Record shops

shop display of record sleeves on wall and in browseable racks

© Lee Fullington

Record shops have long sustained music scenes. Even today, as more and more people download music in the form of mp3 files and buy music on-line, certain types of record shops survive, partly because they are integral to music scenes. But why are these shops so important and how come they have survived?

One of the earliest record shops in Britain was HMV, which opened in London in 1921 when the market for records was comparatively limited. Small record shops emerged specialising in specific styles of music such as classical, jazz and folk but for the most part records were sold in other types of shops, particularly electrical shops.

The upsurge in buying pop records in the early 1960s led to changes in record retailing and the emergence of new independent record shops (independent of a national chain), especially when pop began to diversify in the late 1960s. The rise of rock music, and with it the album format, meant that shops with staff who had a specialist knowledge of the new styles were favoured by customers who participated in the rock scene. The sales of chart singles, in particular, tended to migrate to the high street stores such as Woolworths, while the newly-created Virgin and then HMV chains concentrated on rock albums. (The first ever Woolworths shop in the UK opened in Liverpool in 1909. Liverpool also housed the first Virgin record shop outside of London.)

In all of this the independent shops remained important. This was partly due to geographical factors (the chain shops were concentrated in cities, making the independent shops that were located outside of cities especially important) and partly because some independent record shops were willing and able to supply albums and singles by music groups that were not part of the rock mainstream. In the mid-1970s, for example, Virgin would certainly sell reggae albums by Bob Marley but would be less likely to stock lesser-known but nevertheless important Jamaican artists such as King Tubby.

In these and other ways independent record shops became heavily involved with the scenes that they supported. This is indicated by the way such shops have featured in Hollywood films such as 'Pretty in Pink', 'Hairspray' and 'High Fidelity'. Their true worth was shown by the rise of punk rock. One of the distinctive aspects of Punk was its emphasis on 7-inch singles. With UK chain stores being geared towards album sales, and much punk music being recorded cheaply in studios across the country, independent record shops became essential to the development of punk as a scene.

Punks standing outside a record shop with music posters on the wall

Regulars outside Probe Records © Geoff Davies

In Liverpool, Probe Records has been closely connected to local punk and post-punk scenes. Probe sold records but was also a place where musicians, fans and record-collectors went to hang out, hear new sounds and seek information on music events and activities. During the mid-1980s groups of punks and goths would gather on the steps leading up to Probe. The shop counter would be crowded with flyers advertising forthcoming gigs, and the walls pinned with notices from musicians looking for other musicians to form a band with.

Behind the counter the shop was staffed by musicians, some of whom went on to achieve international notoriety as recording artists. Today staff at Probe offer recommendations on what to buy and pride themselves on their in-depth knowledge of lesser known music scenes and styles. As one member of staff put it,

"You will find stuff here that you could in HMV or Virgin, but a majority of the stuff we've got, I hope you won't!"

Liverpool has housed a number of other notable independent record shops. Pat and Gerry Allen's was Liverpool's specialist country music record shop until its closure in 1994. Both Pat and Gerry were country musicians and were well known and well liked within the local country scene. This was illustrated by Gerry's funeral, which was attended by a large and illustrious gathering of country musicians, some of who performed during the event. Meanwhile 3 Beat Records has supported Liverpool's electronic dance scene, selling records but also providing a space where musicians and DJs can hang out and develop ideas and contacts for the production of new dance recordings.

The larger chain stores have also provided some support for local scenes. Virgin, for example, has organised widow displays of releases by Liverpool-based artists. Ironically, however, 2007 was a year in which two national chains (Fopp and Musiczone) closed and Virgin disappeared from the high street, but Probe and 3 Beat have survived because they remain connected to music scenes.