Nobody listens to music anymore.


By Richard Chinn and Chris Moody

Ask anyone who even slightly cares about a band or a specific genre of music and they will tell you that they do much more than listen…

Real fans feel music. Real fans buy records on the sleeve design alone. Real fans have the download, the single, the Japanese import and the 12inch of the same record because it just feels different on vinyl. Real fans can taste the snakebite and smell the sweat in the venue when they heard ‘that’ song for the first time.

Music lives in fans’ hearts and they take that spirit with them everywhere, not just when they walk into a venue or turn on the hifi.

HMV, UK’s largest music retailer, going into administration last week shows just how much the former top-dog has lost its way. Yes HMV’s old business model is sickly, but there’s something in its heritage that could be it’s cure. In the 50’s it was one of the very first experiential shopping experiences. With road closures for store openings and personal booths that played everyone from Little Richard to Big Joe Turner.

HMV was a sensory overload on the High Street…The 80’s love of plastic and disposability should have been the warning sound. The bloated record industry went a bit Phil Spector and shot itself in the foot with astronomical margins for CDs and their tacky jewel cases, forcing the stores to become grand warehouses for alphabetised blandness. And everyone knows that someone who organises their CDs in alphabetical order is a bore…

By the early noughties, fun, danger and exploration had left the building. Bays of iPods and speakers neatly displayed next to the racks of CD holders showed the customer how confused stores had become. Outside the store, HMV did little to celebrate our passion or get people more into music.

HMV became bland, like an warehouse in real life.

Suggestions that labels like Universal, Warner and Sony will join forces to “save” HMV don’t bode well for the brand’s long-term viability. Their involvement is likely to perpetuate old model thinking, putting formats before fans, and prevent the necessary transformation that needs to take place.

The key for HMV to find its feet again is to remember what it’s selling—and it’s not five inches of plastic. It’s selling icons, future memories, soundtracks to adolescence, friends and the experience of finding music. Their job is to excite people; make them dwell, explore, discover.

That said, here are four ways we think HMV could do their job better:

With each HMV store stocking the same anodyne guff anyone can buy cheaper online, customers are only likely to go into store if they know what they want. There’s a parallel to look to in the world of fast food or fast fashion: Byron burger sell patties all over London but no two restaurants are the same because no two sites are the same. Topshop has different stock in every store, spanning the range from big volume to boutique. And while some of HMV’s current stores might be the wrong size, there is still a place for various sizes and shapes of HMV stores up and down the country. What if HMV Hackney had exclusives that HMV Kings Road didn’t?

HMV has some iconic retail locations, but there is no reason to meet your mate in the once brilliant Oxford Street store. HMV could stop acting like a supermarket and became a destination again. A place people want to hang out in to experience the passionate, exciting and escapist world of music that shapes young identities and returns spirit to old ones. Think in-store gigs, in-house DJ’s not high rotation fodder, record label take-overs, second-hand sellers, boutique concessions. Give His Masters Voice some personality again.

Celebrate difference and discovery by hiring all sorts of people that live and breathe music (just like Majestic staff not only love but speak passionately about wine). Reward staff that write reviews, go to gigs, tattoo their favourite band to their arm. A conversation with someone in store should always leads visitors to walking away with more great discoveries. Amazon proudly claims to never have accidents, but we’ve all discovered brilliant bands by accident. HMV can be the place where we do that again.

Not as a competitor to the retail store, but something that compliments it and gives people more of what they want. Just as our music tastes are a mixed bag of obscure artists and guilty pleasures, so too are our listening habits that include Spotify, vinyl, iTunes and good-old radio. Digital isn’t just a channel. It’s a cost-efficient and scalable way to play a more useful role in customers’ lives. HMV can lead the way with curated email newsletters, surprising online radio stations, and shared playlists for all the music moments in our lives.

Today, we’re enabled to listen to more music than ever before. This is a great thing. HMV can be one of the few brands at the very top of the tree that help us get more into music and become fans. Real fans feel music and will follow it everywhere. And that’s a powerful place from which to build a brand.

Richard Chinn is a strategist and Chris Moody is Creative Director at Wolff Olins London.

Image via hmv_getcloser

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    Many of the suggestions here draw on the success of indie stores. Indie stores understand their local market, they have...
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