We lost more than our record shops because of the MP3

HMV Oxford Street, London, public domain photograph

Today HMV, once His Master’s Voice and still one of the UK’s leading retailers of CDs and DVDs, went into administration (one step away from going bust). Hopes are high that at least some of the shops can be saved – not least because the record labels and the DVD manufacturers want something that will compete on scale with Amazon.

There has been a lot of online commentary on the company’s failure to realise the scale of competition it faced from both online retailers of CDs and DVDs and from downloaders – with particular attention being given to the fact that a one-time chief executive told their advertising agency that downloading was “just a fad” early in the new millennium. LOLZ all round.

Well, it is worth recalling that this was once a fairly common feeling and was not entirely based on ignoring the evidence – MP3 players took a long time to get going, and I remember extolling the virtues of the compressed download for a few years before anybody took any notice – indeed things only really got going once Apple swung their marketing budget into action. Then the herd stampeded. But for a while there appeared to be nothing inevitable about it (of course this ignored the fact that NAND memory was doubling in density in an even shorter time scale than Moore’s Law suggested for CPU transistor numbers).

Things could have been different – a dozen years ago the MP3 as a format was even being shunned by some manufacturers because it was (and is, at least in some jurisdictions) encumbered by a patent. There were even commercially available OGG (an open and free format) players out there. But along came the people’s favourite jailers in the form of Apple and the moment when we could have struck a small blow for user freedom was over.

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