The rebirth of Fopp (and the death of music retail?)

The other day I took my first trip to Fopp since it re-opened. After Fopp’s flopp, HMV bought the name and six of the stores (a far cry from the 120-or-so stores there used to be). HMV probably bought it to stop Gordon Montgomery from making an easy comeback, but they have promised to run the remaining Fopp stores as Fopp themselves ran them.

Immediately people were wondering if HMV had bought the right stores. I guess they are in a much better position to know which stores are profitable and which are not. But they bought the Rose Street store in Edinburgh. It’s a good shop, but there are already two HMVs within a stone’s throw. The one on Cockburn Street was smaller but only has that dusty Avalanche for competition. And it was closer to the university, which, for purely self-interested reasons, made it automatically better for me.

Also, a lot of the point about Fopp was the fact that it wasn’t HMV. Nor was it some indie-wank shop. It was something in between, which I thought was just perfect.

During my trip there, I was pleased to see that almost nothing has changed in the Rose Street store. There are only very slight cosmetic differences that only the most anal people (like me) will notice. Price stickers are now HMV-style, as are the receipts. But apart from that, most things have pleasantly remained the same.

The prices are still in nice round numbers. There is none of that £X.99 nonsense. It feels good just to hand over a twenty and be done with the transaction with no fuss.

I did try to do my usual thing of looking for a cheap Can album, but although they had loads of Can albums, they were all £15! The same was true for Brian Eno. I guess it’s not inconceivable that this would have happened in the old Fopp, but it did ring a minor alarm bell. Hopefully it is just my imagination. Thankfully, in general, the prices are still pretty good. I bought four albums for £20 (including one Stereolab CD which was just £3! Bargain!), which is pretty good going.

There was something quite striking about my visit to Fopp though. I was browsing there in full knowledge that the shop was almost wiped off the face of the earth, so I was thinking about the business side of things as I was shopping. The thing I noticed above everything else was that almost every single other customer there was a middle-aged man. I was probably the youngest person in the shop. It’s true — kids just don’t buy music these days.

On my way down to Rose Street, I passed the folk specialist Coda store on Bank Street. I wondered to myself, “I wonder how long before that goes?” In fact, I have often wondered that to myself over the years (before today’s music retail woes), but that probably shows my narrow-mindedness about folk music. Today, I suppose most of its customers will be the more loyal middle-aged men. That was probably a curse just a few years ago. It’s surely a blessing now!

I am a big fan of the CD format, and I love to have a physical copy of any music that I have. Then it feels like I really own it, and is a signal that I really value the music rather than just downloading any old crappy MP3 and throwing it in the recycle bin if I don’t like it.

It’s a bit like a story I read about in a very exciting book called A Logic of Expressive Choice by Alexander A. Schuessler. It’s a bit dry, but it has some neat examples to demonstrate its points.

(I don’t have the book to hand, so my memory of this example is quite sketchy, but you will get the general idea.) One of them involved a man who, every year, would camp outside to buy tickets to something or other. He waited an extraordinarily long time to ensure that he was at the front of the queue so that he could get the best tickets.

One year the venue decided to just give him the best tickets anyway, as a kind of token of appreciation (or probably as a publicity stunt). The man was outraged and refused to accept the tickets. For him, his value came from the waiting, not from acquiring the tickets themselves. He took pride in waiting for ages. It was his way of saying to the world, “Look how much I love this thing! I will wait for ages to make sure I see it!” When the theatre offered him the tickets, he was robbed of his chance to express himself in this way.

I think I am the same with music. Sure, I could illegally download every song in existence for free. I could even download them legally and pay for them. But I wouldn’t have anything to show for it. I like to look at my music collection and think to myself, “blimey, I’ve got quite a lot of CDs now”. Even though this means that I am losing space in my room.

I think most people growing up these days won’t value music like this. They have access to far more music than they can possibly consume, and they just do it. They just download disposable albums without thinking about it and don’t give the music their full attention. (I can see myself as an old man with my pipe and slippers, fondly remembering the days of CDs, when youths respected music.)

But a lot of people are saying that CDs are doomed. Vinyl will still have its niche, but CDs won’t be around any longer. Imagine that! I could end up having the opposite dilemma to the previous generation — I will have to convert my entire CD collection into vinyl!

As much as I dislike this situation, it has to be said that there is not much going for music retailers these days. They are dropping like flies. And when they are not dropping like flies, they are hurriedly rearranging their deckchairs in preparation for the sinking.

HMV has launched its “next generation” stores. “Download hubs”, “gaming stations” and smoothie bars. Just don’t mention music.

Richard Branson has just sold his Virgin music stores. This is incredible because it is the first time in three decades that Richard Branson hasn’t had his fingers in the music retail pie. It was music retail where he started, so for Virgin to be pulling out of it altogether, you know that things are just not going well at all in the music retail world.


  1. If RB thinks it”s wise to sell the Virgin stores then it’s surprising that someone thinks it’s wise to buy them. HMV are far from a shining light of business brains. Just look at the mess they’re into with Waterstones, which they also own.

  2. To the poster above – HMV only bought 8 fopp stores and aimed at ageing hippies who like to walk into music shops and listen to music before they buy it – ever head of the internet? lol. HMV are the one and only reason that these last few stores are still trading. They’re a company that know what they’re doing, after all they never did anything as stupid as buying all of them – just the ones that made money!