Is Doug Putman the saviour of physical entertainment?
Following the Sunrise Records owner and CEO’s acquisition of HMV, he’s certainly a popular man in the UK music industry – and at those 100 sites where the music chain will still have a presence.
Putman’s potential impact on physical music puts him up there with some of the key music retail figures in North America and the UK. After buying the five-store Canadian retail chain Sunrise Records in 2014, he then acquired HMV Canada two years later. Following a seven-figure investment, Sunrise Records has expanded to 84 branches and says it’s profitable.
His music retail empire now has an extra 100 stores, though HMV will retain its name in the UK. Putman also owns family business Everest Toys, the largest toys and games distribution company in North America, which presumably explains the lifesize model of Friday The 13’s Jason Voorhees he has lurking in his Ontario office. But he’s stressed that the record stores don’t stock toys.
Industry figures who have spoken to Music Week after the deal was announced were enthusiastic about having a music lover at the helm of HMV. At 34, he’s also perhaps more in touch than some of his rival bidders for the brand.
When interviewed by The Hamilton Spectator in 2017, the Ontario newspaper portrayed a laid-back executive with a turntable in the office alongside a giant tropical fish aquarium and the blood-splattered Voorhees. A golden retriever wandered the building in Ancaster Business Park, which then employed 110 staff across Everest and Sunrise.
On the turntable, Putman plays his favourite album – Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.
"I like the warmer sound of vinyl and I feel there is a huge passion out there for physical content," he said. "People think the younger generation is all about digital. But the reality is that digital is all they knew growing up and now they are finding vinyl and they love the collecting piece of it. They just didn't have that experience before. And now that they have it, they are becoming hooked and absolutely love it."
I like the warmer sound of vinyl and feel there is a huge passion out there for physical content
When he spoke to Radio 4’s Today on completion of the deal this week, Putman played down his own vinyl obsession.
“More importantly than what I want is what the customer wants,” he said. “The customer wants more selection and vinyl and more depth of catalogue.”
Oh hey, UK! The rumours are true and we couldn’t be more excited. Long live physical media! ???????????????? #HMVxSunrise https://t.co/flsMYIEy38 https://t.co/tJmTTGagea— Sunrise Records (@sunriserecords) February 5, 2019
Nevertheless, the expansion of Sunrise, and now the acquisition of HMV, underlines Putman’s own love of record stores. With other non-specialists reducing their music range, that might also be an opportunity for a bricks-and-mortar retailer.
“There’s no doubt online is a big part of overall retail sales,” Putman said on Radio 4. “But people love to come into a store, have an experience, talk with someone who understands music, loves music, loves video and entertainment. If you think online is the only future, I just think that’s not going to be the case. There’s so much you get from coming to a store that just can’t get online.”
In Canada, Putman allows managers to make purchasing decisions based on their markets. He has even backed emerging artists with competitions to get their music stocked in Sunrise.
“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Sunrise have made a really good go of it in Canada,” one industry insider told Music Week.
The acquisition of HMV is a gamble, but it’s happened as Warner Music reports increasing physical music sales and execs predict a future for CD and vinyl. Physical decline may be slowing or even bottoming out, while the value of vinyl and deluxe editions means it’s still a substantial part of the business.
If his timing is right, Putman’s prediction that HMV has a “very long road ahead” could well be true. Right now, music consumers and the industry are hoping he’s right.