“Could You Look In The Back?” Remembering HMV

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut  April 3, 2017

On March 3 (my 34th birthday), I went into HMV Polo Park here in Winnipeg for the first time since the company announced its closure of 102 stores back in January. Everyone was saying things had been pretty picked over, but I was hungry for some 30-50% off deals, and I had some birthday money burning a hole in my pocket. The thing is, when I had been in the store in January, just a few days before the company announced it was going into receivership, the place already felt pretty picked over. In the last year it’s felt pretty picked over, heck, the last 10 years. I would often visit the lone Canadian mall music store with a list of a dozen releases I thought it might have and walk out with one or two. These weren’t super obscure things, these were semi-popular artists on major labels and rising stars who made major year end top ten lists. HMV didn’t even have the new Flaming Lips record (maybe Warners had stopped shipping stuff by January 13) but neither did the local indie shop (which now carries plenty of candy bars).

I remember the shift happening, as we all do. A wave of online music services like Napster, Kazaa and Limewire hit just a year after Matthew Good was telling us there were video stores where there used to be real live actors. Now our video store is the Shaw on Demand button and the Netflix homepage (and our bootlegs are still bootlegs).

The record labels miscalculated and started attaching DVDs onto CDs, in an attempt at making it a better value. But the cost of these double disc sets was even more, so labels like Universal, Sony, Warner and EMI tried the DualDisc format in 2004, which gave us a CD on one side and a DVD on the other. All I remember about this bonus DVD content is that it caused issues with the Film Classification Board in Manitoba, and that suddenly 12-year-old kids couldn’t buy a Sum 41 CD, because the DVD was filled with Will Sasso improvising inappropriate content.

All the while, HMV was trying the big box store approach, ordering up catalogue hits in bulk and slapping bargain stickers on them. (These stickers didn’t put themselves on, especially not on Christmas Eve, but we’ll get to that later.)

HMV got it backwards. Instead of turning into a big box store with two for $25 deals for the masses, it should have focused on the people who were actually buying music. HMV lost its way when it lost touch with the music fan and focused on the consumer at large. And here’s the thing about the consumer at large – they are not collectors. Sure, they’ll get the new (Big Country Artist) record, and the new (Band They Liked in the ’80s) record, but they will usually buy this at Wal-Mart because it is cheaper (and because they saw it in a flyer) or they will download the single on iTunes (or listen to it once on YouTube or Spotify). The music fans (though many have obviously digitized their collections and/or switched to streaming) are still buying physical music, and they’re buying that physical music on vinyl. Over the last few years HMV stocked a little vinyl, but I literally overheard people thinking they were calendars, mixed among the books, t-shirts, and vinyl action figures.

It didn’t help that the only banter you could get out of a clerk in the last five years was, “Would you like to purchase any of these CDs or DVDs for $5 today?” while they pointed at a stack of Home Alone, Pulp Fiction, Celine Dion’s These Are Special Times and Adele’s 21. “No thanks, I’m all stocked up on Celine,” is what I would usually respond, and the clerk wouldn’t even flinch.

Things were only slightly different when I worked at HMV in 2008.

Before I worked at HMV, I worked briefly at MusicWorld (2007), and before that, the Best Buy media department (2005).

The Best Buy media department doesn’t even carry CDs anymore. I’m not sure when it stopped, but I noticed probably two years ago when I went in looking to buy a cheap tripod. I worked 5am shifts at Best Buy, and sometimes “the computer” would schedule me until 11pm on a Friday night and 5am on a Saturday morning. When I brought up how this was illegal, I was told that it was a computer error and to just “roll with it” when it happened. Most of my Best Buy shifts consisted of peeling stickers off of CDs and DVDs, applying new stickers with the new campaign prices, “farming” DVDs and CDs, utilizing 0% of my product knowledge and listening to the same Mark Knopfler live concert video on a loop for eight hours the entire four months I worked there. (This was almost as bad as the time I worked at RadioShack and had to listen to the same James Bond movie, the one with Halle Berry, for eight hours a day for an entire year. I memorized every line without even trying, and would sometimes unconsciously mouth along to the movie to the delight of costumers everywhere.)

A few years later, upon graduating with a BA in Filmmaking from the University of Winnipeg, I found myself working as an Assistant Manager at MusicWorld in St. Vital Centre. This was the ideal record store. You could wear your own clothes (as opposed to Best Buy’s blue shirt and beige khakis) and play whatever music you wanted, and customers barely came in because HMV was just around the way and no one knew the store was there. I got the job because two years prior, I just started chatting up the managers about Pearl Jam, and when one left to become a cop, we were all good enough friends that I was simply offered the gig. (I was probably interviewed, but it was most likely casual.)

My second day working at MusicWorld, a woman came into the store and asked to see the back room. When we asked her why, she informed us that she was the manager of the Explore Store, which would be moving in sometime in the next month, and she wanted to measure the office for her desk.

Yup, I had one good day, and then I helped pack up the store.

Sometime towards the end, I walked into HMV on my lunch break and asked to speak to the manager. I explained who I was, MusicWorld’s situation, and asked for an interview. A few weeks later I was wearing a blue shirt with “HMV” emblazoned in pink on my chest. This is what I’d been waiting for since I was a kid (I didn’t dream very big, and I had already come to terms with the fact that I would not direct a Star Wars sequel film or tour as the bass player for Tegan and Sara).

Working at HMV mostly sucked ass.

The manager was a woman who had atrocious taste in music (she liked Puscifer), but had worked her way up from a part-time holiday employee over a decade prior. She was useless, and a few weeks into my full time gig there (I wasn’t a manager or assistant, despite being MusicWorld’s Ass. Man. for five whole minutes) she announced she was quitting to go and sell toilets. I was elated. Who would be the manager? Could it be me? No, that’s foolish. BUT COULD IT?

No, they brought in a guy from Toronto, and he at least had good taste in music (he liked Wilco). But the only thing I remember about him is that he smoked, wore a grandpa hat, and once asked me “Are you on Facebook?” before quickly announcing “I’m on Facebook” before I could answer. He was probably the age I am now and I’m feeling sad for so many reasons just thinking about it all.

While we’re at it, the people I worked with at HMV included –

– A middle-aged guy who had worked at every record store
– An art school snob who claimed he listened to Tom Waits and drank scotch by himself one New Year’s Eve (I threw a box of 2 for $10 CDs at him once)
– A girl who only went to shows with her dad
– A girl who hated me at first, but then became my friend and bandmate
– A guy who knew nothing about music but wore a suit to his interview so he got hired
– A guy with a Leonard Cohen tattoo on his forearm who lived on energy drinks and cigarettes, and started dating a girl in the mall who had recently become pregnant by someone else, and he vowed to raise the child as his own but it was just a casual thing for the girl and she got freaked out by him, and then he wouldn’t leave her alone at work because they both worked at the mall and he was kind of stalker-ish (this was our Assistant Manager)
– A girl who liked to unroll posters, draw red lips on everyone, and roll them back up and sell them
– An attractive guy with my name who played in a locally successful screamo band
– A girl I gave a nickname to that she possibly still goes by to this day
– The girl who worked in the back (this was also the token tattooed girl who was ALSO the token married girl, and of course she was married to a musician)
– A team of loss prevention officers who rarely caught anyone, even though theft was constant

For the most part, these people were all enthusiastic about good music, but whenever someone would ask us about a record or we would get excited about a recommendation, we would find that we didn’t have it, and that ordering it in would take weeks.

We were told that we couldn’t play any music that wasn’t on the 2 for $25 wall. You know, the big overplayed records like Back in Black and Back to Black and Metallica’s black album and Jay-Z’s black album and … there were probably records that had colours, too. I’m only remembering the dark stuff.

Our Ass. Man. used to come in for his shift, stand in the store for a moment, not take his jacket off, walk up to the five disc changer, remove the music we had playing, place in some 2 for $25 discs, go outside for a smoke, and never return.

I watched as the jazz and soundtrack sections shrank to non-existence, while somehow the punk section thrived. I’d deflect insults from teens who yelled at me for not having Fugazi EPs and old guys who yelled at me because their King Crimson bootleg special order was never, ever coming in. I dealt with moms at Christmas who wanted us to price match Wal-Mart for iPods. I yelled at a guy for walking up the counter, asking what was playing (The Fratellis), saying “It’s shit” and walking away (in my store, I would defend any band against the snobs, no matter how mediocre). I stayed late on Christmas Eve to place $5 stickers on DVDs for Boxing Day Blowouts, only to have to peel them off and replace them with their regular 2 for $25s a few days later.

One day, at the end of my shift, a part-timer discovered an empty iPod box. I stayed late to help do some inventory and figure out what happened. Because I brought this to management’s attention, I was accused of taking it, and I was fired. This happened when I came in for a 1-9pm shift, after I had just signed the lease on my first apartment that morning.

I spent the next year or so sitting in that apartment, watching a lot of stuff I’d bought with my discount, making a short film loosely based on Phil Spector, writing and taking photos as a freelancer for a few publications, and eating frozen chicken fingers. It was okay. I burned through all the money I made at HMV that year pretty quickly, as taking photos didn’t (and still doesn’t) pay the bills.

When I was fired it was 2008, just around the time the five disc CD changer left HMV and the six hours of Alan Cross on a loop came in. Yes, you’d work five days a week, hearing the same six hours of The Ongoing History of New Music: HMV Edition for your eight hour shift. Well, I didn’t, because I was fired for stealing something I didn’t take. (I figure I was actually fired for calling up our District Manager, a guy in a sweater named Eric, to ask how many smoke breaks a manager was supposed to take. He didn’t like that.)

I don’t really see the ol’ HMV gang anymore. They don’t invite me to their reunions or read this site, but one of them is still a friend (and occasional site contributor) and a few MusicWorld people are still in my life (and contribute here) so that’s alright. Like so many things in life, I wish I’d gotten in a little earlier. Not that I ever wanted to work at HMV when you could smoke in the back room, but I would have at least liked to listen to the music I was trying to recommend to people, while employees were still able to have opinions and ideas.

I will not mourn the loss of HMV, because I already did that years ago. It would be like mourning River Phoenix in 2013 when finally Dark Blood came out. Only, you know, sadder, because it’s a record store and I never met Phoenix. Maybe I never really met HMV. Sure, it was the place that I picked up every Radiohead CD and a lot of TV on DVD, but I will sooner think of browsing for records in used bins at Grant Park’s Entertainment Exchange before I get nostalgic for HMV. It was not innovative. It was not Canadian. It wasn’t even cool. It missed the mark on every trend and then it died hemorrhaging 100 grand a day.

And no, there’s not a copy of that thing we’re definitely sold out of in the back. Trust me. Please, just trust me.

Visit HMV.ca for more information (while it’s still there).