Friday, September 21, 2007

Virgin on the ridiculous

You may have missed the reports this week of another nail in the coffin of the music industry as we know it. It was announced by the fledgling record label that grew into a multi-armed hydra encompassing airlines, trains, cola, perfume, finance and condoms. Of course, I'm talking about Fierce Panda. Just kidding. No, Virgin (for it is they) announced they were selling off their retail division, the Virgin Megastores.

Now that's not the news that makes me fear for the sanity of the music biz. By 2007, Virgin were barely in the music biz anyway, despite the record label's terrific heritage that took in Mike Oldfield, Faust, Henry Cow, Gong, The Sex Pistols, Magazine, Japan, The Human League, Rip Rig and Panic, Culture Club Collins. Branson took his eye off the ball musically sometime around the early 80s, handing over the running of the label to people like Simon Draper. Sales of CDs are tanking, so in many ways this was a (financially) smart move by the Virgin group.

The stores have been bought out by a management consortium, but it's not this that makes me fear for their future either. In theory, a team of managers could turn the stores' fortunes around and make them relevant to today's reluctant consumers, assuming, that is, that they had some degree of aptitude.

No, the news that told me everything I needed to know about the sorry state of the music industry and the people who run it was buried at the bottom of the press release. In a bid to ditch 35 years of brand heritage (Mike Oldfield, Faust, etc..), the new owners of Virgin have decided to rebrand the stores and name them Zavvi. That's Zavvi. Zavvi. What. The. Fuck?

According to the management team's spokesperson, this new name was a "modern and independent take on the word savvy". Modern. Independent. Hmmmm. If by modern and independent he means "bearing no relation to the written word as we know it, and implying no values whatsoever" then I'll go along with that. Or perhaps "condescending and doomed-to-fail attempt to appeal to txt msg-crazed and wordblind kids" is closer to the mark. Whatever the explanation for this spectacularly awful rebranding, you just know it came out of a focus group, the same sort that (probably) brought about Consignia. And it tells you all you need to know about the fiasco that is today's music business. That it's more concerned with marketing a lame-duck product than with improving the product itself.

Just in case you think I have some sort of great affection for the mechanics of the music industry, I don't. Music predates the invention of the phonograph and will continue to exist for a long time after the last record shop closes its doors. But it absolutely beggars belief that people who don't seem to actually like or care about the artform are in charge of marketing and selling it, and therefore helping to provide a living for the artists themselves. I know none of this is news. But it depresses me every time I see concrete evidence of folly, as I did this week at the unveiling of Zavvi.

The one piece of good news for the biz that I read this week was from the New York Times' profile of Rick Rubin, now joint head of Columbia Records. His radical idea is that the music itself is the most important part of the marketing chain. Or, as he puts it, "We're in the art business." Whoulda thunk it?


Aloysius Munn said...

Branson usually knows the best time to sell a business. Virgin Games was sold as early as about 1993. I think he hung on to the Megastores for sentimental/nostalgic reasons. The very fact that he's selling them means they are very close to the end of their life.
Interesting fact: Virgin stores didn't make a profit until 1990.

Anonymous said...

zavvi is never going to sink or swim bceause of its name. there are many reasons why it might fail (rise of illegal downloading, smaller margins, less interest in paying for music when you can get it for free and legally via myspace and youtube) but the name isn't one of them.

and as for KNOWING that the name came from a focus group? come on. focus groups cost a fortune and its highly unlikely that a business with limited funds (branson wouldn't have sold otherwise) that will have to spend millions on a re-branding over 100 stores would bother wasting money on a focus groups to come up with a name. focus groups for that kind of thing are usually only employed by government organisations or former government organisations.

where i shop for my music on the high street depends on my mood at the time but i tell you one thing, i'd rather see a bit of competition than be forced to shop at hmv. sure there's fopp but that's now hmv as well. without another player, it would be like only being able to buy fast food from maccy d or pret.

anways, good luck to zavvi. here's hoping it doesn't go the same way as music zone et al.

irkthepurists said...


Thanks for stopping by. A fellow Edinburgh native if I'm not mistaken...

>>Interesting fact: Virgin stores didn't make a profit until 1990>>

I did not know that. But his train service would be in financial trouble without many government bail-outs as detailed by Private Eye over the last ten years... and I can't believe Virgin Cola, Vodka or Weddings ever made a bean...

irkthepurists said...


>>zavvi is never going to sink or swim bceause of its name.>>

Well, I can't argue with that. Otherwise companies like Agilent would have gone belly-up long ago. But, as I hoped I was arguing, the name doesn't augur well for the management's business acumen.

>>focus groups cost a fortune and its highly unlikely that a business with limited funds (branson wouldn't have sold otherwise) that will have to spend millions on a re-branding over 100 stores would bother wasting money on a focus groups to come up with a name>>

If it wasn't the result of a focus group or similar, then the situation's worse than I feared. See this excellent article for more on naming companies...

>>i'd rather see a bit of competition than be forced to shop at hmv>>

Amen to that. But I can't help thinking that HMV vs Virgin is a bit like McDonald's vs Burger King. Shouldn't we be patronising Sister Ray, Rough Trade, Avalanche, Action etc?? (He says, piously..)

Anyway, I too hope Virgin survives, even with its ridiculous new name. But if it can only do this by flogging XBox games and DVDs, then maybe it should just get out of the business of selling music.

Anyway, Mr (Ms?) Anonymous, thanks for reading. Normal service (i.e. me contributing to the demise of record stores by posting mp3s) will be resumed asap.

Anonymous said...

I think they'll do a really well. I know they have a really strong marketing team who can turn this around.

Long live Zavvi the 'People's champion'

Anonymous said...

Here here!!!

Competition on high street is what we need. If there's a group of guys out there prepared to take the risk of saving the independant retailer than I'm all for it.

Lets give music back to the people and take it away from these greedy corporations.

the problem is, and maybe I'm well off the mark, but all people want from Music retailers these days is the cheapest CDs/DVDs and least hassle in obtaining them. Am I right?

Anonymous said...

He is a very smart man.
Here's an example;take the world famous Virgin logo.If you turn it slighty to the left so that where the underline and tail of the g form an X,you'll also notice the V forms a slightly hidden S and the i,r and part of the g form a broken capital E,spelling the word SEX.
So you have Sex/Virgin in one word.Very clever Mr.Branson.

Anonymous said...

Zavvi are so shit. All they had to do was post my GTA4 last night...not half past 5 this afternoon! Useless shits, Branson wouldn't stand for this shit.