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The Demise Of HMV

Music and entertainment retailer HMV has called in the administrators. The recession, the failure to adapt sufficiently to the digital revolution and so on, after they spent years raking in cash on over-priced CDs, have made this inevitable. Over four thousand jobs are at risk, thanks to what one analyst in the BBC coverage to which I linked calls a ‘structural failure’. They made little tweaks, giving more prominence to DVDs, computer games and MP3 accessories, but tweaks weren’t enough. A revolution was needed, and it never came. The parallels for the Christian Church are obvious. Many a time have I quoted the Seven Last Words Of A Dying Church: “But we’ve always done it this way.”

Hall_Oates_LuncheonetteBut I watch the collapse of HMV with genuine sadness. A part of my youth and young adulthood is disappearing. As a teenager, I used to take the bus up to central London, to their huge store in Oxford Street. I would go there with my best friend during the school holidays. We would go up to the singles counter and think of all sorts of old records to request. In those long-before-the-Internet days, it was one place where I could buy something relatively obscure. So when I was first stunned by hearing the long version of ‘She’s Gone’ by an unheard-of American duo called Daryl Hall and John Oates, it was to HMV Oxford Street that I went to buy the album which contained it, ‘Abandoned Luncheonette‘ (still a great album, BTW). But as supermarkets have invaded the space and only sold high volume titles at big discounts, the joy of rummaging around the back catalogue disappeared from HMV shops. When they were available – such as when I started buying CDs by new country artists such as Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Lyle Lovett in the early 1990s – the prices were so high as to need a mortgage. It was a good job I was a single man way back then.

Now, at least part of the Internet supports the ‘long tail’ theory and I can get old titles on Amazon or iTunes.  But the rise of digital and the idea that ‘there is no real future for physical retail in the music sector’, as that analyst puts it, leaves me sad. Yes, I do sometimes download, but another part of my youth was as a hi-fi fan, and you can’t tell me that compressed, lossy files match up to what you can hear on a high quality sound system.

I don’t suppose anything more than an Oxford Street rump will survive the attentions of Deloitte, if anything. I will miss you, HMV.

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Death Of A Salesman: Some Christian Reflections On Steve Jobs

Here is my text, and it is taken from a friend’s Facebook profile. She said she

does not feel the need to either beatify or demonize Steve Jobs. I acknowledge that his presence on earth had a significant effect on human history.

I  only own one Apple product: an iPod. Why don’t I own an iMac, a MacBook, an iPhone or an iPad? Firstly, because I can’t afford them. Secondly, because there are certain diplomacies in our family, when a close relative works for Microsoft. Yes, Windows frustrates me at times, and perhaps it would be nice to have a product that allegedly ‘just works’, but that also means re-educating the entire family to a new operating system. Besides, like a car mechanic who doesn’t mind owning a lesser car because he can fix the problems, I can often work out (at least with the help of Google) what to do when we have a problem, and I learn as a result.

Ultimately, finance and functionality are the reasons I don’t buy Apple. It would be nice to have the aesthetically pleasing designs, but on a limited budget the bang to buck equation is about getting the specifications I need. Apple aesthetics are a luxury I can’t afford. But certainly I have to acknowledge that was one innovation Steve Jobs brought into computing. Not for him the world of beige boxes, the man who studied calligraphy wanted products to beautiful as well as simple and workable. Might it be that especially in the free churches, we so concentrate on function at the expense of beauty that we are utilitarian Christians?
I bear Steve Jobs’ family and friends no ill. But in the days since his death, a lot of twaddle has been written, and a lot of Diana-style hysteria has been expressed. Cult Of Mac seems exactly the right title.  The secular website Gawker got it right, I think: Steve Jobs was not God. We have heard that Jobs ‘gave’ us various things. No, he didn’t: he sold us things. (And dreams, too.) Or that he ‘invented’ things. No, the inventors were Steve Wozniak and his successors. Jobs was a salesman and a showman. That isn’t necessarily wrong, either: it just depends how you exercise it.
The genius of Jobs (if genius is not an overused word) was not as an originator, but as one who took products that were failing to reach the mass market and transforming them into propositions that did. The Apple II was not the first personal computer, the Altair 8800 had beaten it, but arguably the Apple created the market. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but he popularised it. Likewise, there were tablet computers before the iPad, but he bossed the market and made it attractive. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Jobs was the technological John Wesley? Wesley mostly took existing theological ideas and made them explode with power (the one exception, perhaps being his doctrine of Christian perfection).

If Jobs had an area of originality, I would suggest it was iTunes: he took all the sanctimonious moaning of the recording industry about pirating, and forced them into a fairly reasonable pricing model. Other download sites have since, in my opinion, rushed through the open gate created to provide a better and often cheaper service.

Then, although selling is a dirty concept in Christianity, I have to admire the man’s enthusiasm in his product unveilings. Having famously taken such detailed interest in the precise design of products, I take the excitement he projected when unveiling a new toy as utterly genuine. For those of us in the church who have got tired, jaded and cynical, a dose of Jobs’ passion for what he introduced – even though we do not sell the Gospel – could be good for us.
Jobs has been compared to various people in the last few days, from Thomas Edison to Walt Disney. Whatever the merits, I suggest two British comparisons: Richard Branson and Felix Dennis. Like Jobs, they were ex-hippies who made vast fortunes in business. Dennis, perhaps, is the most striking, as the editor of Oz magazine who was imprisoned, but who now heads up the Dennis Publishing empire. Compare that to Jobs, who dropped out, travelled to India, took LSD and took up Buddhism – although where his Buddhism influenced his business is far from certain. At least his arch-rival Bill Gates set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Perhaps nowhere is Jobs’ post-hippie business philosophy better seen than in his famous Stanford University Commencement Address of 2005. While it also contains powerful statements such as those on how the certainty of death should focus everyone’s life (he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer the year before), some of it is a shallow, individualist, follow your own road creed. If you don’t have time to watch the entire fifteen minutes below, the text with annotated commentary can be found here.

And he finesses the story in places. Is it true that ‘Windows just copied the Mac’? More likely it’s true that both copied the GUI (Graphical User Interface) they saw at the Xerox PARC Research Center.
I have no desire to be cruel about Jobs. I leave that to the nasty words of people like Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, whose comments at the time of Jobs’ death were so foul I shall not even link to them here. But I do wish there was a sense of realism. Jobs was the visionary and extremely clever CEO of a consumer products company. Yes, a massively influential one. But just as Princess Diana’s funeral overshadowed the death of Mother Teresa the day before, so on the same day as Steve Jobs died, a hero of the American Civil Rights Movement also passed away, the Revd Fred Shuttlesworth (as the Gawker article I linked to above notes). Which one contributed more to the kingdom of God? That has to be a Christian question. Because for God, it is less about the feted celebrities and more about those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Rest in peace, Mr Jobs. May your loved ones find comfort in your passing. But may the rest of us stop getting carried away.