Transformations of Consumerism

In the last few days, three major UK retail chains have gone bankrupt and are shutting up shop: Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster. Photography, music, and film rental. Pundits are saying that it’s inevitable as sales move to the web, and doesn’t mean the market will contract (except for film rental, which is no longer a viable business); there’s also a lot of comment on what Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian calls ‘a recession-backed, online-fuelled evisceration of the high street’. The health of the record market doesn’t interest me here, but what these closures say about the transformation of consumerism as capitalism seeks to adjust to its own crisis.

The case of HMV is particularly interesting, because HMV was emblematic of the record industry, like Kodak for photography. Its collapse has quickly prompted bouts both of ‘retail nostalgia’, and interestingly, its immediate repudiation. It’s true, writes Jeffries, that high street shopping ‘was a more leisurely and sociable experience’ but there ‘something pitiful about feeling nostalgic over the death of a favourite shop. It’s sad we’re so consumerist that our most poignant memories are bound up with retailing experiences.’ (This is something that Walter Benjamin knew a thing or two about.) The rejection of such sentiments is bound up with austerity blues, which is something everyone except the 1% now has to contend with.

But it’s instructive to take a moment to rehearse HMV’s history. Its antecedents go back over a century to the creation in 1898 of the Gramophone Company. Gramophone, originally a trade name, would become the ordinary British English word for a machine for playing records. The company sent its famous pioneer producer, Fred Gaisberg, round the whole of Europe to record opera singers and music hall artists of every variety. In 1900, when flat discs began to replace Edison’s cylinders and the record industry really took off, their catalogue already offered 5,000 titles, with separate lists of English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Viennese, Hungarian, Russian, Persian, Hindi, Sikh, Urdu, Arabic, and Hebrew records. By 1910, a year after Edison was obliged to shut down his cylinder phonograph plants in Europe, the Gramophone Company had factories making discs as far flung as Riga in Latvia, serving the Russian market, and Calcutta for the East, as well as plants in England, France, Spain and Austria. This was an entirely new kind of transnational business comparable only to that of cinema, with massive implications for the diversification and reformulation of musical culture in the twentieth century everywhere in the world.

The brand name, HMV, itself has a history thoroughly indicative of the construction of this new form of cultural consumerism. It begins with an artist who noticed the behaviour of his late brother’s dog Nipper, when he played a cylinder recording of his brother speaking, and then painted the picture that he called ‘His Master’s Voice’. He first offered it to the Edison Bell Company, who turned it down with the shortsighted comment ‘Dogs don’t listen to phonographs’ (but then this was long before Walt Disney). When he tried the Gramophone Company, however, they offered to buy it if he repainted it with one of their own machines in place of the cylinder. It first appeared in their advertising in 1900, eight years before the company became known as HMV, although their first London shop wasn’t opened until after the First World War, in 1921.

When Gaisberg started travelling beyond Europe, largely following the established imperial trade routes, he organised the local phonograph agents he encountered almost everywhere into an international network on which the company’s future monopoly power was based. In short, the embryo of a new kind of transnational corporation which like the film industry, created a global market long before anyone came up with the term globalisation. It was a market dominated from the start by a handful of major companies, who later went on to develop intricate cross‑interests in all manner of related (and sometimes unrelated) sectors; especially after the introduction of electrical recording and of sound in the cinema, as previously separate sectors of entertainments capital came together.

The record industry had prospered, riding the transition to electrical recording, until the Great Depression. In 1930 the combined net profits of the two major English manufacturers, HMV and Columbia, totalled £1.42m; the following year a mere £160,000. A merger followed, and the creation of EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries) in 1932. After the Second World War, EMI emerged as the world’s largest record company, turning London into the world’s centre for classical music recording—thus supporting its orchestras and bringing virtually all the leading singers and virtuosos to its Abbey Road studios—while also buying Capitol Records in the U.S.A. to ensure access to the new rock ‘n’ roll market. Then they signed the Beatles and hit the jackpot: sales in 1963 rocketed by 80%, and they soon began to diversify. This, of course, would sow the seeds of later problems, but I won’t expand on that here (there’s an account of it in my book Repeated Takes). As for the immediate causes of the demise of the stores that inherited the HMV brand name, there are plenty of accounts now appearing on the web.

Given this history, HMV’s collapse must rank with that of Kodak in the USA, which dates back to 1888, as a strong historical marker of a major shift in the shape of the market for the cultural production tout court. The dynamics of cultural consumption are changing. Inevitably there are losers. But who, amidst all the cacophony, will be the winners? Meanwhile, flowers have been laid beneath a statue of Nipper in Bristol, while Bloomberg reports that the trademark dog could now be HMV’s most valuable asset.

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