On Christmas Eve 2011, I was laid off as a seasonal sales assistant at HMV. I’d been employed just a few weeks before for the Christmas rush at the chain’s flagship Oxford Circus store, and expected to work until January or beyond. But in December 2011 the company reported losses of £40 million, and ‘extra capacity’ was now considered superfluous. As a ‘special’ gesture, the manager told me, I could work until 31 December. Other casuals – many were migrant workers hoping for a permanent post – got no notice at all: a young Frenchwoman was told she could take an ‘extended holiday’ from the following day.
In January 2013 the company went into administration. The Oxford Circus store – at 60,000 square feet, the largest music shop in the world – closed a year later, but the company found its feet again before calling in administrators for a second time on 27 December 2018.
Its talk of the ‘ongoing wave of digital disruption sweeping across the entertainment industry’ is a familiar spiel. Up to 85,000 jobs disappeared from Britain’s high streets in the first nine months of 2018; the British Retail Consortium said there had been ‘a long-term decline in footfall as consumers shop online’. HMV’s current owner, Hilco Capital, said last week that it had ‘expended considerable efforts in ensuring the continuance of HMV as a business’.
There has been no shortage of op-eds lamenting its recent collapse, but there appears to be no more public appetite for saving HMV than there was for George Galloway’s much-ridiculed call to nationalise Woolworths in 2008.
Perhaps that’s because of the way the business has been run – or run down. Between 2012 and 2018, HMV made a pre-tax loss every year – meaning it was not eligible to pay any corporation tax – but only after paying £48 million in fees to other companies owned by Hilco Capital.
When I started at Oxford Circus, the manager leading our training session told the new recruits we should be ‘proud to be part of our family’. We were there because ‘you love the music, you love the games, and you love selling.’ We would have to take the next step, and learn to love ‘up-selling’: a performance of emotional labour in pursuit of increasing transaction value. Management were particularly keen to shift the ‘pure card’: a loyalty card which required customers to pay for the privilege of being loyal to a chain about to close many of its shops. I’m glad I didn’t manage to sell any.
For all the ‘love’ we were expected to show for the products on the shelves, there was little for us from above. Anti-theft searches were commonplace, and I was ticked off for sitting down even when my department was empty. One long-serving worker receiving cancer treatment said he was told to take holiday rather than sick leave after a biopsy because 'you're not really sick,' and threatened with medical retirement if he didn't grant HMV access to his clinical records.
It’s eight years since the government commissioned Mary Portas to report on the future of Britain’s high streets. She recommended beefing up controversial ‘Business Improvement Districts’ and easing business rates. More radically, she called for ‘disincentives to prevent landlords from leaving units vacant’, ‘more proactive use of Compulsory Purchase Order powers’ and ‘empty shop management orders’ for negligent landlords.
In 2017, Portas criticised the government for its failure to follow up on the report. ‘It was a weighted PR campaign which looked like “hey, we're doing something” and I hoped it might kick-start something – but it didn’t,’ she said.
But even if all her recommendations had been acted on, it would have done little to stop vulture funds from seeing high street companies like HMV as an opportunity to extract value from property assets. Hilco told the Times it paid its taxes ‘in full and in accordance with all local tax legislation and reliefs’. And that may be precisely the problem.