James Moore: Novelty could soon wear off for gadgets as HMV tries to change its tune

Outlook: Dr Dre has found a lucrative, alternative revenue stream... 'Dr Dre Beats' headphones

Remember when Simon Fox was the hottest thing in retail and was being linked to just about every high-profile job going? HMV's chief executive really should have jumped when (if) he had the chance a couple of years ago. Then his company was the last man standing among high street entertainment chains and appeared to be defying gravity. Now it is falling to earth so quickly he might not have time to open the parachute.

Mr Fox was yesterday trying to wring some positives out of an 8 per cent fall in sales over the last five weeks of the year, which tells its own story.

It might be not be as bad as the 13 per cent fall during the seven weeks to the middle of December, but he had the benefit of an extra weekend's trading this time around and even with that the business has simply swapped "dire" for "dreadful".

In HMV Live he at least has a division that reflects the shift in the wider music market: once it was recorded product that made the money and artists toured to promote that. Now it's the other way around.

Trouble is, HMV's balance sheet is in such a state that he's having to sell up. The division will probably fetch a tasty price but it might not be enough to repair the group's flaky finances or give his turnaround strategy time to come good. If it is viable.

What Mr Fox wants to do is transform HMV from a company that sells Dr Dre's records into one that sells his headphones.

On the face of it, that isn't as silly as it sounds. Dr Dre's name carries some cachet, and attaching it to a piece of recorded music (he's an accomplished producer) used to guarantee interest (and sales) from eager fans. Now it simply guarantees that they'll download it illegally.

There would be a certain irony in a gangsta rapper being hoist by his own petard like this. Except that things aren't exactly getting hard for gangstas: Dr Dre, right, has found a lucrative, alternative revenue stream in lending his name to the premium priced "Dr Dre Beats" range of headphones which start out at over £100 and top out at about £350.

There are monster margins in that price, and HMV is hoping to capitalise by focusing on gizmos such as these as well as laptops, tablets and MP3 players.

According to the numbers it seems to be working: HMV shipped half a million pairs of headphones and 20,000 tablets during the five weeks in question.

The trouble is, the UK's only specialist entertainment chain is moving from a field it has to itself but can't make work to one which is crowded and brutally competitive. The new-look gadget and entertainment chain has a certain novelty value. But that could wear off when Dre's savvy band of consumers realise they can buy his beats as well as his music for a lot less elsewhere.

 

Shareholders part of the problem on fatcat pay

Much sound and fury about the Coalition's plans for a crackdown on excessive boardroom pay at the weekend. There's nothing like having a go at City fatcats when you want to garner goodwill from the electorate you're squeezing.

And the City played right into David Cameron's hands with the CBI's director general John Cridland among the first to scream blue murder at the prospect of shareholders being handed a binding vote on executive pay.

One wonders just why he bothered. For a start shareholders already have a binding vote which allows them to strike down new executive share schemes. They even used it last year. Once.

As for the current advisory vote, according to the corporate governance watchdog Pirc, just 5 per cent of UK plcs faced a vote against of more than 30 per cent. For the first nine months of 2011 and the last three of 2010 the average vote against stood at just 5.9 per cent. That's up a tiny bit but abstentions fell.

If there's a problem with boardroom pay as Mr Cameron has suggested, institutional shareholders don't see it.

Should we be surprised?

Not really. The people in charge of those shareholders are part of the problem. Take Michael McClintock, who runs M&G, Prudential's fund management arm. In 2010 (the year for which the most recent figures are available) he was paid a basic salary of £350,000, a cash bonus of £1.052m, plus a deferred bonus of £552,000. That must have top bankers drooling given nearly all of theirs now has to be deferred.

With benefits, the grand total was £2.1m. In addition, he will get an "anticipated" £3.3m for his work in 2010 through Prudential's "long-term incentive plan". In disclosing this, Prudential is at least being honest. Most rivals don't bother.

Like Standard Life. Its top man in fund management is Keith Skeoch who enjoyed an inflation-busting 25 per cent rise in his basic pay to £425,000 during a year in which many Britons got nothing. The rise came late, so his total 2010 salary came in at £369,000. He also enjoyed a £1.4m bonus plus benefits that brought the grand total to £1.9m. With the aid of a calculator it's possible to "anticipate" a similar amount coming from the long-term incentive plan for 2010.

According to the annual reports each division did jolly well. One would hope so.

All the same, if a child is given the keys to a sweet shop they can be counted upon to gorge until a parent says no. The trouble with the City is that the parents are the institutional shareholders. They seem to be stuffing their faces along with the kids. Making votes on remuneration reports binding won't change that.

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