HMV Oxford Circus: 'It was just so... big'

In the week HMV closed 150 Oxford Street, former 'Circus'-ite Rob Bignell remembers the highs - and lows - of toiling at the coal-face of world's biggest music store.

by Rob Bignell
Last Updated: 17 Jan 2014

Twelve months after HMV entered administration, the company closed the doors to its 28-year-old flagship store, at 150 Oxford Street, London, this week. It was the largest record shop in the world, and now it’s going to become a giant Sports Direct. Sad.

As a kid, the first time I walked into HMV Oxford Circus, the shop had only been open a year or so. My Dad took me. My mind (and pocket money) was blown: it was just so... big. And it had so many records. Like, all the records. So much music. All the music. It was big, and bright, and a bit magical. Like Disneyworld, but for records.

Vinyl was the attraction – but the shop excited me as much as the product: the anticipation of browsing the wealth of stuff that huge shop had to offer. I even purposely left the price sticker on some of the records I bought, particularly if it said 'HMV import'. It was memorabilia of the shop visit. It was an event.

HMV has moved back to its old premises at 363 Oxford Street

Even as a more discerning grown-up vinyl digger, an expedition around Soho's ‘golden mile’ of independent record stores would never pass without a jaunt around the ‘Circus’. It still had that discovery factor.  Well – that, and you could get three 12-inches for £10.

In the mid-2000s, after a decade of working in (and running) numerous independent record shops as an adult, I somehow found myself on the hallowed shop-floor of Circus, wearing an HMV uniform, where I remained for several years.

I'm gonna be honest. It wasn't my dream job at that point. By then, the industry was already in a steep decline. Every independent store I'd worked in up to then no longer existed. Around the country, the big boys were faring no better: Our Price was a faded memory, Virgin had recently left the room (replaced by the short-lived Zavvi), and Fopp (pre-HMV assimilation) had hung itself with the doomed buy-out of Music Zone, simultaneously tripling and crippling its operation.

The Circus was easily one of the maddest places I've ever worked. Even without its 100-strong workforce, the sheer physical number of people in that shop at any one time was simply overwhelming, especially around Christmas.

I'm sure other megastores are the same in terms of workload and politics, but at HMV, there was also the added pop star factor: you haven’t experienced true blood-curdling sound frequencies until you've heard several hundred girls screaming at the merest sniff of a Jonas Brother.

But in sync with the building's insane air-con system (it was hotter than the sun in there a lot of the time), the heat backstage had been rising. The modern world's desire for convenience of cost and delivery continued to deal hefty blows to the romantic notion of record shops. The floor-space for vinyl moved from marginal to almost non-existent, and CDs swiftly followed suit, with games and merchandise taking more and more prominence. Nipper the dog wanted to play Grand Theft Auto now.

An ad and training campaign called 'Get Closer' ‘celebrated’ the passion of HMV’s staff – as they were simultaneously subjected to a new regime of being disciplined if they didn’t push reward cards to every customer. Stores also lost the ability to do their own individual stock buying – a definite error, in my humble opinion. Music tastes differ geographically more than you'd think.

Confidence in the product, the business model and the brand had diminished. The push towards a better online presence had clearly come too late for a company of that size, and the combined cost of taxes and overheads throughout the stores meant they'd always struggle to price-match online companies like Amazon and iTunes. The directors’ stress and frustration filtered all the way down to the shop floor.

I left in 2010, but from what I can gather, the mood didn't change any – it just continued to heighten. By the time it came to banning staff with tattoos and the like, it was pretty clear: the fellas at the tippy-top had completely lost touch with their staff, their customers, their product and their own business model.

The Jonas Brothers perform at HMV Oxford Circus in 2004

The biggest cost of all was, of course, 150 Oxford Street. Circus's sadly inevitable demise truly is the end of a dream: it's very unlikely there will be anything like it again. After hundreds of job losses, and the closure of numerous stores, CD sales nationwide continue to drop, and the knock-on effect of the evaporated super-chains is still trickling down through the industry (HMV once made up 38% of total physical music sales).

Maybe there just isn't the need for as many record stores as there was in the eighties and nineties. Maybe it's no-one's fault. The world changed, man.

The sadness, of course, is that it simply wasn't enough to keep those hundreds of people employed. The ones who personally bought as much of the stuff as they sold, because they loved it; the ones who brought the passion, dedication and enthusiasm to the shop floors; the ones who literally shed blood, sweat and tears for the job. The ones who were my mates.

So, yes. The internet - it's so... big. And it has so many records. Like, all the records. So much music. All the music. It's opened up a new modern world of discovery, at ease, cheap, touch of a button.

That said.

It's not romanticism to say that there are still people who do want to buy music in a physical form, from a physical outlet. A number of the larger independents have reported substantial profit rises year-on-year, and vinyl sales increased by a whopping 78% in 2013 (though admittedly still accounting for a tiny percentage of overall music sales these days).

Vinyl isn't making a comeback, kids: it never went away. Plenty never stopped selling it. It's still a product people want to buy, and record shops are still places people would like to buy it. Some people still want a bit of human interaction too. I know, right?

Independent shops are - slowly - starting to get a new lease of life. Rough Trade recently opened a large store in New York. The plague that wiped out independents over the past decade seems to have ceased. Store closures have levelled off. There are a bunch of survivors out there, and music retail is beginning to re-build itself, because it still can.

And luckily, there’s still a workforce out there, heaped with product knowledge and experience, capable of doing it independently. Record shop people still litter this fair isle.

As for the top dog, Hilco's acquisition and subsequent downsizing of the company could well keep HMV in the game for a bit yet. Over half the business remains in action, 100+ shops and thousands of people still gainfully employed, while HMV keeps a presence on Oxford Street, albeit at a new premises at no. 363.

The future for physical music retail and its repercussions on the entire music industry remains to be understood entirely, but the game is far from over yet.

Bottom line, every town should have a record shop. My town had the biggest in the world, man. It will be missed.

- Rob Bignell has worked in music retail for almost 20 years. He hosts regular radio shows on Resonance FM, NTS Radio & Itch FM. @BobaFatt

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