Friday, February 10, 2017

When The Music Stopped: HMV Canada Goes Under

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an impassioned post about the closing of a branch of Queen Video, one of Toronto’s few remaining DVD rental outlets, and how that limited rental choices further for film buffs. Since then, another multifaceted DVD store, 7-24 Movies & More, has bitten the dust. It had a weekly 3-for-$8 Monday-Thursday special rental price, which beat its competition but, alas, it had to move because rent at its location had gone up precipitously and its (supposedly) loyal clientele didn’t follow it to its new location. Now HMV Canada has gone into receivership and all 102 locations of the chain (which sells CDs, DVDs, vinyl and collectibles) will be extinct, officially as of April 30, but likely sooner. Coming on top of other recent closures of fine music outlets in Toronto – Sunrise’s two downtown locations in 2014 (it still has ten stores in the province of Ontario, but only one in North Toronto); Vortex Records, one of the city’s best used emporia, in 2015; Refried Beats, the other great used CD (and DVD) shop in Toronto, in 2016; and now HMV – it’s clear that for fans of CDs, and the vast repository of music available in that format, the future is going to be very different than it is now. And not in a good way.

Simply put, if you want to own good music from around the world, increasingly, as new and used music shops bite the dust, you’ll have to go online to get it. But you won’t necessarily be turned on to as much new music that way. You can listen to new releases on Spotify and other streaming services, but I maintain that you won’t stumble across a hidden gem that way, not like when you browse new or used CDs and find something that intrigues you. That’s how I stumbled across the fascinating Late Night Tales series of CDs, aural music compilations put out by the likes of The Flaming Lips, Fatboy Slim and Groove Armada, in the used bins at Sunrise. I continued buying them, most often new, at Soundscapes and HMV. Similarly, if I hadn’t spotted a used copy of The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel at a defunct Toronto store called Second Spin, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the hundreds more of these world music CDs put out by the Rough Guide label (part of the World Music Network, if you want to check them out). I purchased these mostly from HMV and sometimes when they showed up used, as at Refried Beats, which snagged the ones sold by the music critic who received those discs from England. And if not for Sunrise’s carrying the newly reissued Frank Zappa catalogue a few years ago, I wouldn’t have collected so many of his discs, at very reasonable prices. HMV, too, sold his most recent posthumously released CDs, at a worthwhile cost. If one lesson was learned from the over-pricing of CDs in the early days, it was to keep disc prices relatively inexpensive; HMV lowered many of its prices when its main competitor Sam the Record Man folded in 2007. I don't think, however, that overpricing of the product is what has led, first, to illegal downloading and then to the eventual steep decline in CD sales. Once consumers realized that they could get music for free, they would have gone for that process. At best, even if CDs were never overpriced – and that is why I buy so many of mine used; I can't afford to only buy new – we'd still have reached the stage we're at, only maybe a few years from now instead of the present.

That personal way of shopping for music has enlarged my CD music collection considerably and without it (though there is no way of knowing for sure) I don’t think I would have found out about The Rough Guide and Late Night Tales discs when I did or maybe not at all. Remember, too, used and new shops carry out-of-print CDs which streaming sites may not know about or wish to feature on their playlists. You have to range farther afield to find that music, often at exorbitant prices. And then there’s the case of a knowledgeable clerk, as happened recently in HMV, recommending something you would not otherwise consider buying. (I had found one world CD I wanted in HMV – part of their plentiful 2-for-$20 packages – and needed another. The Afro-Peruvian music disc recommended to me is indeed a valued purchase.) Again, there could be a pitch for that disc online, too, but that recommendation would not be as easy to find or as easy to gauge in terms of its value. A person speaking directly to you can convince in a way an online post cannot.

In my case, it’s also a matter of budgets and what I can afford to spend on music. I’m already spending proportionately more on new CDs than used ones – as was not the case even five years ago. That’s because music critics, who used to get physical copies to review, aren’t dumping their wares in those stores, which allowed me to find pretty much any new popular rock or pop CD there at much cheaper prices for many years, without even waiting long for them to show up. Now that venue is closed and music critics now stream the music they review. And with the demise of HMV, which offered new (relatively) mainstream stuff (Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Nick Cave) at inexpensive prices –$12.99 and tax – I won’t have a place to buy those types of discs except online. I will continue to buy the rarer but pricier music offered at Toronto’s finest CD shop Soundscapes (they also sell vinyl, music books and concert tickets), which HMV usually did not carry, but that financial balancing act – some new CDs at HMV; others at Soundscapes – has been upended. And with the best used shops mostly gone, my music options are further restricted.

I realize I’m shouting in the wind here as most of Critics at Large’s readers, especially many of the younger ones, rarely buy actual discs, if at all. Nor will I get much sympathy from those quarters. (My Facebook post on HMV’s demise didn’t get much support.) The truth is, many music consumers simply don’t see the point of buying a CD, preferring individual tracks instead. And in some cases, such as Chance the Rapper’s 2016 album Coloring Book, streaming was the only way to get it. These consumers also don’t have a tactile need to own a physical product of any sort. (They’re not really buying DVDs either; many of the young folk I know stream new movies – illegally – on their computers.)

What all this comes down to is the difference in the way many older music buffs (I’m in my late fifties) approach music (and movies). We are not into online listening and, given the choice, would still rather hold a CD in our hands than hear music any other way. (Admittedly, vinyl doesn’t follow that trend but it’s perceived as cool for some reason by the many of the same people who frown on CDs. I think that vinyl has hit its peak, though, and will not continue to increase in sales in the years to come. For one thing, it’s pricier than most CDs have ever been.) We also like the concept of albums as we grew up with them, which is why oldsters such as Tom Petty, Paul Simon and Nick Cave, among others, still put out their music in that format. I’m sure that won’t last into the next generation of musicians. And as someone who currently works in retail -- books, which are in a much healthier state than music is, for now! -- I can’t help but miss the bricks-and-mortar music stores, knowing how many knowledgeable folks have lost or are losing their jobs.

The other reality is that technology advances so fast these days that, whether we like it or not -- and obviously I don’t like it -- older forms of entertainment (DVDs, CDs, sometimes magazines) simply have to make way for newer ways of listening, viewing and reading. (Again, as an exception to the rule, online book readers have hit their plateau. Perhaps because of their very long history, books aren’t disappearing so fast.) I keep getting told that even people my own age have gotten with the program and of course many have, but I know there are also many other music lovers just like me. HMV, while it could have been busier, did draw some folks who regularly perused the store’s music stacks. The problem is that there is no longer a perceived room for both groups to co-exist as there was in the day when cassettes, 8-tracks, 45s and albums all co-existed. That perception applies even to some of the artists who should be reaching out to everyone. (Why couldn’t Chance the Rapper also put out a physical product so as to reach some old-school buyers, too?) When, as I recently read, illegal streaming (like Napster of old) surpasses the legal variant, you know that even current existing music models are going to have to make way for further changes.

I don’t know what will happen when all CD and DVD stores, new and used, are gone – and that day, in Toronto at least, is not far off, I fear – but I don’t believe that it will be a change for the better. Particularly in the case of DVDs, many of which are out of print but not yet available for streaming, the available selection will be severely limited. (Even in physical form, some key foreign movies, such as Satyajit Ray's Days and Nights in the Forest, Olivier Assayas' Cold Water and Jacques Rivette's CĂ©line and Julie Go Boating, are not available in North America. So will a greater range of movies thus be available online? I don't see why that would be the case.) On the other hand, perhaps I should celebrate the fact that HMV, whose staff included veteran clerks who really knew their stuff, lasted as long as it did in Canada. (Its parent UK company is still in existence.) After all, the exemplary Tower Records, subject of the moving and illuminating 2015 Colin Hanks documentary All Things Must Pass, closed up shop (everywhere but in Japan) in 2006 and HMV Canada outlived Canada’s best record chain Sam the Record Man by nearly a decade.

I’m still angry about the closing of HMV and the other stores, even as I am slowly becoming resigned to this pattern. It’s not like I didn’t see this occurring, I just hoped HMV and the good used shops, which closed less because of low sales and more because of Toronto’s changing landscape of condos, would be around a bit longer. But I can’t help thinking that if we do everything online, as increasingly seems to be the case, the lack of human contact and shared personal experience -- and not just regarding the proffering of music -- can’t help but affect us adversely. But that’s just me, I guess. Or is it?

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has just begun teaching a course on how different filmmakers have portrayed, love, sex, addictions, crime and other subjects in the cinema. He lectured on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies in London, Ontario, last September and October.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking to the converted here...I totally agree with you. I have weird kazoo music, REALLY early Tom Waits,etc. etc. that I bought and/or also listened to in music /record/DVD stores. I hate the technology and am also older, a fact that I constantly feel almost apologetic for. I refuse to become part of some status quo that is systematically taking away my choices. AND I mourn the loss of cursive writing and the apostrophe and feel that we are breeding generations of people who can't read, write,spell or have a conversation without using their thumb machines. RIP HMV.