.

It’ll be a sad day when the last record store closes. The shops have occupied a significant part of the cultural horizon for years, as places to drop into once a week, to browse, to listen to new records in special booths (remember them?), to meet friends and hang out.

A thesis could be written on the significance of record stores in movies involving kids, romance or both. Pretty in Pink, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and (500) Days of Summer all feature record-shop flirtations.

Judy Garland played a girl working in a Chicago music store in In the Good Old Summertime (1949), just as John Cusack played the male equivalent 50 years later in High Fidelity. In Empire Records (1995) the title New Jersey emporium was the coolest place in the mall. In A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell swaggers through a futuristic record store to pick up two young girls sucking lollies. At the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen and Dianne Wiest fall in love among the racks of jazz and blues.

The decline of the HMV is, of course, the fault of the download, which have seen sales of CDs and DVDs fall by chasmal percentages. Despite receiving £40m in support from its suppliers, HMV has been forced to sell its live-music division and its interest in Waterstones bookshops.

No matter how many three-DVDs-for-£20 offers it makes, the “physical-music” and “physical-visual” markets are declining, and can’t be shored up indefinitely. Soon, you’ll be going to Tesco and Asda to buy the last CDs ever to be pressed. And the shops where you used to flick dreamily through the multiplicity of music will be as dead as Stonehenge.