Saturday, 19 January 2013

On the internet, nobody can hear you say "Hmmmvvv"

It’s Monday afternoon. In record shops the length and breadth of the UK (and also in some that occupy tethered airborne units, or are underground in basements) music lovers stand before the racks of CDs and LPs wearing well-rehearsed expressions of thoughtful bemusement. 

It is likely that some of these people will find themselves subconsciously imitating a giant set of old-fashioned scales, holding a pair of discs, one in each hand, as if attempting to judge the relative merits of two prospective purchases based upon their physical weight. Others will scan track listings, or the sleeve art itself, in search of signs and portents that might indicate one record being of superior quality to the others. There are those who will fix the cover with an intense stare in an endeavour to absorb the contents by a process of osmosis. Each of one of these modes of behaviour is a speculative attempt at answering a question that has plagued mankind since before the time of Christ: Which one of these albums is worthy of the record token that my maiden aunt sent me for my 13th birthday?

There is no greater sense of existential isolation than that felt by the record collector on a limited budget, as he or she ponders which record to buy. Such is the intensity of the situation that one will often find his or her thought processes involuntarily vocalised as an enquiry to the universe that, when written down, spells the word:  “Hmmmvvvv.” It is a contemplative sound that speaks of a mind on the cusp of making a decision, and yet unable to take the final step that would distil a handful of possibilities down to a singularity.

“Hmmmvvv” is regarded in record-buying circles as the equivalent of the Hindu/Buddhist invocation: “Om.” It has a narcotic, pseudo-religious effect upon the music fan, sending them into a deep trance-like state. You may have encountered people like this in record shops, standing rooted to the spot for hours at a time, blocking easy access to the G section of Rock and Pop, as they wrestle, on some deep ontological level, over a decision to purchase either the basic jewel case edition of the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album, or to spend an additional £3 on the Deluxe edition, which comes with a small hardback book containing moody black and white photographs of mall security guards. Occasionally the brain’s natural defences will kick in and resolve this mental deadlock with a timely burst of common sense, in which the purchase of a remastered album by the 1980s girl group Bananarama becomes the only sensible option.

Regrettably logic does not always win out. Like a piece of scratched vinyl jumping over the same three seconds of music, many record buyers may find themselves caught in a perpetual loop of indecision. When I worked in Farmer Braithwaite’s Acid Jazz Emporium, in the fictional middle-England village of Lower Maundley* we kept a broom handle behind the counter. We would use it to gently prod customers who we judged to have descended too far into this mystic state. This gentle poking would usually be accompanied by an incitement to return to reality, phrased in archaic jazz or hippie vernacular: “Time to get back on the bus, dude.” 

So integral is “Hmmmvvv” to the record buying process that when HMV opened its doors in 1921 they chose to trade under an abbreviation of the word. Regrettably many early customers phrased the name of the store as individual letters. In doing so something very special was lost to the world. I wish that I could go back in time and repeatedly punch these people while yelling “IT’S PRONOUNCED ‘HMMMVVV!’  HMMMVVV!’”

None of the pundits who have waded into the discussion on the fall of HMV have really talked about the decline of the record buyers’ vocabulary, which is expressed as much in body language as it is in words. 

Nobody looks cool or confused when purchasing music online. Nobody ever says “Hmmmvvv” when they are deliberating choices made on the Amazon website. 

Shopping on the internet is an empty process characterised by a bored, blank expression and a vague and unfocused feeling of irritable dissatisfaction, as you mechanically drag and drop a CD compilation of incidental saxophone music from The Golden Girls into your virtual basket (When I see a member of the public using a basket in a record shop I feel pity for them. If you cannot carry your purchases to the cash register then you are not worthy of owning them). It is entirely possible that your online music shopping may be a tertiary activity, undertaken on a tablet computer, while you simultaneously watch the second season of Homeland and discuss with your partner the timing of a Saturday morning visit to DFS to pick out a sofa.  

Record buying in the flesh is a solemn act of meditation. On iTunes it feels like you are filling in a particularly boring spreadsheet. Sometimes I get the urge to fly out to the Apple HQ and drag Steve Jobs by the scruff of his turtleneck to the boarded-up facade of the nearest recently-defunct record shop. 

I want to shout in his face: “Why won’t you gaze upon what thou hast wrought?” 

Then I remember that Steve Jobs is dead. He died in 2011. He may have dealt physical music a mortal blow but he did not live long enough to see it keel over. 

* Don’t bother looking up Lower Maundley in a fictional atlas of UK towns. In 1997 I sold the village to the producers of the Radio 4 soap The Archers. They promised me that they were going to incorporate it into the show but that was all a big lie. I discovered later that the village was used to test a small nuclear weapon that the BBC were planning to deploy in a future episode of Casualty. The BBC has possessed fictional nukes since 1977. Jimmy Savile used to keep one under his bed in case the police ever came round. I don’t know why there isn’t a greater public outcry about this.

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