Why HMV will die and how they could have survived

hmv oxford

Not much music in the window. They filled it with a display for Oasis' Don't Look Back in Anger single in 1995. Those days are gone.

HMV is the last recorded music retail outlet left in the UK high street. Over the past few years we’ve seen the demise of Our Price, Woolworths and Virgin Megastore/Zavii. Now, for the very same reason HMV are closing around 60 stores.

People usually blame the demise of our record shops on technology and the rise of iTunes and Amazon. But I believe there’s a deeper reason why the high street shops have failed.

The fact that it’s more convenient to buy music online is a misnomer. We’ve all fallen into the trap thinking that ‘convenience’, speed and price are the only factors involved in a purchase. That is of course true with a commodity. With a purchase that is not a simple commodity, price has little baring because its the buying experience and the added value that is important. This is how the music industry has played the biggest part in it’s own death, by stupidly turning music into a base commodity.

The rot started in the mid 1980s when the music industry began the great compact disc swindle. They persuaded us to buy all the music we already had on vinyl, citing the better quality (which wasn’t quite true) and the better durability (which wasn’t quite true) and the fact that the new medium was smaller and therefore more, ‘convenient’. Because it was smaller we lost the experience of the album cover art. Because CD singles and albums were the same size we lost the specialness of both mediums. Because it was so handy and cheap it was quickly devalued and able to be given away free with magazines. The digital nature of the encoded audio and availability of CD burners meant it became easy to duplicate. By removing all the awkwardness and weaknesses of the vinyl record, they had transformed recorded music into a cheap, valueless commodity.

12” long playing records or a three minute 45 rpm single are completely different objects to the equivalent CD. They are bigger, heavier, have bigger almost poster-like artwork. They are fragile. To play a vinyl record you have to remove it carefully from the sleeve, place it on the spindle, lift the needle into place. After 3 or 20 minutes or so you have to lift the needle again and turn the disc over. With vinyl you are engaged and that’s the key: listening to music is an experience, not a commodity.

In the mid 1980s, Our Price Records changed their name to Our Price Music because they were now stocking tapes and CDs. They somehow felt they weren’t ‘records’. A small point but a relevant one in the separation of ‘music’ from the medium it came on and at the same time from the experience. It’s interesting that new bands, even today, stubbornly refer to their product as ‘records’ not CDs. A compact disc or vinyl disc is the medium for the ‘record’, which is the important thing.

At this point in an argument like this people usually cite the old chestnut of the ‘march of progress’ and the ‘advancement of technology’ and that we shouldn’t live in the past but embrace the future. This is rubbish. If technology was more important than experience we would not have restaurants or cooking, we’d just take a variety of nutrition pills. We would not have clothes fashion, we’d all wear silver fabric jumpsuits. The experience is important and that’s what we cling onto. That’s what we pay for. That’s why cinema attendance has never been so high even though it’s more convenient to watch DVDs at home on your 40” TV. That’s why music concert and festival attendance has never been so high when we can all put our iPod headphones on an listen to whatever we want whenever and wherever we want.

The irony is that the secret to the safe survival of the music industry was right there all the time, inside the music industry with the songwriters and musicians that make new music. The technology involved in recorded sound has advanced unimaginably since the early 1960s and yet all new rock bands that start making music aim to make that music using methods and technology that goes back 50 years. That’s why rock bands play guitars that may be newly manufactured, but their design and set up is a facsimile of the instruments that the Beatles, the Stones, or Led Zeppelin all played. In the 1990s VOX amplifiers brought back their old fashioned looking range of amps because all the bands wanted their stage to look like what all the classic bands stages looked like. Amplifier manufacturers ditched the advanced electronics and transistors to return to the values and tubes of the 60s because the musicians wanted that authentic value sound. And of course every rock band wants their records to be released on vinyl.

Of course not all new music follows this pattern and amazing sounds and new forms of music have been created with new technology too. The point here is that the music industry failed to realise that all music is not the same. The dance halls are filed with electronica, young girls fill their iPods with the latest pre-fab teenybopper and festival goers want their bands to be live and authentic. These are just three types of music which are created and consumed in completely different ways by different types of people for different types of people. And yet HMV and the like tried to sell it all in the same way, and when that started to fail they filled their shops with DVDs, computer games and iMacs, betraying the music audience they used to serve and appealed to no-one.

It’s probably too late for a single company like HMV to recover, but it’s not too late for the music industry. They need to re-discover that music is an experience. Some of those experiences can be packaged and sold at a profit and some cannot. They need to stop treating all music as the same thing. The genres are consumed in such different ways and yet the only way they’re differentiated in a music shop is by having their CDs in a different rack.

High street shops have something that iTunes doesn’t have: a physical shop that you can walk into. Music shops (and bookshops) seem to moan or panic as if such an advantage is a noose around their neck. If retail was dead, how come Apple Inc. opened their hundred or so shops worldwide and get a footfall of almost two million people per day for products that is easier to buy online. The answer is that they have created an experience that you can’t get online.

If the music shops realised that certain genres of music have an audience that would relish having a shop experience they could have transformed their retail units to accommodate them. By getting rid of all products that people would rather buy somewhere else they could have re-stocked vinyl records (a niche but growing market). They could have hosted classic album listening sessions. They could have hosted live bands. They could have built a model around the long-tail (selling many different obscure materials rather than stocking just few obvious titles). They should have realised that the markets these ideas would appeal to have the money and inclination to want it. It would mean abandoning the X Factors, Pop Idols and the charts (you can’t compete with the commodity of the download) and embracing an older audience. It would mean only the music genres that have the strongest experiential and lifestyle elements: possibly including new emerging urban sounds, some types of dance, classic rock, blues, jazz and folk (basically all the music forms created from the ground up by people, not manufactured to a formula by music industry management).

They say you can make excuses or you can make money, you can’t do both. The problems any business faces today can’t be blamed on technology or changing markets, or government policy or the world banks. They can only be blamed on an inability to creatively change the business model to follow the money. The reason businesses can’t cope with change is that their stuck in one way of thinking with an inability to be more creative when solving business problems. That’s way those record shops have gone. It’s not because people don’t want music or don’t want a shop, but because the shops failed to supply the experience the audience wanted through stubbornness, greed, ignorance and by keeping on doing what they’ve always done and expecting different results.

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Blow your own trumpet

Ayd Instone trumpet

My new trumpet

I followed someone recently on Twitter whose description included ‘award winning…”. Subconsciously I was impressed. I didn’t know the nature of the award, it could have been anything. I could have been irrelevant. They could have made it up. And yet in that split second my opinion of this unknown quantity was different had that phrase not been there. I even thought, just for a nano second, ‘I wish I was award winning’ before realising a moment later that I am.

But I never told anyone.


Ayd Instone Sunmakers Awards Business Wealth Club PSA creative marketing

My Awards

I work on marketing and branding for all sorts of companies and individuals including some global campaigns, to spread their message and expertise far and wide and yet when it comes to my own marketing I leave out some of the most important features. With so many of my clients I discover some secret fact, some achievement or accolade that they themselves have forgotten about, don’t value anymore or are too modest to shout about.

Here’s the secret to successful marketing; you have to blow your own trumpet. No-one else is going to blow it for you.

So pictured below are some of my recent awards. Two of them are actually for marketing, from The Business Wealth Club.

Ayd Instone Business Wealth Club Sunmakers Marketeer of the Year Award 2010 creative marketing

WOW Marketeer of the Year 2010

The picture at the top is my own trumpet. Every year I learn a new musical instrument and for my birthday I received this wonderful instrument. Nothing’s going to happen if I leave it in its box, it won’t make a sound. No-one will notice it there. It needs to be taken out and it needs to be blown.

And you need to do the same…

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Using creativity to get more from less

Using creativity to get more from less. That was the title of the Masterclass I ran for MPI UK and Ireland’s Conference entitled ‘Delivering Creative Events within Budget’.  It’s interesting that the title of the session was also, in a way, a definition of creativity.

It’s great that so many businesses are suddenly interested in using their creativity more. They’ve realised that if money is tight – it’s time to think. What we discovered on the day was that the success of a meeting is not always proportional to the amount of money spent on it. We looked at what would happen if we did things differently – took all our methods and processes for organising a meeting and then put them back together again in a totally different way.

I always like to open with a song. Sometimes I write a bespoke song but this time I already had written one that encapsulated what we were going to discuss (a more interesting way of saying what we’re going to cover than a bullet-point list). There’s one line in the song that says, “Just one good idea, could see your way clear”. Ideas cost nothing. Your next idea could be the big one, could be the one that changes everything.

Are you capable of generating a genius idea that could revolutionise your business? Can anyone or everyone be creative? The answer, of course is ‘yes’. Being creative, being able to solve problems, to innovate and make things better is part of being human. We can all do it. But some don’t. Why is that do you think? Why is it that some people are just dull? Why is it that most of us aren’t quite as creative and inventive as we think we should be? What’s going on?

The answer is that people have blockages around their potential, like a restrictive barrier that they (or sometimes well meaning parents, teachers or others) have placed there. The zone within the barrier becomes your comfort zone and you cease to be able to move outside of it. The barrier could be lack of confidence in your own abilities or fear of looking foolish. Sometimes these are masked by self congratulatory statements like “I’m sensible and reliable. I don’t want to be one of those ‘creative’ people”.

So the first thing we need to do to generate more ideas is to get rid of such nonsense by finding out what the real barriers to innovation are. We do this by asking questions like “Why can’t we do that? Why not?” and “What if?”. If the answer is “because that’s the way we’ve always done it”, then you know you’ve found an artificial barrier to progress. Smash through it.

The second thing we need to do is to be aware that the people we work with will have similar barriers to their idea generation ability. Make sure you help them by creating an environment where people feel they’re able to contribute without judgement (judgemental thinking is the real creativity killer).

The third thing to realise is that we should never attempt to generate ‘great ideas’. By qualifying them as ‘great’ before we even start means you’re already judging and filtering. Don’t. Those things activate the wrong part of the brain and will close down further ideas. That’s why it’s a better idea to actually try to think of ‘bad’ ideas. This works because it’s fun, which helps in itself. It works because some of the bad ideas are actually great ideas that you would never have thought of otherwise, or, sometimes if you invert the bad idea you find something amazing that works. All ideas are valuable and welcome, even ‘poor’ ones because they all spur on further ideas. That’s why you must never cut them short.

This is the process we then applied to the meetings industry. We divided the room into teams who would each generate 21 ideas for one of the four areas of the industry we deemed were ripe for innovation:

1. Before the meeting: how can we get people more excited?

2. The logistics of the meeting: how can we provide a richer experience?
3. Core activities: how can we add more value and gain better results for the client
4. Legacy:how can we make the messages stick, the meeting memorable, and have lasting impact?Each team generated (in a very short space of time I must add) at least 21 ideas on how those things could be achieved. That’s at least 126 ideas.If you go through this process, the next stage is to then take those raw ideas and invert them, modify them, combine them. Think what they make you think about and generate more by improving them. Then choose which ones you are going to act on, and do it. Creative thinking is only the halfway point. Creative ‘doing’ is what we need.

If we expand our thinking by getting rid of perceived imagined barriers, build confidence with those we work with, create a positive atmosphere of optimistic excitement we will find that we can all generate the kind of ideas that can improve every aspect of what we do.

By being more creative we really can achieve more with less.

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