Selling new sounds: record retailers

modern record shop interior, with a large display of Beatles merchandise

© National Museums Liverpool

One of the principal ways that new sounds are heard is when the listening public buys them in the form of records. Today many of us buy records via the internet but for most of its history the record has mainly been available via a record shop. Record shops have declined in both number and variety in recent years, as large chain stores have edged smaller businesses out of the market. These larger stores are in turn arguably threatened themselves by the internet and by the huge general stores that treat records like any other commodity whose price can be cut from time to time. But they have been very influential in the process by which new sounds are heard and some still perform that role today.

The boom period for record shops lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s. In this time many different kinds of outlets sprang up, ranging from chain stores to small independent shops to mail-order businesses. Independent shops often developed specialisations, attracting enthusiasts for a particular style of music.

Despite the growth in record shops in the post-war years, hearing new sounds was not always an easy task and the Liverpool area was no exception. Birkenhead-born Michael Gray, an authority on Bob Dylan, talks of a time when requesting a record from a Merseyside record shop would be met by one of two responses: either it was in the charts and so had sold out, or it wasn't in the charts and so wasn't in stock. This is something of an exaggeration - but perhaps not by much. Getting to hear a piece of recorded music in the post-war era could be a rather trying experience. This was not always the fault of the record shop, as new sounds took a lot longer to reach the public.

Despite such difficulties record shops played an important role in making new music available, and in so doing became part of the means by which musical tastes were spread. The very existence of certain record shops or record departments allowed people to change their own listening practices. The existence of retail record shops that cared about different genres of music gave people the opportunity to hear new sounds that they would otherwise possibly not have heard, and in the process made these genres more widely known.

One of the most important ways record shops contributed to the spread of new sounds was by providing an access point, a place where music could be tried out and talked about. This complemented other ways of hearing new music, via live performance and the radio, and helped people to discover new sounds for themselves. Within an industry often accused of manipulation, these shops also gave people the chance to express some autonomy in the ways they exercised choice.

Record shops created record collectors. Collecting is often viewed as backward looking - only what is already known is collectable. But it has also been a significant element in maintaining interest in new sounds. Within the genre of music being collected typical collectors will continually seek to expand their horizons by finding out what is new and seeking to add it to their collections. Collecting has also created important social networks surrounding the consumption and production of music. In Liverpool good examples range across a wide span of years, from the Rhythm Clubs at the Hope Street Chauffeurs Club in the 1930s to the Record Fairs at the Bluecoat Arts Centre in the 1990s. Records were viewed not simply as artefacts but as holding symbolic value: listening to records was central to new ways of learning to play musical instruments and to understanding different cultures.

Follow the links below to explore how record shops have helped people in Liverpool to hear new sounds: