Friday, 18 January 2013

Who's next?

It's been a bad few weeks for high street retailers. Nothing unusual in that, at the moment, but the last couple to have gone (or at least look like they're going) are names which we're all very, very familiar with.

I've never been into music, and though I do really enjoy films, I'm not an obsessive watcher of them by any means. Even so, hearing that HMV had gone into receivership struck a chord that will resonate in all of us. As a kid I used to go into the big HMV in Churchill Square in Brighton and browse the film section - videos when I was young, DVDs later, of course – or, rarely, the music section. This is one of those shared experiences which pretty much anybody can relate to - it didn't matter if you were a hardcore death metal-head or a serious classicist, what you were looking for could probably be bought there. Later, they added head- and earphones, books and mags, 'cool' bags and T-shirts, everything the yoof of the day may need. Ultimately, it didn't matter – a very long, drawn-out death is finally coming to its conclusion and 4,000 people are, in all likelihood, going to lose their jobs.

Blockbuster is another one; another of those collective experiences most of us have shared at some point. When videos arrived for the masses, they used to have to get multiple copies of the big blockbusters when they came in, and there'd still occasionally be a wait for the very biggest of them. Disappointed, you'd have to browse the racks of cases looking for an alternative, now and then taking a chance on something you'd never heard of. What was that chance based on? Who starred? The design on the case? What the shop staff said? That shared experience has also died a slow death, and now it seems Blockbuster too is in the final throes.

It's easy to see what's killed off these high-street institutions. "Internet killed the video star," said the local paper in Brighton, where HMV still had (has? I don't know) a store in the main shopping centre. Indeed the internet is, of course, the killer, but it has millions of accomplices – everybody buys their films and music from Amazon, and the like now, don't they? At Christmas, you can do all your shopping without getting off your backside, if you're so inclined. And millions are so inclined. The market simply moves the trade from the high-street to the large online retailers, goes the capitalist thinking, and the jobs move with it. Adapt or die – pretty simple economics.

We should, though, stop and think on what we're doing here for a moment. The big online stores employ, of course, far fewer people than they would if they ran shops selling similar quantities of merchandise. It's how, no doubt, they can offer products so much cheaper – lower wage bill, lower rent, lower utility charges; just a few fuck-off warehouses in strategic bits of the countryside and a sophisticated distribution network and Bob's your mother's brother. It certainly lacks something of the romance of our younger selves' experience of shopping for the latest must-have album.

I am no different to anybody else – I've used these online retailers plenty of times, though I don't buy music at all, but even I have bought books, gifts, household appliances, all sorts online. And I believe we've lost something valuable in ditching those collective experiences I mentioned earlier. These days, people don't even necessarily buy an actual artefact at all – they download films, music and books digitally. These objects, sometimes things of beauty and collectability even before the actual content – the music, film or story – is taken into account, have been reduced to a series of binary data, nothing more than electronic pulses to convey the creative efforts of all those people who conceived and produced them. So we're losing something there as well.

All these things have a knock-on affect. If fewer and fewer of the packages are being designed and produced, there's a net harm done to the design and production industries which feed off them. And if retailers keep closing, shopping centres become run-down agglomerations of charity shops, pound shops, pawnbrokers and the like, the grim flag bearers of hard economic times. I fear, though, it's too late. The small, independent places which survive (I assume because of a resurgence of interest in vinyl) now stand out even more as little beacons – when I pass Fopp, one such place right by my work, it's always full of earnest-looking men (always, always men) still scratching that itch, searching through racks of music or film for some arcane gem. So the need is still out there. Just not, it seems, in sufficient numbers to sustain these familiar names. And that, for me, is a loss to all of us.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

If I ruled the world...

In conversation with one of my workmates today, she happened to mention that if she ruled the world, the first thing she'd do would be to ban e-readers (Kindles and the like) and execute anybody flouting that ban(!)

Now, putting to one side her enthusiasm for what I suspect would be near genocide, given the ubiquity of these things, I actually agree with her preference for the printed form. Wereplenipotentiary world leader, I certainly wouldn't ban them, but nor do I want one. I can see how useful they are for holidays, commuting etc, but I just like books too much to want to ditch them. The beauty of a well-designed dust jacket, the satisfaction of handling them, the smell when they're new.* The visible progress as you make your way through them. The author's signature on the fly leaf, if you're lucky. The contentment of surveying a full bookshelf, perfectly parallel spines, upright like so many soldiers; simultaneously alluring and alluding to their content, all jostling for your attention, each suggesting a cheeky re-read. You just don't get that with e-readers.

But I'm digressing a bit from what was to be my original point. Digressing quite a bit, actually, because what I actually wanted to say was that, of all the things you could do with absolute power at your disposal, all the wrongs you could right, all the failings and everyday unfairnesses you could sort out, this was the first thing she wanted to do? Ban Kindles and start bumping off 'refuseniks'? I even offered her the chance to think about some more far-reaching and beneficial options, but she stuck with her choice. The theory was that the ban would be a quick undertaking, something that had been bugging you that you could now get done swiftly and move on to more important stuff. Like changing that dead lightbulb before you get on with building the extension.

So - forcing an end to conflicts, reaching for Mars, sorting out Third World debt, feeding the hungry millions? All in good time. Get rid of those wretched gadgets first and all, or at least more, would be right with the world.

*I used to buy print for a living. If you didn't already know that, did that sentence rather give it away?