AS I write, the on/off/on
existence of HMV is in the balance, and there is a rumour of hope.
But Jessops and Blockbuster are no more; and 140 other retailers
are reckoned to be in a critical condition. We need businesses to
exist to earn a living; they are secure forms to cling to in a
frightening world. When they collapse, the ultimate non-existence
of form is painfully felt.
HMV has been walking the
plank for some time now. Because its core business was DVD and CD
sales, the growth of digital downloads, the recession, and
competition from supermarkets has been eroding profit for years.
But the final push into the water, as Simon Bowers records in
The Guardian, was the growth in popularity of mail-order
websites. "For almost a decade, these companies exploited a
loophole in EU tax rules to ship DVDs and CDs at VAT-free prices
from the Channel Islands, thereby undercutting HMV."
As HMV sank, however, the
loudest voices were not those weeping for the demise of the old
high street we once knew, but those demanding that their vouchers
be honoured - vouchers that the company was selling a day before it
went into liquidation. Customers took to radio phone-ins to
protest. "What's the difference between this and being mugged in
the street?" one man asked. Another caller called it theft, and
demanded that HMV "be called to account". "Hear, hear", we all
muttered in the face of this injustice. But then the moment of
truth: "I understand your rage," a consumer expert said, "but the
fact is HMV no longer exists. There's no such entity. There are
some bank accounts, some stock, some retail premises, but there's
nothing called HMV, and there's no one answering the phone on their
behalf. They don't have a behalf: they don't exist."
In an about-turn by the
auditors, we now hear that the vouchers will be honoured. But the
lesson stands: it is hard to protest against, or call to account,
something that does not exist.
Not that HMV ever did
exist, not really. It has a long history. Branded around the 1899
picture by Francis Barraud of the dog Nipper listening to a
cylinder phonograph, its first shop appeared in Oxford Street in
1921, growing to 700 stores with operations in the UK, Hong Kong,
and Singapore. Yet it was never anything more than a group of
people turning up to work, ordering and selling stock, and calling
themselves HMV. It looked so permanent in the '90s, consuming its
rival, Our Price; but, like a cloud, its solidity was only
non-existence of form is not all bad. Sometimes, our fear or
anxiety pretends solidity and permanence in a similar way to
business so that we won't be fooled by them, either. In the mean
time, every label and every brand, however mighty, is a sandcastle
waiting for the tide.