John Walsh: Save record shops – buy CDs

It's been a shocking experience to see our only major music chain going dark

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The Independent Online

I know the high street needs to change, and yield to economic necessity. I've lived with it for half a century. When I was young, St John's Hill, the road that ran past my local station, boasted three cinemas. I watched with concern as they all closed down, to be re-cast as two bingo parlours and a publishing company. These days, I live in west London, where I watch with stoic regret as whole sections of Westbourne Grove close down, taking wine bars and antique shops into the darkness. But nothing has so plunged me into un-Christmassy gloom as the possible fate of HMV.

In the 1970s, HMV was the nation's top music retailer, kept on its toes by the competition of Virgin and Our Price Records. For the record-buyer, this was hog heaven. You could hardly move for the special offers on Wish You Were Here and London Calling. Things continued well for the brand leader: it expanded all over the UK and Europe. In 1996, its 75th birthday year, HMV had 300 stores. It was unstoppable. It took over Waterstones, then Ottakers. It floated on the Stock Exchange... and then the new century caught up with HMV.

As Napster and iTunes and other online music stores established their presence after 2003, the big company struggled to keep up. From Christmas 2005, sales started to tumble. Loyalty schemes, in-store cinemas, even its own-brand social networking site, failed to halt the decline. As Virgin records shops metamorphosed into Zavvi shops and closed down, HMV started to shut its own stores.

It's been a shocking experience to watch the only major music-and-movies chain left in Britain gradually going dark. This year, sales of music CDs fell by 20 per cent and more shops have closed. You must go to HMV in central London, or unspeakable Westfield, to buy a CD or a DVD now, and buck the trend that says the only gift you should give anyone under 20 is an iTunes voucher.

HMV has just announced that its live music division (which includes the Ritz in Manchester and the Hammersmith Apollo) is up for sale. Will the hallowed gig venues become bingo parlours? And if the unimaginable happens and HMV finally packs up its last stores – then what will we do? Must we look to Sainsbury's and Tesco (God help us) to buy music and films in physical formats?

And when CDs and DVDs have gone, must we join the dismal throng of digital downloaders? How profoundly depressing. It is closing time in the gardens of the musical west. Soon, HMV stores, those glossy temples to new music on CD, those dazzling shrines to classic movies on DVD, will be as dead as vaudeville. Can anything be done? If we all descend on the last remaining HMV shops in noisy hordes today and tomorrow, and spend £50 each, would it help?