The HMV on Argyle Street in Glasgow has re-opened after a 6 week refit. As a lifelong passionate music lover I’ve been a regular visitor for as long as I can remember. Anytime I’m in the city centre, I’ll wander in and browse around, especially since it’s one of the few remaining high street stores where you can buy physical music. HMV itself has been through a few ownership changes in the last 15 years or so and the store has tried hard to keep up with fast moving changes in the sector. I think it’s fair to say the company made a few mistakes as it tried to work out who its customers were and how best to attract them.
This is the most dramatic change yet. My first thought on entering was that they’d gone full WH Smith and no longer gave a stuff. I felt like they’d given up. The shop felt slightly narrower than it had previously, as though the walls had moved in and there seemed to be no music whatsoever on display on the ground floor.
The DVD/Blu Ray section has also shrunk dramatically. HMV Glasgow has addressed this on Instagram saying physical visual media is incredibly hard to get these days and suppliers simply don’t send it to them. Much of what they got rid of was discontinued stock anyway. I realised that while I might have enjoyed browsing DVDs, I hardly ever bought any from HMV. So freeing up that floor space seems to have been a wise move. The ‘tech’ section which used to take up about a third of the floor space has been significantly reduced and moved to the other side of the store. HMV have finally realised there aren’t many people in Glasgow prepared to pay £250 for a record player and carry it around for the rest of the day.
As I looked around, I noticed a serious reduction in gloss or bright HMV branding. The ground floor is dominated by today’s pop culture. Plush dolls, superhero stuff, Pokemon and other trading card games, a big increase in the range of t-shirts, graphic novels and manga, food – there’s a ‘candy corner’ – and quite a bit of K-Pop. It looks messy, disorientating, chaotic. I then realised there was some music on the ground floor – the new Rolling Stones album, positioned near the door.
Then it hit me. This isn’t for me. It’s got the vibe of a comic book store. I couldn’t even see anywhere on the ground floor where you would actually pay for stuff. I looked at my fellow customers and realised they were all more than 20 years younger than me and dressed accordingly. The ground floor on HMV Argyle Street has become a place people who are into today’s pop culture come to hang out. Exactly as it should be. There’s also an emphasis on displaying and selling products that only exist in the physical space and that people will actually want to buy. I also noticed that many of the customers had come with friends. This is an issue many retailers are struggling with. How do you make shopping a social experience? Well, on this evidence, HMV seem to be making some progress with this which is very encouraging.
I ventured downstairs and realised the physical music (CDs and vinyl) and music books were all still there. I do feel there’s a slightly reduced range although HMV staff on Instagram have said that it has ‘barely’ reduced but that the floor and displays have been given a freshen up. Again, there’s a lack of gloss. It feels like an old style record shop rather than a big 2000s style chain.
Then it hit me again. This is what record shops used to be like. They certainly weren’t shiny and they didn’t have big displays for every major release. You had to dig through crates. Record stores were for people who loved music, like me. If you just bought music occasionally because you were into a pop group or bought music as a present for someone else, you would buy from John Menzies or Woolworths which stocked a reduced range but had that gloss to it. HMV came into that space and tried to become an entertainment giant, selling everything to everyone. But when I was a teenager, if you were in a record store it was because you loved dance or rave music, hip hop, metal – you identified with the culture. You wanted to be there rather than the John Menzies/Woolworths music buyer who would get in and out as quickly as they could.
And that’s what it’s come back to. It’s not that they’ve given up or made cuts, or that they’re trying to exclude any one particular age group. It’s that HMV Glasgow has now taken the time to figure out who it is that’s keeping them trading all this time. Who are the people likely to come in and actually buy something, rather than seeing a DVD box set which they’ll then get cheaper on Amazon. They know their audience.
I felt very much at home in the new look basement. There’s a raw, authenticity that’s been missing for a long time. It’s set up to encourage you to look and browse and talk to the staff. Buy something new and try it, rather than grab yet another compilation CD or the second Bros album. The most exciting change is there’s now a permanent live music stage set up, with a board on the wall showing who’s playing live in the coming weeks. This is proper up and coming, often local talent. I think HMV should be commended for this commitment to the local music scene. Many of the gigs are in the afternoon, so it’s unlikely this will threaten the independent music scene in the city which is driven more by evening and late night events.
And then the social media. HMV Glasgow Argyle has its own Instagram account and it’s dominated by posts from the staff actually in that store. They show a real pride and passion for their store and the local area. Comment or message them and you’ll get a reply that in no way feels like it’s come from a marketing department in Milton Keynes or wherever they were. This is real people that know the store and love music, pop culture and Glasgow. There’s an energy to it, driven by what’s actually happening and what they and their customers want to say, rather than the Universal Music promotional calendar which was very much how it felt before.
If they stick with it, I could see this working. But it’s going to take guts. If my mother walked through the ground floor doors to buy me a Christmas present, she’d take one look and walk straight back out and then tell me ‘HMV doesn’t sell music anymore’. They’ll get some criticism or the ‘it’s not as good as it used to be’ chat. But even my mum has been buying from the HMV website for years. The previous store revamps drove her away long ago. And there will be many others like her.
If you know what you want to buy, HMV still sell it but the chance of you walking into the physical store to get it, in this day and age, must be almost zero. You’ll buy online and the HMV website with its well known brand, ad campaigns and physical signage is in that fight. This revamp is aimed at people who actually want to be in a record store or a ‘pop culture’ style shop. And while the ground floor might make you wonder what’s going on with the youth of today (although that insight itself is very useful for someone does what I do for a living), the basement will certainly make you feel at home and reassure you that live music is alive and well. If you have fond memories of the likes of 23rd Precinct, Stereo One and other independent record shops I think you’ll feel more affinity with HMV now than you have in a long time.