His Master’s Voice: A Brief History of HMV

At the end of January, HMV announced the closure of its business in Canada – all 120 stores – by April 30, 2017. While the parent company continues to make ends meet in the UK, HMV bears an important legacy in the history of recorded sound.

It all started with a little dog.

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HMV’s Oxford Street location in the 1960s (source).

His name was Nipper – so given for his tendency to playfully nip at the heels of owner Mark Henry Barraud’s guests. Barraud worked for the Price’s Theatre as a scenery designer and took up residence there along with the little mutt. When Barraud succumbed to ill health in 1887, the mixed terrier was given into the custody of his two brothers: Francis and Philip.

Francis owned an Edison Bell cylinder phonograph and, by fortune alone, he had also received several recordings of his deceased brother’s voice. Francis set up the contraption to listen to his brother once more – motivated perhaps by grief, curiosity, or out of wonderment for the ability to preserve the sound those passed. Upon hearing his master’s voice, Nipper perked up and listened. The noise that had protruded from the phonograph interested him – and Francis was inspired. He committed the image of the small terrier to a painting, head cocked by the phonograph’s flared horn. He titled the painting His Master’s Voice and before long it was to become one of the largest advertising icons in the music industry and one of its most sought after trademarks. At some point or another, Nipper would be the mascot for, among others, JVC, RCA, and HMV.

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Francis Barraud’s original Nipper painting (source).

Nipper’s image was purchased by the Gramophone Company in 1899 and utilized in its branding. The Gramophone Company, whose name appeared on the label of early vinyl recordings of Dark Side of the Moon as late as 1973, was founded in 1898. The Gramophone Company was in the business of record manufacturing in both the UK and US until the loss of a pivotal lawsuit that limited this function in the US. The shift from manufacturer and record label to retailer in this new market was a natural one and so, in the 1920s, the company to set its sights to include an alternative business venture.

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A woman prepares an early HMV shop display featuring Nipper and his phonograph (source)

In July 1921, predating the invention of the microphone by four years, the Gramophone Company opened its first retail store, which included in-house recording studios, on Oxford Street under the name His Master’s Voice – occasionally abbreviated to HMV. The opening was attended by the majestically mustachioed and musically accomplished English composer Edward Elgar. This marked the first in-store celebrity appearance in the music industry – Elgar was a big deal.

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Elgar (on the right) and his moustache record at HMV in the 1920s (source).

A steady stream of stars would follow in his wake: everyone from Madonna to David Bowie, Michael Jackson to Beyoncé, Paul McCartney to Justin Bieber. An early advocate for the sound recording business, Elgar had been experimenting with simple acoustic recordings for nearly a decade. By the end of his life, he had created audio documentary evidence of most of his major works and had supported the shift of the recording business from a novelty to a well-respected musical medium.

From record label to retailer, the HMV brand continued to expand into TV and radio sets in the 1930s. The success of the Gramophone Company resulted in a merger with competitor Columbia Records in 1931. The deal created music giant Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI).

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Try it before you buy it: customers clamoured into listening booths to check out the latest tunes at HMV locations in the 1950s (source).

The next fifty years brought fruitful profits for HMV. In the 1960s and 1970s, the business continued to expand its retail capacity – moving away from in-house recording studios in favour of cramming in a few more rows of vinyl. With acquisitions of its largest competitors, HMV was the dominant music retailer by the end of the 1970s. This growth continued and HMV abandoned its original Oxford Street location, leading to the opening of the world’s largest record store just down the street.

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More and more vinyl (and hair) in the 1970s (source).

The Canadian arm of the business, headquartered in Etobicoke, was established in 1986 after EMI Music Canada announced the acquisition of Mister Sound. The business was later sold as a separate entity during company restructuring efforts to Hilco in 2011. In Canada the brand was forced to drop it’s iconic dog and the His Master’s Voice trademark, which was (and remains) in the possession of Technicolor SA. Instead the company simply became HMV – sometimes referred to in television and radio ads prior to the millennium as Hot Music Values. Unsurprisingly the full name didn’t stick.

In the 1990s, the music retail industry was at its peak and finding new business with the introduction of the DVD. At its peak, the business boasted over 320 stores. Times kept changing though and with the advent of online purchasing and the digitization of music, the HMV brand faced major setbacks. Falling deeper and deeper into debt due to online-based competitors such as Amazon and iTunes – not to mention illegal downloading – the parent company sold its debt to Hilco UK in April 2013 in a deal valued at approximately 50 million pounds. In an effort to save jobs and call upon its wealthy historical roots, HMV returned to its original London flagship location in October 2013. The business continues there today – though it looks much different than it did in 1921.

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The future of HMV in the UK remains uncertain (source).

HMV Canada, already under Hilco’s ownership, reported even further declining profits by 2014. Ultimately unable to compete, the retailer went into receivership in the Ontario Superior Court in January 2017 –  following the legacy of HMV Ireland and HMV Singapore.

Throughout it’s near century-long history, HMV has sold every recording format and, while it remained relevant, set a precedent for how human beings consumed recorded sound for entertainment. Sink or swim, that’s one hell of a legacy – and the story isn’t over. Much too oversimplified,  it’s crazy to think it all came from a little dog – mystified by the tinny sound of his master’s voice.

@ElysiaRM


I learned about the history of HMV through Wikipedia’s articles on the retailer, HMV Canada, Edward Elgar, His Master’s Voice, and Nipper. I also went right to the source and read about HMV on their website.

I retrieved some details from the Telegraph’s visual history of HMV. There’s plenty more there that I didn’t cover here including some really amazing images so check it out.

Pictures are sourced from this article by Classic FM.  I also used a few from The Guardian’s visual history of HMV, which can be found here.

The news of HMV Canada’s closure was reported on by the Financial Post. Check out their article in the link for more details.

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