I bought this old Bonnie Raitt album for three quid in HMV last week. It was among a bunch of Warner Bros offers. I then went to the Bonnie Raitt section to see if there were any other titles. There weren't.
This is odd because Raitt has made 16 albums and most of them will still nominally be in the catalogue. HMV has always prided itself on catalogue. It was the place you came to get the things your local record shop couldn't afford to stock. It certainly did when I worked there and it still did a few years ago.
HMV must have slowly stopped re-ordering records like Bonnie Raitt's — and there are tens of thousands of artists like Raitt from all generations and styles — as they went out of stock. You can't blame them. If they're struggling to pay the rent and make payroll they're not going to buy in stock that they might not sell for another year, if at all. And if HMV, who represent 38% of the U.K. record retail market, stop ordering records like that then after a while record companies stop manufacturing records like that.
There, my friends, goes the Long Tail.
HMV, particularly in its big shops, was a key patron of the Long Tail. It would stock your cultish folk record. It would keep the entire catalogue of classical composers. It would order your music magazine. When Virgin went, HMV was the only place keeping the Long Tail going.
It's a mistake to think that when HMV is gone it will instantly be a better day for independent record retailers. The majority of music sold in this country comes from the big hits which are increasingly sold as downloads. That leaves the few remaining record shops to sell the rest. That's if the record companies, once 38% of their market is taken away, think it's worthwhile to produce it in the traditional way and to support the star-making machinery and the distribution experts, salesmen, PRs, pluggers, reviewers, and image-makers who have traditionally laboured in it. The big record companies may not think it's worth their while and the small ones won't be able to afford it.
Put it this way. This time next year people may have stopped saying, 'Have you heard the new album by...'
While Steve Varndell adds:
I have a Spotify account so I can listen to Bonnie Raitt's albums whenever I like, not to mention any number of artists I would otherwise never have been able to listen to. The model of shipping discs everywhere is just far too inefficient to compete. Also it's cold outside. By contrast, the internet is so efficient at delivering content that I can go on services like Soundcloud and listen to artists who don't even have a distribution deal. The Tail's never been longer from my perspective.
Whichever story turns out to be true, enjoy more when-shops-had-style historical photographs of the expired chain, all from the 1930s to the 1970s.