Thanks for the memories, HMV

The music store has been my cultural "first stop" in strange lands, my lunchtime stop and meeting place on dates

When I heard that the music store HMV was lowering its shutters for the last time last Wednesday, I was tempted to pay it a visit after work.

Not to try and snap up the remaining CDs, DVDs or vinyl records that were being sold at bargain prices, but to soak in the atmosphere of the place for one last time.

I was halfway there when I turned the car around and headed home instead.

I decided I couldn't bear to see the place being emptied out. Its last remaining branch in Marina Square was already a sad shadow of what it used to be when the famous music chain opened here in 1997.

Yet for almost two decades now, there wasn't a single day when I couldn't get on a bus or train or in my car and walk through those doors under the bright pink logo, for a little temporary escape from the pressures of daily life.

The first HMV store I ever walked into was in busy Cornmarket Street in Oxford where I did my undergraduate degree. I had, of course, been familiar with the brand for years, having seen its ads in Smash Hits, No. 1 and other music magazines I had collected in my teenage years.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I remember a group of us Singapore students had arrived in High Street in the morning and by lunchtime, I had already been settled in a small room in my college. Feeling hungry, I ventured out to the city centre and the first logo I recognised was the dog and gramophone of HMV.

It wasn't a gigantic store, but it was still two storeys high. And in the autumn of 1991, trendy house music was pumping out from the speakers - a bit of rap, a riff of piano and the most divine squelchy electronic bassline I had ever heard.

I spent at least an hour browsing in wide-eyed wonder and by the time I finally walked out of the store, I had bought my first CD single before I even unpacked the mini hi-fi. HMV and that song (Bassheads' Is There Anybody Out There?) had made that much of an impression on me.

From then on, HMV became the cultural "first stop" for me in strange and unfamiliar lands. American rival Tower Records was also big at the time and had a thriving book business, but HMV seemed to be in more countries and cities. Its stores were almost always bigger, flashier and more representative of the zeitgeist.

In 1996, when I had graduated and joined the civil service, I was sent on a week-long study trip to Tokyo organised by Japan's Ministry of Finance. It was my first time in the Japanese capital and those who have been there will know that for the uninitiated, it is an impenetrable sci-fi metropolis. You just don't know where to start.

So on my first free evening, I headed to the only place I knew. It took me a while to find it in chaotic Shibuya, but eventually, I located the giant six-storey complex.

Japanese HMV on a Friday night was a vibrant alien paradise of music, pop-up displays, magazines, toys and stage performers that seemed out of this world. I returned to the place every single time I visited Tokyo until it closed in 2010. I still sometimes go to home goods and stationery retailer Loft, which has taken over the building, but it doesn't seem to have exorcised the old ghosts.

In 1997, HMV finally opened here in a new mall called The Heeren. The 22,000 sq ft store spanned three floors and had separate rooms for dance and classical music.

In the initial years, I visited HMV nearly every day. On weekdays, it was sometimes a quick lunchtime break from the office. On weekends, it was the compulsory stop before or after working out at the equally big California Fitness branch diagonally across the road.

In fact, HMV became my default meeting place on dates. There was a practical reason for this, since neither party would be bored if one of us was unexpectedly held up.

But it was also a chance for me to subtly assess someone new on a first date. I remember wandering over with my dates to the "E" section of the CD racks - a section small enough to take in at a glance, but diverse enough to be telling of an individual's taste.

If they paused at Everything But The Girl or Erasure, I knew I was with a kindred spirit. If it was Echo & The Bunnymen or Eels, I would be impressed and moved on to "F" for Further Validation.

But if they even so much as glanced at The Eagles, I would be wondering whether I should cut short the evening. For me, reaching over to pick up Hotel California was the equivalent of pressing the red stop button on the MRT.

Sadly, things went downhill from there as digital downloads and streaming took hold in the music industry. The Heeren shop was downsized twice and eventually HMV could no longer afford street frontage, moving to a smaller space on the fourth floor in the new 313@Somerset mall.

My visits became less frequent as the Singapore management seemed to bet on mass market titles and stopped bringing in more obscure artists. Finally, HMV quit Orchard Road altogether and moved to Marina Square.

Strangely, there was life in the old dog right at the end. As a revival in vinyl records gathered steam, it started to bring in a small selection.

The frequency of my visits grew from a few times a year back to a few times a month and I was glad to see a couple of familiar faces from the original Heeren store.

But it had jumped on the vinyl bandwagon too late and smaller independent stores such as Hear, Roxy, House of Turntables and Curated had effectively wiped up the small but burgeoning enthusiast market here. My last purchases from HMV Singapore before it closed were vinyl re-issues of two Blondie albums - Parallel Lines and Eat To The Beat.

Thankfully for sentimentalists like me, HMV's closure in Singapore is the loss of one battle, but not the war.

When HMV went into receivership in 2013, the United Kingdom and Canadian business was sold to corporate restructuring specialist Hilco, which has gone on to revive the brand.

Hilco reopened the iconic Oxford Street store in London and continues to run 125 HMV stores in Britain. Last Christmas, HMV overtook Amazon to be the largest retailer of physical music in the UK. Hilco has announced it will open 18 stores in the Middle East and has plans to expand the franchise in Australia, China and India.

In Japan, convenience store giant Lawson bought the HMV franchise and in October last year, reopened a smaller store in Shibuya focusing on new and second-hand vinyl records which I hope to visit soon.

The Hong Kong and Singapore branches were sold in 2013 to AID Partners, a private equity group. There are still five HMV stores in Hong Kong and the last time I visited the Tsimshatsui branch,

it was hopping on a weekend with hipsters and oldies like me snapping up T-shirts and first-time vinyl issues of classic Asian albums by the likes of Stefanie Sun and Mayday.

In Singapore, staff have been laid off, but a new store is being promised sometime in the future.

If it opens, the new store will no doubt be modest and functional like the other new HMV stores around the world, which are almost budget-like in their appearance. The old dog's bark will never the same in the industry, but there are those among us who are silently cheering from the sidelines.

Till then, thanks for all the memories. There are many retail brands around in Singapore, but few have truly become a part of my life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Thanks for the memories, HMV'. Print Edition | Subscribe