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The Glory Days of Record Retailing

The original HMV Store in London opened in 1924.

The original HMV Store in London opened in 1924.

HMV UK filed for bankruptcy this week, the last great record chain to throw in the towel. I spent ten years helping them expand worldwide during the 90’s, fueled by the growth of CDs. The news of HMV’s closing was like hearing about a death in the family.

I joined HMV’s UK headquarters in 1989. Within a few years, HMV exploded into France, Canada, US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, with ambition for much more.  There were three international companies rolling out superstores at that time: HMV, Virgin and Tower. I was part of a team that raced around the world establishing HMV’s flagship locations.

The growth reached such a frenzy that at one point I recall just after the Berlin wall had fallen, a rumor that Branson had done a deal in Moscow, despite no means of repatriating profit. Word was, he would trade cash for gasoline to run his airline.

I jetted around the globe from Sydney to Paris helping establish a foothold for the company. At the pinnacle of HMV’s growth, it was holding secret negotiations with Tower. That deal, for almost $700 million, fell apart at the last second. Tower filed for bankruptcy just six years later.

HMV in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, 1996

HMV in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, 1996

The Apple store is the cool place to hang out today. But before there was such a beast, kids flocked to music superstores. Nothing came close in my mind to Virgin on the Champs Elyseeys in Paris. HMV had a lot of great stores too, but secretly we all envied that one. My favorite HMVs were Oxford Street, Shibuya (Tokyo), Montreal and Herald Square. The store we put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is also close to my heart because I oversaw that project. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fun I had in Tower Sunset and in the Village.

Working for HMV was a great job to have, maybe not as cool as working for Google or Facebook today, but it provided lots of opportunities. Many kids started on the shop floor in a local HMV in Hull or a Leeds and ended up in Toronto, Shinjuku, Hong Kong, New York or Sydney running significant retail operations.

These stores worked because the staff loved music. We believed you could teach the fundamentals of retail, but you couldn’t train someone to be passionate about music. Somewhere along the way, the industry forgot that.

I represented HMV on a joint EMI/Phillips taskforce in 1991 to identify future growth opportunities. We concluded that digital downloading could be huge, but we didn’t foresee the impact of piracy. Our findings were presented to Sir Colin Southgate, the chairman of EMI and Jan Timmer, who ran Phillips. The report was shelved because both companies were too vested in CD to do anything that might accelerate its demise.

HMV on Fifth Avenue 1997.

HMV on Fifth Avenue 1997.

It was no surprise that Apple turned the music business upside down. The tech guys of the 90’s couldn’t connect with the music leaders. I saw the frustration from the guys who had developed Personics (in-store custom mix-tapes), MUSE (an in-store data base/listening station) and Sound Scan (the guys who linked the charts to actual sales). These companies represented progress and the industry wanted nothing to do with them because it meant more accountability and less control.

Last year I visited Sony and EMI and it was depressing to see hallways filled with empty cubicles. I was at Activision in 2009 and felt a real buzz and excitement from the people working on Guitar Hero. It reminded me of the energy I used to feel in our stores.

When I worked at HMV, none of us realized the historical significance of our era. And yet over the past few days, watching the Facebook feeds, it’s clear I’m not the only one looking back on those days with fond memories. What I miss the most is the people and the camaraderie. We didn’t always agree, but we were all committed and worked really hard and put in long hours. We also had a lot of fun listening to music.

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