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The Triumphant Return of Highstreet HMV Culture

From Bankruptcy to Community: How HMV Can Stay On Top Of Online Sellers

It's not been easy for the high street retailer His Master’s Voice, more commonly known as HMV.

From the multiple bankruptcies to the change in consumer culture making online purchases more attractive, HMV has had a rocky road over the past 10 years. However, in an unlikely place, HMV is on the rise again.

After working at HMV since the ripe age of 18, Russ Withey has brought a sense of reinvigoration to Cumbria’s HMV stores in Workington and Carlisle after studying ownership of the businesses when he moved north from Wycombe.

Since then, he has dedicated the stores to being more open to the local community and local music scenes, with his “HMV Live and Local” in-store gigs. This not only brings new customers in-store but also allows the franchise to reach out to a new target market that was once out of reach.

As a passionate lover of music and now a main player in the wider music economy of The Lake District, Russ is creating a new generation of HMV stores, catching the eye of stores in bigger cities such as Manchester and Leeds who now look to Russ for inspiration on how to successfully manage their stores.

In light of this, we reached out to Russ to get to know the man behind this resurgence of HMV and to learn more about how he connects his business to the local Cumbrian music scene.

When did you take ownership of the HMV Workington and Carlisle stores?

I started working in Carlisle in 2015, I moved up here from High Wycombe, and I was manager there. Then two years ago I took management of Workington so I'm the manager of the two.

How and why did you want to get involved with HMV stores in Cumbria?

Basically, my partner, her brother lives in Penrith and he had a kid on the way, a lot of her family are based up north in Blackpool so she wanted to come up north. A job came up at Carlisle HMV so we said shall we move up north and try it out?

We predominantly have always been based in the midlands or down South and North seems cool, I'd like to experience what it's like in the North near The Lake District. It just seemed like a really good opportunity to do it. I've lived up here for 6 years now so it shows that I must enjoy it.

We’re quite happy and settled here. I live by the river, I never thought I would have a place where I can look out and see the river.

Was that an attractive selling point for you in Cumbria?

Not so much because I'm one of these people that even though they're there, I'm not going and visiting them every week, I probably still only go every couple of months, it was mostly to try something new.

Everyone talks about how the north is so much different and how people are much friendlier. People have been very welcoming, I feel very settled up here.

More than in Wycombe?

Yeah definitely haha. I'm originally from the midlands, I was born in Hereford and I grew up in the Worcester area so when you go to Wycombe it's much more like a commuter town, people would commute from there to London, and there's a lot of hustle and bustle. I found it a lot nicer living up north, there's a lot more to do and a lot more to see.

How's the music scene changed from Wycombe to Cumbria?

I mean Wycombe didn't have much of a music scene, because it's so close to London that people would just get on the train and get to a gig there. So the local music scene there wasn't a lot of it. You need venues and pubs that are on board with taking on local artists, since I've come to Cumbria I've found the music scene has a lot more talent for one.

It's a very big county and venues are much more willing to have local artists perform in their pub or venue. There's a lot of support up here for the music scene from a lot of different people. The fire station in Carlisle puts on gigs for local bands the same as places like The Source and The Brickyard there's a lot going on.

What were you motivated by investing in the HMV stores in Cumbria?

Well, when I came up here for one I was given the opportunity to put local acts on in the store and a lot of these acts were really grateful afterwards and it showed how much it meant to them that they were given the chance to play in an HMV store.

I thought after that if it makes people feel like that we should do more of this, then we got the newspapers involved and they would happily come in and interview local bands and put articles in about them and I thought we needed to do this more just to get these local artists gigs to get them exposure. It gives them a platform they may not get otherwise.

So I've really enjoyed doing that. We put on gigs across both HMV stores in Carlisle and Workington all the time and it's a really positive thing to do.

Did you have any backlash from upper management about this?

At first, there were a couple of people who were like make sure you're not blocking the entrance and health and safety stuff. But once they see newspapers covering us how can they not be happy with that?

It just gives the store a bit of a buzz, I love going in on a Saturday and thinking we've got a band in playing this afternoon. Where else can you work where you've got a live band playing while you work?

Hopefully, on the back of that, these bands get seen by venues and they book them they get free exposure in newspapers, they get booked for Solfest and Kendal Calling, and they have a live tent for local bands at each of those festivals.

So all around it's really good for the local community, for the venues and it's good for the bands themselves.

Do you think other HMV stores need to get more involved with their local music scenes?

They are pushing it. I'm not trying to boost myself here but we were one of the first stores to get behind it and a lot of other stores see what we do and copy us, we were the front runners in doing this

When I have conference calls now they say look at what Carlisle is doing and we want to do the same as them. I think if the company had their way they'd want every store in the company to do it.

And this isn't a suggestion from upper management, it's very much your thing?

Yeah, it's an idea by us, we're the ones who've asked to do it. We've taken it further in Workington, we've worked with Allerdale council for a HMV stage out in the square, which is massive. We've worked with Workington council for a jubilee stage, they've given me a budget and I've chosen all the bands that are playing, this is massive I think.

Not only are we able to get local musicians a gig now, but we're also able to get them a paid gig, coverage in the press, on a big stage, a sound team everything.

It's well known that HMV has been in and out of bankruptcy, is there lack of involvement with the local music scene a cause of this?

More than that, I think the 200 million pound debt had something to do with that. Like, you say, working with the local community can only help. The more work you do, what harm is it going to do? It's only going to cause more decent things to happen than bad.

But you're definitely right, we have been too corporate in the past when we could've been working with local venues more. Sometimes it needs a new owner, a new fresh set of eyes.

The new owner he's all about 'HMV Live and Local', we had our managing director pop in the other week just to say thank you for 'HMV Live and Local' and connecting with the community. It's an exciting period to work at the company because they're all about doing this.

However, never once have I been asked to, it's because I want to. Now I get store managers ringing me asking for advice on how they go about doing what we're doing.

Where would you like your stores to be in 10 years time?

It's good at the moment because we fell into a period in the past where the demographic was 30-40's but now with the products of we sell, a lot more youngsters are coming into the store.

I'd like to see stages in every store. Where bands can come in and play in the corner of your shop.

Basically, I just want to carry on doing what we're doing and see the company survive for a long period of time.

People always ask me do you think HMV will be here in 5 years' time? And I always say why not? People have been saying that for the last 18 years and I'm still here.

So where does consumer culture sit with the health of HMV?

I think as a business you can never sit still, even if you've had a good year you'll be foolish to sit still. As a clever businessman, you've got to look at the areas that are declining and think how do we make up for that loss?

If you have to look at selling American sweets and stuff like that, then you have to, if you don't you're responsible for all the colleagues and the longevity of that business.

Would you say you're quite interested in making innovations for HMV?

Yeah, of course, I just enjoy working there and anything I can do to help and keep my stores going for as long as possible then I'll do that.

I've been there since I was 18 years old, it's what I know.

A big thank you to Russ for coming and speaking to us and make sure to get in touch with HMV Carlisle or Workington for a chance to play in the store.


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