Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The demise of Nipper?

The UK music, video and computer games retailer HMV announced today that it expects to close 60 stores over the next 12 months, as the business, which has already been hit by competition from supermarkets and online retailers struggled to attract custom during the UK's coldest December on record. Most retailers budget to have their best month of the year in December, so it is not difficult to appreciate the problems a slow December could cause for an already struggling business.

There are already rumours that HMV's long-term future could be in doubt. Competitors such as Zavvi, and Our Price have disappeared from the High Street already, while more general chains stores such as Boots and WHSmith have retreated from music somewhat, with Boots leaving the scene in the early 2000s after uncertainty about its strategic position in the industry. It will be unfortunate if HMV, as a long running brand-name, disappears in the UK market.

HMV stands for His Master's Voice. The name originates from a painting, above, by the English artist Francis Barraud, who offered his painting of a dog, called Nipper, apparently listening to his master's voice on a phonograph machine, to The Gramophone Company, a forerunner of EMI in 1899. The Gramophone Company asked that the painting be altered to show Nipper listening to a Gramophone instead. Barraud happily complied and the His Master's Voice name became one of the world's first record labels. EMI principally released classical music on the label, although some pop material was also issued. EMI also spread the use of the trademark to domestic electronics - marketing not only gramophones, but televisions, radios and even products such as irons under the HMV brand. The HMV brand was also used by EMI for their flagship record store in Oxford Street, London, which opened in 1926, while other dealers had to become 'HMV dealerships' to stock HMV records. This system was abandoned in 1965 as competition in the record distribution industry increased following the abolition of resale price maintenance, and EMI gradually invested in the creation of their own UK wide chain of HMV shops instead. EMI gradually reduced its shareholding in the chain, the chain becoming fully independent of EMI by the late 1990s. EMI also stopped using the HMV record label in the early 1970s, using the name EMI as their main label name instead. While RCA in the USA and JVC (the Japan Victor Company) continue to hold the American and Japanese rights respectively, Nipper's future in his country of orgin, the UK, looks somewhat uncertain if the HMV chain's performance does not improve soon. Or, with a more creative strategy, is there life in the old dog yet?

Research Note: See my article on the use of the British Library and Boots collections to research the business history of popular music in the November 2010 edition of Business Archives, pp. 45-58.

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About Me

London, United Kingdom
I'm Lecturer in Management at The York Management School, at The University of York, UK. I teach strategic management to undergraduate and masters students, as well as running the masters dissertation module. My research focuses on business and management history.