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The voice of the brand

01 February 2013

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 appearance.

The ultimate 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.


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