How HMV’s new owner wants to change the way we buy music

Doug Putman rescued HMV in Canada, but will his approach work this side of the pond?

HMV’s flagship store on Oxford Street in London, which is among those to have closed after the chain was bought by Putman. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire

HMV’s flagship store on Oxford Street in London, which is among those to have closed after the chain was bought by Putman. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire

 

The rescue of 100 HMV stores by a youthful Canadian entrepreneur, safeguarding almost 1,500 jobs, is a rare piece of good news for Britain’s beleaguered high street.

But who is Doug Putman, the 30-something record-chain boss from across the Atlantic who sealed the deal to buy HMV out of administration, beating billionaire Mike Ashley to it in the process?

Although an unfamiliar name in Britain, Mr Putman was already well known to HMV, having bought up its 70-strong Canadian retail arm when it collapsed in 2017. His Sunrise Records music chain now numbers 84 stores in Canada and he also owns Everest Toys, one of North America’s largest distributors of toys and games.

Still only 34, Mr Putman clearly has big ambitions in the music business and appears unfazed by the precipitous decline of physical store sales in recent years, amid the onslaught of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and Spotify.

The Canadian insisted yesterday that there is a future for a bricks-and-mortar music and entertainment retailer such as HMV: “The customers love it,” he said, “We get amazing support.”

That support was not, however, sufficient to save HMV from falling into administration just after Christmas for the second time in six years. And nor has it saved the 27 outlets – and 455 jobs – that are excluded from the Sunrise deal.

Among the 27 branches that have been shuttered for good is HMV’s flagship London store at 363 Oxford Street, the site of its first-ever shop.

Opened in 1921 by the composer Sir Edward Elgar, HMV Oxford Street boasts a blue plaque proclaiming its place in music history as “the world’s most famous music store”.

Numerous stars have made appearances at the store over the years and it also played a key role in the career of The Beatles. In 1962 a 78 rpm demo disc of the then little-known band was cut in the store’s recording studio, leading to their contract with music giant EMI.

Other stores that will disappear for good are mostly in high-rent shopping centres, such as the Trafford Centre in Manchester, Bluewater in Kent and Westfield in west London.

The rescue of the bulk of HMV’s stores is a better outcome than many retail experts had feared when administrators were called in six weeks ago.

But there is some scepticism that the chain can be turned around, despite the recent revival of interest in vinyl, given the huge shift away from CDs and DVDs towards on-demand digital downloads.

Mr Putman is confident, saying he’s pulled it off in Canada and can do the same in the UK: “People like to come into a store, have an experience, talk with someone who understands music, loves music, loves video and entertainment.

“If you think online is the only future, I don’t think that is the case. There is so much you get from coming into a store that you can’t get online.”

He likens it to the gloom that surrounded bookshops some years ago, when pundits predicted that we’d all be reading novels on our kindles or smartphones. Yet specialist bookstores have survived and thrived.

HMV’s remaining 1,500 employees will certainly be hoping their new boss’s optimism is not misplaced. Among his plans to revive the chain are a much bigger selection of vinyl records and more live music events in the stores.

Mr Putman has ditched HMV’s most expensive sites and is likely to move swiftly to attempt to secure rent reductions for other branches. Christian Stadler, professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School says he expects “aggressive” cost cutting from Sunrise.

The market for CDs and vinyl is still worth £2 billion, Mr Stadler notes, but says it would be “foolish” to think there is scope for considerable growth. His advice to HMV’s new owner is to focus on carving out some sort of niche to ensure a future for the business.

As for Mike Ashley, defeat in the battle to buy HMV brings his bewildering buying spree to a halt, at least for now. The Sports Direct founder has been on something of a deal rampage in recent months, leaving City analysts struggling to see just what strategy he is pursuing.

His most recent acquisition came just a few days ago, when he snapped up the furniture retailer, Sofa. com. It follows his purchase of Evans Cycles, which was in administration, and House of Fraser, which had also collapsed.

The billionaire retailer has also been rumoured to be looking at Patisserie Valerie, the scandal-hit cakes-and-cafe chain, which collapsed last month.

Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com

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