Doug Putman HMV

HMV hits 100: we speak with owner Doug Putman as Ed Sheeran plays HMV Coventry

Nothing in the music industry lasts forever, but HMV has come pretty close. The much-loved retailer celebrates its century this week, meaning it has essentially played a role in the career of every popular British recording artist ever. And, despite a rough few years that saw the UK’s last entertainment chain go into administration twice, before having to deal with the ravages of a pandemic, it’s still a big enough draw to have Ed Sheeran play its 100th birthday party next month.

And owner Doug Putman – who also owns Sunrise Records in Canada and FYE in the US and bought HMV in 2019 – remains relentlessly upbeat about the future, even after Covid-19 saw his stores closed for large chunks of the last 17 months. Indeed, HMV has just announced plans to open an additional 10 shops this year (the first, in Solihull, is already up and running) and to finally find a new London flagship location. HMV’s fabled Oxford Street shop closed its doors in 2019.

So Putman – wearing a Clash London Calling T-shirt and Zooming in from his native Canada – sat down with Audio Media International to discuss 100 years of music retail – and what happens next…

Why do you think HMV has survived where so many other retailers haven’t?
“It’s testament to the community that loves HMV. It’s had its challenges – two bankruptcies and whatnot – but it shows you that, even if there is a bankruptcy, there’s always someone crazy enough to say, ‘No, we can fix this, let’s do it’. The major suppliers and artists all recognise the value of it. And, for the people who work with us, it’s a lifestyle, a choice, a community. There are so many great things about the culture of HMV and what it stands for, that’s why it keeps coming back to life when a lot of other places went away for ever.”

How has HMV coped with the pandemic?
“Well, because HMV has been through all these rocky times – downloading and then streaming – our employees are better equipped to handle choppy waters, because we’ve never really had smooth sailing. Any time it feels good, something comes along and kicks you in the ass! So we’re able to say, ‘Yes, it’s a pandemic, yes, it’s horrible the stores are closed – we can sit and sulk about it, or we can try and do something about it’. The team has used that time really effectively to be better online, to come up with better ideas for when stores open and what the product mix looks like. You can spend your whole life talking about the negatives or you can look at the positives and say, ‘Let’s make this better’. And the team has really rallied around that.”

How has business held up during the crisis?
“It’s been OK. It’s not great. We’re getting by, but the reality is it’s tough. It’s been phenomenal for people like Amazon and really tough for people like us. We’ve got a loyal following and they’ve made the effort to support us online and to come back to stores now that we’re opening back up. But it’s going to take quite some time for that footfall and the confidence to come back. The online business has been really strong. As we open, we’ll see that business come back down, I don’t think it’s going to stay at these levels. And everyone will tell you it’s really hard to make money online, it’s a tough business. It’s been an experience. I’ll be happy when we’re through it, we’re not there yet but there’s hope on the horizon and it’ll be interesting to see what the landscape looks like then.”

Vinyl sales have been booming during the pandemic – how frustrating is the current lack of production capacity in that sector?
“We could certainly do more. But there’s this delicate balance; you don’t want the market to be flooded. So it’s how you balance it, so you don’t have too much or too little. Certainly, supply has been a challenge and it’s going to continue to be a challenge. Having so many stores means we can buy out print runs pretty quickly, so it’s important to really plan with our partners, and give them visibility of what we think we can sell over 6-18 months.”

Is it frustrating when a big album drops on streaming but doesn’t come out on vinyl for six months?
“Yeah. I would love to see vinyl launch first. It’s a very expensive format and I don’t think it really takes away from digital. But whether it’s a DVD or an album, when something launches first digitally, it makes it that much tougher for us to gain that market share. For now, we’re stuck with it. With the supply issues and the challenges, the idea of having vinyl even coming out at the same time [as streaming] is tricky.”

In the old days, independent stores used to worry about competing with HMV. With the vinyl boom, has that flipped around so it’s now hard for you to compete with the indies?
“You’ve got customers who really love going to their local indie, and those are people we’re not going to steal away. And HMV has got customers who are very loyal and very focused. It’s a really good ecosystem, it’s working really well. I love to see the indies thrive. We have some advantages and they have some advantages. Our advantage is obviously the size, but sometimes size can be a disadvantage. If you look at the history of the music business, all these big chains have failed and gone away – and there’s lots of indies that have thrived and survived. That’s why we encourage our store managers to treat their store like they own it, so they can have that relationship with customers. But it doesn’t bother me at all competing with the indies, they do an awesome job and I like having them there. Honestly, it wouldn’t be a great thing if there were no indies and only HMV. Conversely, I don’t think it’s a good thing for HMV to not be here and there only be indies. We rely on each other.”

You’ve said your product mix will focus on vinyl and pop culture products. Does that mean CDs are dead? 
“No! if you look at HMV, CDs still occupy a very large amount of space. We’ve just become better at merchandising and putting in more with less space, so we’ve been able to not deteriorate our CD or DVD catalogue and put in more T-shirts and pop culture products. CD is something we’re still behind. We still have a large customer base that’s buying into it and we keep supporting those things until the customer says otherwise. And, at this point, the customer is saying they still want to see that in our stores.”

Given how badly the High Street has been struggling under coronavirus, some people will be surprised to hear you’re opening more shops…
“Yeah. We’ve got 10 slated. I keep pushing the team that we’ve got to keep growing and looking at markets that maybe we’re not in right now. London always comes up, but there are lots of other markets that we should be in, so the team is going to move ahead on those 10 and hopefully in 2022 we can get some more open. It comes down to what the government does with rates, that will dictate where we go. I’m a pretty simple guy but when your rent can be zero and you still can’t make a store profitable because of the rates, that tells me there’s something wrong. Do we want a High Street that has 30-50% vacancies? We’ve seen through this pandemic what it’s like to have all non-essential closed: it’s pretty boring. I would love nothing more than to open more stores. I’d love to think they’d encourage that, but I just sell CDs, I know nothing!”

So what are the chances of HMV celebrating its 200th birthday in 2121?
“I feel really good about it. HMV is in better shape than it has been in a very long time, with no debt and our customers and staff are very passionate about it. So I would bet on it!”