HMV and Understanding the Internet

I’ve written previously about the effects of the internet on my music listening habits and the news that HMV has called in the administrators brought this to mind again. Like many people of my generation, I have whiled away many, many hours of my life in HMV. Together with Borders and Virgin Megastore, HMV shops were refuges for me and my friends: we would always meet in one of them on a Saturday afternoon or, later in life, prior to heading to the pub. I purchased my first gay magazine in an HMV and discovered countless bands through its sales. I even worked in HMV on Union Street in Glasgow for a few months and while it wasn’t a job I loved, I have fond memories of helping elderly ladies purchase dvds for their grandchildren’s Christmas presents (“He likes car chases – do you have any films with car chases?”) One thing that was clear from my time there was that many of the people who worked in HMV absolutely loved music, something that frequently was lost in the contrast with romanticised indie stores.

Also like many of my generation, however, my visits to HMV had dwindled in their frequency. I would still make the pilgrimage to HMV on Oxford Street whenever an artist I loved released a new album – last year I still got a thrill from seeing a large display dedicated to Madonna on the day of ‘MDNA’’s release. There was a communal air to such big releases that you couldn’t really find anywhere else and the very act of going to the shop, picking the album up from the shelf and waiting in line to pay for it became as much part of the experience as the first listen. Indeed, it was in HMV in East Kilbride where I purchased my very first CDs – a bunch of Madonna singles. Somehow, the sales assistant accidentally put Bjork’s ‘Debut’ in my bag while putting through the sale. I almost cried when I discovered it, fearing I’d be in trouble for stealing. I wasn’t and that happy accident led to my introduction to Bjork and other artists of her ilk.

The only record shops which existed in Hamilton, where I grew up, were Our Price and Woolworths. The former is where I investigated my tentative teenage interest in David Bowie, purchasing a bunch of his albums in a ‘2 for £10’ deal, while the latter is where I bought most of my singles. I can vividly remember the 40 minute walks home from Our Price after buying Michael Jackson’s ‘HIStory’ or Madonna’s ‘Bedtime Stories’, enjoying the excitement of anticipation. I still get that feeling sometimes (Bowie’s surprise single last Tuesday being a perfect example) but it now lasts for seconds.

The HMV news reminds me once again that I am part of the final generation to grow up without the internet, pretty much. I was in my late-teens before it became a ‘thing’ and it being costly and slow meant that it remained an occasional luxury – something my parents would let me use for an hour here and there. I didn’t get a mobile phone until I was almost 20 and it would be many years before I could do anything other than call and text on one. Downloading of albums first crossed my radar in 2000 when a manager at Spoils (a kitchen reject store I worked in) obtained Madonna’s ‘Music’ prior to its release and I was amazed that such a thing was possible. I had never even heard of Facebook until 2007 (I did use Myspace for a couple of years prior to that) let alone Twitter.

The internet has changed the world so much in only ten years and the decline of the record shop is but one small part of that. It’s strange to think that the musical memories being formed by younger generations will often involve iTunes, Amazon and illegal downloads rather than a visit to a shop to pick up a CD. Even stranger is that this trend is sweeping the whole of culture, from films and television to books and magazines – they are all increasingly available with astonishing ease online (and for free, if you know where to look.) It’s almost impossible for me to comprehend the mind-set which must develop when literally millions of songs, films, shows, books etc are available within seconds, just as it’s difficult for me to imagine how social media like Facebook and Twitter (and their drive towards personal sharing) impacts on developing minds. All I know is that I am very glad they did not exist when I was 13 (God knows I’m annoying enough on them at 32 – back then it would have been a car crash.)

There is a body of opinion and research which suggests that the internet is having a very real impact on morality and empathy. There are countless articles and books (and indeed my blog on listening to music) which rest on the idea that the web can lead to shorter attention spans and/or less engagement with art and knowledge. Certainly I have banged on a lot about how many people seem to use their web interactions solely to validate themselves rather than to actively explore, learn and challenge themselves – human nature, after all, but is it amplified/made so much easier now? It’s literally never been easier in the history of humanity to read widely, access and engage with other opinions and find out about almost any subject within minutes. This seems to be unambiguously a good thing but the crucial aspect is the relationship we have with this power and that we recognise the responsibility that comes with it.

Clearly the outpouring of nostalgia for HMV suggests that we perhaps haven’t taken that particular responsibility too seriously – we continue to feel sad at the closure of more resonant stores yet we continue to shop online. Perhaps it really is little more than misguided nostalgia and strong independent stores will thrive. I’m not sure anyone really knows and that’s the big thing with the internet – we continue to be unaware of the very real, very deep effect it’s had on us (good and bad) until it’s already happened.

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