Friday 22 September 2017

There's life in the old dog yet with HMV digital boss focused on record collectors

It's back to basics – selling discs – for the rebooted entertainment chain, writes Technology Editor Adrian Weckler

NEW TRICKS: James Coughlan of HMV Digital with a model of HMV logo Nipper the dog
NEW TRICKS: James Coughlan of HMV Digital with a model of HMV logo Nipper the dog
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

WHO wants to buy CDs and DVDs? Lots of people, apparently. They've just forgotten how much they really like the plastic discs.

This is one of the contentions made by HMV Digital's new managing director, James Coughlan.

"People still want to own and collect physical music and film discs," says the former Brit School scholar (it's a performing arts school) and record label executive. "There is absolutely still an audience for that. 100 per cent."

Many might be sceptical of this. But Mr Coughlan is having none of it.

"How many CDs do you own?" he asks me.

About 700, I say. But none of them have been purchased in the last five years and are now all tucked away in the attic in boxes, because of their availability on digital streaming services.

"Okay, but what if I told you that you had to crush that CD collection?" he says. "How would you feel then?"

I wouldn't feel great, I say. They remind me of different periods of my life.

"Exactly," he says.

This, then, is part of HMV's rationale for the survival of physical music and movie discs: sentimentality and emotional attachment.

It's a big bet that has powered the re-opening of four music and movie stores around Ireland.

HMV was rescued from insolvency by Hilco Capital, a firm that also recently took over Xtra-vision. The company has been trying to find a sales pitch that will resonate with music customers who have become familiar with instant access to any track they want via legal, paid-for streaming services.

As an old-fashioned retailer, Mr Coughlan admits that some of this comes down to a boutique, in-store guidance ethos. But the company has also launched HMV.ie – a new digital download service that the company is building to create a dual-technology offering.

Even here, though, there is no 'streaming' (playing a song directly from a website) service. Why not?

"I'm a big supporter of streaming because it's a great discovery tool that then leads to ownership," says Mr Coughlan. "But in terms of being a lead product focus, sorry no. Streaming has advantages but we believe that people want ownership. They also want curation."

This is a bold statement that flies in the face of every existing trend and metric. While iTunes (a download service) is declining, Spotify (a streaming service) is rising.

For many people, music is now simply about access over ownership. If you can listen to any song from your smartphone or PC at any time, why bother downloading? What does 'ownership' even mean?

"On the physical side, it means the ability to be able to look through the booklet, know the producers, know the writers and recognise the label," says Mr Coughlan. "It means holding a physical product in your hand as well having a digital experience in the other hand. There isn't anyone else who can do that. I should add that we're not completely ruling out streaming, but it wouldn't be just another Spotify or Deezer service with an HMV badge slapped on it."

But isn't this pursuit of physical sales and downloads exactly the thing that got traditional music retailers, even ones as big as HMV, into trouble in the first place? Trying to fence ailing technologies that remain the favoured choice of record labels?

"If you look at the demographics, the 40-plus generation is one that is familiar with the experience of owning music. Those between 25 and 40 know our brand and, we hope, are open to being re-educated. It's more of a challenge for the under-25s who may not be as familiar with our brand as older generations."

In this context, HMV is esablishing 'digital ambassadors' in its stores. These will strive to guide (or "curate" as Mr Coughlan calls it) music choices for customers.

"We're going back to basics," he says. "We think there's a real lack of education in the market right now and we're all about ownership of music. It's about putting record collectors into focus."

Mr Coughlan is responsible for digital business across the HMV group in Ireland, the UK and Canada.

"To go from the challenges that the HMV business has gone through in the last nine months to where we are now with a new MP3 digital download product is astonishing," he says.

"This time next year I hope to be running a successful MP3 download service and to be the key player in the marketplace with exclusive content."

Sunday Independent

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