The music and film retailer HMV is calling in the administrators for the second time in six years, with 125 branches and 2,200 jobs at risk. Just like that, a slice of mainstream pop-cultural history, 97 years in the making, threatens to implode. Aside from the widespread retail slump, the general public isn’t buying DVDs or music in the way it used to. Where music specifically is concerned, people have lost the habit of owning it or paying for it properly (if at all). At some point, music morphed from being the once-deplored “commodity” (remember when we used to moan about that?) into something far worse – a virtual or actual freebie.
Of course, just as people still make money from music, others continue to buy it – and some aren’t even embittered, out-of-touch former music hacks such as myself (my daughter asked for a turntable at Christmas). Still, the idea persists that purchasing a physical record/CD is hipsterish and quaint. In such a climate, even buying full albums from iTunes borders on eccentrically folksy. Fretting about this, and how eerily narrow and zoned modern music is starting to look (in my view, almost as dominated by a smug clique of multimillionaire mega-artists as it was back when punk exploded), is to out yourself as a fogey who doesn’t fully understand how capably the new-style music industry model generates “income streams” for artists. (Be still my beating heart.)
Guilty as charged about the complex mysteries of these income streams. However, what comes across strongly is how, in common with other branches of the arts (and unlike punk), practically the only people who can afford to sustain themselves during the crucial early stages of a career are middle-class (at least), with staunch family support. And good luck to them. But to truly flourish, music, including mainstream material, needs other, more disparate voices. In this way, what was seen as a democratising consumer triumph (woo hoo, free music!) is exposed as a mirage – it was a simple brutal choice of pay the artists or lose the art all along.
This is where brands such as HMV come in – high-street retail representatives of an old-school music culture that was, in myriad ways, stupid, depressing, corrupt, bloated and ridiculous. But at least back then people realised that, when they wanted music, they first had to pay for it. Home taping or bootlegging were about as cheeky as it got. Now, that automatic consumer decency has gone – at some point, people convinced themselves that they didn’t have to pay as much (or at all) for certain modes of entertainment.
Whatever this attitude is (exciting and contemporary? Or cheapskate, depressing and tantamount to the industrial undermining of an art form? Discuss), it’s a genie that’s well and truly out of the music industry bottle, and HMV looks like becoming its latest victim. Certainly, it comes to something when the only things as bloated, ridiculous and corrupt as the music industry are the lazy, over-entitled consumers themselves.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist