Friday, 29 June 2007


I was sad to read today that FOPP, the high street music chain for geeky types, has called in the administrators.

Like King Arthur in his final battle, FOPP mounted an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful last stand against the relentless invasion of mp3s, peer-to-peer file sharing, iTunes, mp3 blogs and digital music in general.

While HMV and Virgin have tried to keep people coming to their physical stores by focusing on the customer experience, FOPP focused on its stock. Its decision to stock more obscure, more indie-ish albums, art-house DVDs and intellectual books carved it a niche as the high street music store for more cerebral, older customers.

Its policy of selling back catalogues of indie, hip-hop, dance and electronica artistes for a fiver each seemed like a stroke of genius - I can't be the only one who eagerly bought back all the albums I loved in my teens and early 20s but had subsequently lost.

As recently as May 15 this year, the Financial Times [subscription required] ran a profile of FOPP, lauding its strategy of marketing to discerning (and, apparently, male) thirtysomethings.

But you don't have to have read The Long Tail to know that FOPP was fighting a losing battle. Recorded music is just data, and data is incomparably easier and cheaper to distribute and buy over the internet. iTunes and its ilk don't need to pay for premises, shelf space or counter staff, and they can stock as many titles as they like. Even Amazon, which still sells physical CDs, can afford to stock many more titles in its warehouse than FOPP could ever afford to do in its stores.

They say no medium kills the one before it, but that's wishful thinking as far as music retailing is concerned. Today's Times also notes that HMV has reported a 73% decline in profits, and it can't be long before it and Virgin Megastore are both consigned to high street history.

For people like me who grew up thinking of record shops almost as pilgrimage destinations, it's a sad day indeed.

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Sean McManus said...

Have HMV and Virgin really focused on the customer experience? It looks to me like they've diversified away from music into the relatively bouyant markets of DVD and computer games.

Downloads still represent a tiny proportion of the music market, so I'm not sure I buy the argument that iTunes is killing record shops. I do think Amazon's hassle free ordering and price competition has more of an impact on back catalogue sales in shops. And I'm certain that ebay is savaging them - there's a global legitimate second hand market now that trades in pennies. Shops like HMV don't help themselves by pricing back catalogue albums at £16.

I don't believe piracy as a reason for the decline of the market because I don't believe the cheapskates ripping off artists were ever going to buy their albums instead.

I think the industry is in a decline because people have so many more exciting entertainment choices now. CDs are competing with computer games, DVDs, cheap books, even cheap flights. Someone with a limited budget could either buy a couple of CDs or fly to Ireland for the weekend. For an idea of relative value - computer games have gone up from costing the same as a 7" in the 80s to costing the same as 2-5 new albums, depending on game platform. Lots of people are choosing the games rather than the albums.

One thing the iPod has done is made it much easier for people to enjoy the music they already own. I think that probably slows people down buying new music too.

And, of course, they don't make them like they used to. I can't help thinking that people would buy much more of today's music if it was better. Bah! Humbug! etc

Fiona Blamey said...

I agree that legal downloads from iTunes are still a tiny proportion of music sales. But I believe that piracy and quasi-piracy is widespread and rife.

By 'quasi-piracy' I mean record companies clandestinely encouraging bloggers to make 'preview' or 'sample' tracks available on mp3 blogs, in the hope that the track will whet people's appetite for the album, and that the free download will turn into record sales. Sadly I don't think this happens, and with aggregators making it possible for people to find *every* track off a new album somewhere online for free, I can't see that this quasi-piracy will be allowed to continue much longer.

I also totally agree with you about pricing. I was happy to pay a fiver for albums in Fopp, albums that I wouldn't otherwise have bought. But you're right; £16 is way too steep. As you say, I can fly to the south of France for that.

I totally disagree that there's no good music any more; since the arrival of mp3 blogs and the Hype Machine and and the like, I've heard more new good music in the last couple of years than I did in the previous ten!