I spent half an hour in HMV in Manchester earlier. I’d got a gift card burning a hole in my pocket, so I went in to browse. I left empty-handed.
I can’t, off the top of my head, remember the last time I bought a CD in a shop. True, that’s partly because my tastes in music tend towards the obscure, and partly because it’s so easy to order online. But shopping online is a relatively new thing for me, and it goes against the grain. I do it, basically, because I don’t have any other choice.
I never went to record shops with my parents. That dates me, doesn’t it? “Record shops”? Classical music was always playing in our house when I was a child – I think our radio would have broken if you’d have tried to tune it to any station other than Radio 3 – and I learned about it from my Dad, who would talk to my brother and I about whatever he was listening to. He taught us about his favourite composers, about the different parts in a choir, about the different instruments in an orchestra, and my brother and I – neither of us musical prodigies in early childhood – could distinguish the various instruments in a symphony orchestra by the time we were five or six years old, simply because my Dad’s music (along with the news, the weather forecast and Gardener’s World) was the soundtrack we grew up with. Pop music only happened for me when I was given a radio of my own, and then a cassette player; the tapes I had were mostly purchased from Woolworths, because neither parent was prepared to enter the sort of record shop where loud rock music would be playing over the PA.
Then I went to grammar school. All of a sudden, at age 11, I was travelling back and forth through the centre of a very large city every day. With nobody looking over my shoulder, provided I arrived home at a given time with no visible scars or blemishes, I was free to enter such forbidden temples of sin as HMV and Our Price. I discovered all kinds of music in those places, and I still, now, listen to a lot of the stuff I listened to then. Not just mainstream pop music either – I bought records by Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode and the Pet Shop Boys, yes, but I also bought cast and concept recordings of musicals, starting with Chess and moving very quickly into (I wince slightly as I type this) the Lloyd Webber oeuvre, and from there to (less wincingly) Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. I discovered all of these things in mainstream record shops in a large provincial city – trips to London, in my early teenage years, were rare, and mostly did not involve shopping of any kind. Later on, when I was about 16, I was allowed to make day trips to go to the theatre in London from my grandmother’s house in Suffolk; on one of those trips, I discovered Dress Circle, and my interest in (for want of a better word) showtunes began to develop into the scary obsessive geek streak that those who know and tolerate me have just about put up with ever since.
I still shop at Dress Circle whenever I’m in London, and I order online with them from time to time, but the point is, all of this began at HMV. And yet, this afternoon, in HMV, there was nothing much I wanted, and not all of my musical tastes are that obscure. The thing is, as online music shopping has grown, ordinary bricks-and-mortar retail has contracted. The classical music department in the main HMV in Manchester is about a third the size it was eighteen months ago. The soundtracks section (blech, the records I buy are cast recordings, not soundtracks) has been decimated. Almost none of the music I discovered there as a teenager is available there any longer. Without the ability to shop online, I don’t know where the sort of geeky, obsessive teenager I was would discover that music – or any music, classical or pop, that sits outside the broad mainstream – today. And even then – it’s certainly not as if there’s no mainstream pop or classical music that I’d be interested in buying, but the things I was interested in this afternoon were a third cheaper as downloads or from Amazon.
It’s a vicious circle, of course, and a huge amount of newsprint has been devoted to it over the past several years. I’ve worked in retail, and I understand the economics – every square foot of retail floorspace has to generate a certain amount of sales revenue per week. Retail space is expensive, managements have a duty to shareholders, they have to stock whatever generates the most profit, and it’s not feasible to keep items as stock that will only turnover every eight to twelve weeks. I don’t have a huge amount of money to throw around on leisure purchases, but I’m more than happy, with the money I do have, to pay a little extra to support an independent specialist retailer. Unfortunately, where I live and for the kinds of music I like, there aren’t any. Within a 15-mile radius of my home, my choice is essentially restricted to various branches of HMV, plus the limited selections available at Asda, Tesco, Sainsburys and WH Smith. The same goes for books, more or less – the choice is between Waterstone’s (owned by HMV), or the limited selection of titles carried in supermarkets, or shopping online. There are a few independents left, but the only one convenient for where I live is a tiny village bookshop that carries only the most limited selection of stock. I buy something from them every few months because I want them to stay in business, but the bulk of my money goes elsewhere. Once upon a time, when I wanted/needed something that wasn’t kept as stock in my local bookshop or record shop, I’d ask them to get it for me. These days, it’s easier, quicker and probably cheaper to get it online; I’m sentimental about independent book and music shops, and am prepared to pay a premium to use them, but I’m not, I’m afraid, remotely sentimental about the HMV group. In chain stores, for mainstream items, I shop on price. It’s not as if HMV, these days, delivers anything resembling customer service. Waterstone’s are a little better, but not much.
There’s an upside to the proliferation of online stores, of course. Without leaving my desk, I can get things that were never available in this country anyway. I can go online and find music by, say, Maurane or Luce Dufault (I have a weakness for odd Francophone pop singers), pay with a card, and the CD drops through the letterbox a week or so later. Once upon a time, I only bought that stuff on holiday in France or Québec. When I worked in London, I’d visit Dress Circle most weeks, and usually buy something; they always did mail order, but it’s easier with a computer, and I can get anything they sell and have it sent to me anywhere in the world. When I started down the tortuous road that, please God, will some day lead to a PhD, online booksellers like Amazon were in their infancy, and their reach was limited in both Canada and the UK. I’d regularly find myself scouring Toronto, London, Manchester, New York for research material, in the form of both books and recordings. It took a lot of time. I’ve spent days and days chasing materials that I could, now, find and buy online in minutes, probably for less than I paid then. On one level, I could view that as having been a big waste of time and money, but here’s the thing: it was fun. Amazon is efficient and easy, but it isn’t fun.
Somehow, the ease with which I can buy books and music online doesn’t appease my inner over-excitable geek, the one who eagerly tears the cellophane wrapper off a new CD and reads the liner notes all the way home on the train. I love the tactile experience of rummaging through racks of CDs in a shop. I love independent, eccentric record and book shops run buy people who buy stock according to their personal taste, rather than via some sales database mandated by a marketing division in a head office miles away. I love picking up an unexpected find, taking a risk, and buying it. That risk, and the sense of discovery that goes with it, doesn’t happen on Amazon, where my shopping is driven by a search engine. I look for something, I find it, I either buy it or I don’t. There’s no sense of discovery, because I go there to look for specific items. And, of course, I’m part of the problem, even though I see this as a problem – as the chain stores orient their stock lines ever more aggressively towards the mainstream, I take my money elsewhere. Because I’m taking my money elsewhere, as is anybody else who’s looking for music that’s marketed outside a narrow core product range, the narrow core product range contracts even further. I love technology, and I love the fact that I carry around with me, in my backpack, a device that’s loaded with hundreds of albums covering more or less the entire spectrum of my musical taste, rather than a Walkman and half-a-dozen tapes – but I don’t know where a twelve-year-old living outside London or New York, today, would go to find all the music I discovered at that age twenty-five years ago. I don’t know whether the convenience of being able to find anything I might need so easily is worth the loss of that potential for discovery.