What do we do with lives and dreams after shopping?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, January 19th 2012

Another tottering titan fell this week with HMV going into administration. It is the latest in a long line of retail closures: Jessops, Blockbusters, Comet, JJB Sports.

This is part of a powerful challenge to the high street, to Britain’s sense of itself and its town centres, and in the case of HMV, the music industry, coming after the closure of Virgin, Zavvi and Tower Records.

These stories are usually imbued with a golden sense of nostalgia, people fondly remembering their youth and some key Woolworths purchase, and thinking the country is going to the dogs! Rarely are more complex feelings allowed to emerge, about what we do with town centres, the nature of retail, and the power of consumerism in our lifestyles and in how we make sense of our lives and pasts.

How many of us can remember some of the formative music experiences of our lives; of listening to the Radio One chart rundown on a Tuesday midday, and then after school, popping into our local record shop? In Dundee at the end of the 1970s that shop for me was I & N Records in Crichton Street, long gone, where I bought some of the sounds which defined my life: from Talking Heads to Joy Division, the Ruts and Neil Young; along with some embarrassing things as well.

However, there is a danger in living our lives constantly through the past, venerating it as some golden era. The writer, Simon Reynolds, has coined the term ‘Retromania’ to describe the way in which popular culture increasingly repackages the past to sell us back our memories, noting that this is speeding up to such an extent we will soon run out of past experiences to commodify and sell.

Our high streets are changing, struggling with austerity and recession but also facing difficult planning processes and alternatives such as Amazon who can engage in aggressive tax avoidance practices.

There is a generational change in how we shop and use town and city centres. The approach of a site like Glasgow’s Buchanan Galleries is one based on massive footfault and branding the city as ‘the second city of shopping’ – a very old fashioned approach, not really caring about uniqueness or offering anything special.

The high street of the future will look very different, mirroring the dynamics of society. There will be lots of cut-price stories with items for a pound and under, emporiums offering makeovers and having your hair done, and niche places suggesting uniqueness, one-offs and seeing and feeling what you buy. Plus there will continue to be coffee shops and spaces where people just hang out, want to be seen and meet friends.

Then there is the challenge and opportunity of the internet. The way this is portrayed in the media is to present in either in a technological utopian way, i.e., we will all be connected and saved by the internet, or as a techno doomster, the high street will soon all be boarded up and we all purchase everything from home by computer.

Neither of these options is going to fully happen. What is needed is a reality check about digital connection and disconnection in this country which, unsurprisingly, mirrors wider social exclusion. The internet can’t save humanity if half of it can’t get online.

Recent written evidence from Ofcom to the Scottish Parliament showed a ‘Scottish effect’ in digital disconnection; it wasn’t all down to poverty and material incomes. In lower income groups in Scotland, only 30% have Broadband access, compared to 65% in the same group across the UK. Amongst 16-34 year old Scots 65% had access, but across the UK this figure is 85%.

This digital divide also has a pronounced ‘Glasgow effect’ about more than lack of incomes (which Dundee has as well), and what is as alarming as these figures is the lack of awareness about them amongst politicians and public figures. One businessman who owns a media company said to me when I cited the above figures, ‘all the young people will be looking at their apps’.

Then there is the changing face of music. This matters to the UK economy which accounts for 13% of global music sales; Adele’s ‘21’ is the fourth bestselling album of all-time!

HMV’s and Virgin’s passing, although a smaller HMV may emerge, is symbolic of how mainstream music has been reduced to a commodified product, something always there, on your mobile and MP3 files, but isn’t really about anything social and cultural. This is the world of Simon Cowell, homogenisation, that great Scottish export success, Susan Boyle, and endless cover versions of ‘Unchained Melody’.

If mainstream music will be for the foreseeable future part of the conformist culture, it probably won’t always be thus. And there will be bespoke, minority funky spaces and centres. Glasgow authorities may adore shopping big, but the city has one of the best alternative music shops in the UK which equals anything in London or Brighton in Stephen Pastel’s Monorail.

This is about how we make sense of our place in a fast-changing world, one most of us don’t feel we have much say or influence in. That’s why too many of us invest too much in that first purchase in HMV, Woolies, or in my case, I & N Records. There has to be a recognition that life is about more than shopping, and the future as either a suffocating degree of increasingly dusty clutter or all your music and book purchases on one memory stick.

The internet poses questions for the future of the human race: can it be used to aid global consciousness and conversations, or as now, will it continue to be shaped by who is included and excluded from society? There is the challenge to our high streets and who speaks for our towns and cities beyond place making bureaucrats. Who spoke for Paisley High Street as it has been strangled by the opening of the Braehead and Silverburn shopping centres?

Music will survive, rebellion and protest will find new voices and songs, and young people, who have disproportionately paid the price of this economic crisis, will eventually question the logic of such an economic system.

We need to reflect on our desire to shop and consume, and why we have invested so much emotionally in retail dreams. And at the same time, think creatively and constructively about what we do about our town and city centres after the boom bust. Who knows we could even begin to stop living our lives in the past, wallowing in permanent nostalgia.