posted by George Pursall

In defence of physical media (and HMV!)

HMV has been saved. As of the 5th February 2019, over 100 stores of the iconic retailer will remain on the high street. 27 stores will close, unfortunately, including the flagship Oxford Street branch, but it looks like HMV will live on to fight another day.

Many thought that this survival wouldn't happen. How long will this new deal last? A few years, certainly, but more than five? Ten? Unlikely, they say. Media consumption has changed so dramatically and profoundly, how will a store that sells physical copies of music and film ever survive into the distant future, when we are all going to have the latest movies and pop albums streamed directly into our brains via VR implant chips that are permanently connected to the omnipresent cloud?

Yet even before we submit to our chip implants, as media consumers right now, we have never had it so good. For around £10 a month, we can have almost the entire catalogue of the last 50 years of western popular music at our fingertips, ready to stream over our phones, through our cars, through our speaker systems at home. For a further £10, you can access thousands of movies and TV shows, which again you can watch anywhere, from the living room, to the bedroom, from the train to work to the plane that ferries you away on holiday. Cast your mind back to the turn of the century - £20 a month, back then, probably wouldn't have been enough to buy you a copy of the latest pop album and newly released Hollywood Blockbuster. For £20, you probably would have had to choose just one. Even today, £20 might just be enough to buy both, but certainly no more than that. It doesn't take a genius to do the maths.

No wonder HMV has almost died twice. Right?

Yet, it still comes clawing back from the brink, this relic of the 20th century high street, this shrine to antiquated formats and positively stone age media consumption. How? And more importantly, why?

After reading the above, it may come as a surprise to find that that HMV's saviour is a Canadian company called Sunrise Records, who brought all of HMV's failing Canadian branches several years ago, re-branded them and has now made them a huge success - all off the back of vinyl. 

Yep, you read that right. Vinyl, that hundred year old format that was a dinosaur in the nineties, let alone at the turn of century at the cusp of the the digital revolution. Vinyl, that huge, clunky hundred year old format that, despite it's age and size, somehow still sounds better than the same music streaming down from the cloud. Vinyl, that may just offer you one album at a time, but presents that album in a beautiful gatefold sleeve, perhaps, with lyrics printed on the inside, with pictures and artwork that sum up the tone and atmosphere of the music caught within those deep black grooves - and might even make you appreciate it a little bit more. Vinyl, that thing you can actually hold in hand, look at and admire and (dare I say it) even love.  It's physical, it's real and, most importantly, it's yours. And that, I think, is the reason why HMV has survived to fight another day, saved from the brink of destruction by a company that was saved in turn by people's love for a format that, by all logical thought, should have been consigned to the rubbish bin along with VHS tapes and minidiscs. Yet people want something to own, something to hold in their hands, something that helps to forge a physical connection between a piece of art and the person consuming it.

It's no different when it comes to films. Netflix and others offer hundreds of movies at an unbelievably cheap price. Yet the experience is ephemeral and forgettable. You can watch a film on Netflix and love it - but there is nothing to say that it will be on there tomorrow. In the world of digital streaming, a loved movie can disappear in a flash. And just say you are watching a film that you don't like? After ten minutes, you can just stop and switch to another. Why is that so easy to do? Because there is no connection to that film. You didn't pick it up in a shop, read the blurb on the back, decide to take a punt, take it home, unwrap it, slide it into your DVD player, sit back and see if your gamble paid off. Even if you don't like the first ten minutes, I bet you'll stay with it because you paid for it. On Netflix, that doesn't matter. The experience is transient. Films, huge labours of love and effort, become as disposable and forgettable as internet memes.  

Take Dennis Hopper's infamous film The Last Movie (1971). It's not on any of the streaming services at the time of writing this, but let'sassume that it is. You've heard a lot about it, that Hopper, after the huge success of Easy Rider, went to South America and blew millions of dollars on a film that turned out to be a bloated, impregnable mess that effectively killed his directorial career. You watch the first ten minutes and you think, 'nah, this is awful' and you flick over to something else. You would have then just missed out on seeing one of the boldest, most experimental and courageous Hollywood movies of the 70s. Or maybe you did watch it all the way through and loved it. You want to watch it again the next night, to experience it all again, but whoops! Netflix only signed a six month contract to stream the film and you unfortunately caught it on the last day. Not many people watched it either, so Netflix won't be signing for that again. So it's gone. Lost. No way for you to watch it at all, maybe forever.

But what if you had brought the Blu Ray edition of the film that came out in January? You certainly would have sat through it all, if only to justify the price you paid (£18. For one film?! Crazy!). But if you didn't like it at first, well, the Blu Ray does come with an 80 page book about the film's history and context. And a new making of documentary. And rare 8mm footage from the set. And interviews with the actors and crew. And a 90 minute BFI interview with Hopper himself. Even if you still don't like the movie after all that, you might appreciate and understand it more. And if you loved the film? Well, you're in heaven then (and don't forget, all this comes in a hardback box with revisable sleeves and a film poster). Suddenly £18 seems like quite a reasonable price for a package that glorifies and honours a film you love. The same way a vinyl will glorify and honour some of your favourite albums.

Perhaps it's not so surprising after all that the biggest demographic buying vinyl's are 18-24 year olds ( For a generation mainly raised on the ephemeral experience of digital consumption, it seems it is important to actually own something, to hold something in your hand, to feel a connection.

And that is why I am glad HMV has survived. You won't find The Last Movie in Tesco. You won't find vinyl editions John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan or Kid A by Radiohead in Sainsburys. You will find them in HMV. And for that, for offering that ability to forge a meaningful connection with a piece of popular art, to allow discovery through exploration (nothing compares to browsing music and films in a store) I hope that HMV lasts as long as people remember that sometimes easy, unlimited choice is as much a curse as it is a blessing.