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It’s the end of HMV as we know it (and I don’t feel fine)

Last week it was announced that HMV Canada, the only national specialty entertainment retailer in the country, had been sold to a British restructuring firm. According to a June 27 press release, Hilco UK plans to invest $25 million in the “continued evolution of its business.”

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Date Posted: July 13, 2011
Print Edition: July 8, 2011

By Nick Ubels (The Cascade) – Email

Last week it was announced that HMV Canada, the only national specialty entertainment retailer in the country, had been sold to a British restructuring firm. According to a June 27 press release, Hilco UK plans to invest $25 million in the “continued evolution of its business.”

While Hilco CEO Paul McGowan insists that the company will be rolling out a strategy that will increase the lifespan of what is referred to as the “residual” hard-copy music and film market, it is clear that the ultimate goal is the transition to digital streaming content and accessories sales.

Admittedly, the writing on the wall might as well have been lit up with a neon sign over the past few months. Video rental giant Blockbuster Canada was recently pushed into receivership by its U.S. counterpart, forcing the closure of 146 locations across Canada. HMV’s Abbotsford location was shut down along with five other underperforming locations in the past month. These were all strong indicators that the Canadian entertainment retailer might be experiencing some serious structural problems, but I’m still a little heartbroken over what the impending loss means for the average entertainment junky like myself.

For movie fans, the closure of Canada’s premiere video rental chain Blockbuster in conjunction with the transition away from the sale of hard-copy content at HMV will leave few options for home viewing. Streaming content providers like Netflix Canada offer a cheap alternative at 8 dollars per month, but the selection – of both new titles and classics – is still fairly limited. Star Wars? Annie Hall? The Godfather? All unavailable. Independent video stores, while offering a greater variety of titles, can be more expensive and stock fewer copies of the latest releases than a chain like Blockbuster.

For music fans, the problem isn’t so much the availability of content as it is the audio quality. Most digital providers sell MP3s with a bit rate of 128 to 192 kb/s while CDs contain uncompressed audio with a bit rate of 1411.2 kb/s. That’s seven times greater than that of an average MP3. In order to reduce the size of lossless CD quality files, MP3s trim off high and low frequencies and greatly diminish a recording’s dynamic range. While the MP3 format is both convenient and perfectly adequate for working out or listening on the fly, it simply does not cut it for critical listening and sounds painfully thin on any decent sound system.

It is remarkably odd that while the demand for higher quality video content continues to increase as seen in the embrace of High Definition formats such as BluRay, music seems to be headed in the opposite direction. While vinyl is making a comeback among some audiophiles, the general trend is toward low cost, compact digital formats that curb the quality of one’s listening experience.

There is a certain romance about the record store that is dangerously close to extinction. These days, the only successful independent music stores are located in major city centres, making it more and more difficult to partake in that time-honoured tradition of browsing a record shop, searching for some obscure gem and getting recommendations from staff members and other customers who are just as eager to talk about music as you are. It is an experience that, much like holding a CD or LP in your hands, cannot be duplicated digitally.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Yeah, it's a sad day, but...

    July 13, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Well, my only hope is that as low quality floods the market, high quality, when it is found, gets even better.

    As you mentioned, in the advance of the MP3 — and death of the CD chain store — records made their comeback. Yes, there isn’t a record store in every mall, but you can visit a place like Redcat or Zulu for your favourite albums on vinyl or new CDs, recommended by staff and surrounded by discussion. Caution though Zulu employees are known for being elitist douces! haha, well the principle is sound if there are a few bad eggs.

    And as for us small city dwellers? Well, yes there are not really a lot of the likes of the big city underground and locally-owned stores, but there are some like Krazy Bob’s Music Emporium in Langley or The Grooveyard in Penticton. Both shining examples of what a small town music experience could and should be.

    I would not be surprised to see these types of stores to start springing up in more places as there will always be a demand for hard copies of music and movies (and books for that matter, I don’t see the bookstore going anywhere, even as ebooks will no doubt follow the same trend as emusic and email have). In fact, note to entrepreneurs everywhere, here is a market that is really opening up, or reopening, the small music shop. Wow, too bad I’m not high right now because that’s, like, circular dude.

    So yeah, let the low quality market go forth, we all know about all the advantages it has for us, but let’s keep the high-quality stuff too. This is a rare chance to have our Cake (Fashion Nugget, hopefully) and download it too.

    Great article Nick.

  2. Nick Dunford

    July 13, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    There are some things about shopping for music I will not miss, like trying to get the kid at Best Buy to find my obscure 50s pop music somewhere in their impossibly convoluted organization system that lists all black musicians as “r&b”.

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