HMV: 92 years of bringing music to the masses

From Oxford Street to Pedder Street, retailer played central role in music industry before internet's rise turned industry on its head and replaced disk buying with downloading

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 2:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 January, 2013, 3:24pm

The global entertainment chain known as HMV began its rise in 1921, when The Gramophone Company opened its first shop on London’s Oxford Street.

Described at the time as “the most up-to-date and artistic business house yet seen in London”, the shop’s arrival sped Oxford Street’s rise as Europe’s busiest shopping district, according to the company’s website.

The chain’s name is an acronym for His Master’s Voice, the unofficial title of Francis Barraud’s 1899 iconic painting of his brother’s fox terrier Nipper listening to a phonograph.

The image served as Gramophone’s trademark, as it did for Victor Records and later RCA across the Atlantic.

Composer Edward Elgar performed at the opening ceremony of the Oxford Street shop. That first shop, which sold only HMV-branded products, including records, gramophones and sheet music, was notable for the large, moving illuminated sign, which stood in front.

The sign featured a three-metre-tall man placing a record on a turning gramophone. 

After a massive fire gutted the original store and killed its caretaker, a new, larger Oxford Street location was opened in 1939. The three-storey shop featured a record shop and a radio studio, as well as radio and appliance showrooms.

The shop stayed open through the second world war, serving as a record-recycling collection point. In 1953, the shop introduced its first self-service “browserie” showroom, a retail style becoming popular in the United States.

That same year, Queen Elizabeth’s carriage passed by the shop during her coronation procession. The new queen was greeted by a large sign celebrating her reign.

The company will forever be associated its small, but important role in getting the most famous ambassadors of Mersey Beat, The Beatles, their big break.

The moment came when Beatles manager Brian Epstein visited the Oxford Street shop to make a demonstration record for the then-unknown foursome from Liverpool. With the group having already been rejected by Decca and EMI, the shop’s studio manager, Jim Foy, recommended them to music publishers he knew.

That led to a meeting at Abbey Road Studios with George Martin, with EMI’s Parlophone label. Martin was sold. He become the producer of all but one of The Beatles’ studio records.

HMV launched a massive expansion in the mid-1960s, acquiring several competing shops. By 1977, it had 39 locations across Britain. Structural changes at EMI in the 1980s ended the retailers direct association with the music company.

In 1984, HMV opened the 50,000-square-foot HMV Oxford Circus, just a couple of kilometres from the original location. It was then and remains today the world’s largest music store, according to HMV.

The group then began a huge international expansion that would see locations open in Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore and the US by the late 1990s. HMV opened its first Hong Kong – a 10,000-square-foot HMV Superstore – in October 1994 at Windsor House in Causeway Bay.

In the 1990s and 2000s, HMV expanded into book, live music and festivals. Today, it operates more than 200 shops, largely in Britain.