Disc Drive: HMV Signs First Artist To New Record Label

Music retailer HMV is moving from selling records to, once more, releasing them following the signing of UK artist India Arkin to its 1921 Records imprint.

Arkin, from Newcastle in the northeast of England, is the first artist to be signed by the retail giant to its new vinyl-only label. Her album release will coincide with National Album Day which takes place on 15 October.

Arkin has released five singles to date, her first coming out in 2021. She is relatively unknown, with her tracks streaming in the low thousands on Spotify where she has just 178 monthly listeners.

HMV will be looking to see if its brand can significantly elevate her profile. It will also be keen to demonstrate that it is supporting genuine grassroots artists.

This is effectively an expansion of its “live and local initiative” which launched three years ago. “During 2019, HMV has opened its door to unsigned artists, inviting them to perform at their local HMV, with the possibility of their CDs and vinyl being stocked in-store too,” says the company on its website.

HMV is planning to sign a handful of acts – the company suggests two or three a year – for record releases via 1921 Records. This comes in the wake of UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s setting up its own compilation label in 2017.

“HMV has not been associated with new releases since the early 1990s, when the brand was used on a handful of recordings by the former Smiths frontman, Morrissey,” notes The Guardian.

The HMV label (standing for His Master’s Voice and dating back to 1901), actually predates the first HMV store in London, which opened in 1921. By the 1960s, the HMV label was focused on classical, but by the 1980s it was superseded by EMI Classics, the classical arm of its then-owner EMI.

HMV owner Doug Putman said of the new initiative, “Streaming algorithms mean it’s hard for new artists to get their voices heard, so we’re giving them the chance to get their albums in our stores, where music fans can discover them for themselves.”

The company has been pushed through turbulent times since the early 2000s when global record sales started to decline as digital began to shake up a business that was previously built around physical product.

As part of its expansion and diversification plan in light of falling record sales, HMV acquired MAMA Group, which owned music venues in the UK and had an artist management arm, in 2009. That was a relatively short-lived deal as it sold MAMA Group in 2012.

With trading conditions getting incrementally worse in the following years, HMV collapsed into administration in 2018 (its second time to do so in six years).

A lifeline arrived in 2019 when Putman’s Sunrise Records acquired it and looked to revive its fortunes.

In its centenary year of 2021, HMV was looking to lock in its renaissance with the opening of new stores in the UK. The move into releasing records can be read as an extension of that.

Vinyl is a growing part of the record business, but it is still relatively niche in overall revenue terms compared to streaming. UK record company trade body the BPI reports that, in 2021, record industry income in the UK was £1.26 billion. Of that, £837.2 million ($913 million) came from streaming (audio subscription, ad-supported and video streaming). Vinyl generated £115.9 million ($126 million), equal to around 9% of the business.

HMV has managed to outlive high-street competitors like Woolworths, Our Price and Virgin Megastore, but has not benefited from the spotlight that Record Store Day increasingly shines on independent retailers.

Releasing records through its own label will, in and of itself, not secure HMV’s future, but is part of a slow repositioning by the company.

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