Record shop categories

Photo: Juke Box Jive, Poole (now gone)

Music has always been divided into categories, from the earliest days when blues and jazz in the USA were sold as ‘Race Records,’ and categories mean a lot to fans.

Tower Records, Piccadilly. Not long before the Tower group went bust. I was upstairs, looking for a Bonnie Raitt record. After a few minutes browsing in blues, the helpful enquiry, ‘Are you finding everything you’re looking for?’ broke into my concentration.

That’s something record stores stopped asking around 2005, tired of the inevitable, ‘No, you haven’t got it …’

Anyway the conversation continued:

Me: I can’t find the Bonnie Raitt section.
Him:  No, no, you’re looking in blues.
Me:  I understand that. It says ‘Blues’ just here.
Him: She’s in country.
Me: Bonnie Raitt?
Him: Right.
Me: But she’s been recording with John Lee Hooker.
Him:  Listen … no one gets in my blues section who has pedal steel on their records. No one.
Me: Right … but she doesn’t have pedal steel on every album.
Him: But she’s got red hair.  

A few years later, in Virgin, as that same Piccadilly flagship store became on its way to being Zavvi, before they became HMV and that went bust too. I was looking for The Dillards without success. I tried Americana, then Country, then Folk. No luck. So I asked … Bluegrass. Obvious. They’ve got a banjo player.

Sections complicate life. If you’re looking for albums by Jamie Liddell, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, James Hunter, Duffy and Amy Winehouse, you’d think these sort of nouveaux soul artists would be nestled together in the CD racks. Not in my local store … Jamie Liddell was in Dance, Sharon Jones was in R&B, Amy Winehouse was in Urban, Duffy was in Pop + Rock and James Hunter was in Soul. There’s not much sense to it. 

I was horrified to find Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Eddie Cochran in Easy Listening. Explanation? Only old people buy them. Awopbopaloobop, Awamboombam to that.

The answer is that with plummeting sales, we’ll have only Pop + Rock, Urban, Metal and Specialist. At the end, Classical, Jazz, Easy Listening, Rock & Roll, New Age, World, Country, Folk, Blues. Foreign and Gospel all crammed in one small section labelled Specialist Music.

In the olden days … 1950s

EMI’s Parlophone catalogue in October 1956 divides music into categories:

Vocal (Richard Tauber), Variety, Dance (strict tempo), Rhythm Style (big band), Scottish (a large category), Light orchestral, Instrumental (piano), Continental. Classical and Opera are on the HMV label.

What we would consider popular is under the Variety heading, which is wide, including Mandy Miller’s Nellie The Elephant, Johnny Dankworth’s Journey into Jazz, Shirley Abicair’s Little Boy Fishin’, Dick James’ Robin Hood, Bert Weedon The Boy With The Magic Guitar, Earl Bostic with Bill Doggett Mean To Me, and Fever by Little Willie John. So from children’s novelty via jazz via guitar instrumental to early R&B.

HMV in September 1956 has: Band (i.e. military), Opera, Orchestral (i.e. classical), Light Orchestral, Instrumental (pianoforte), Vocal (e.g. Victoria de Los Angeles), Musical Shows, Variety, Swing, Jazz, Poetry and Drama, Shakespeare. Variety has Perry Como, Roy Rogers (children), Bernard Miles (comedy), Tommy Dorsey.


So back to the local record store in the 1960s. There are listening booths. In most stores these are hooded open areas. In plush stores they’re small rooms. You can ask to listen to stuff … not through greasy Brylcreem covered headsets either. They have glass doors to avoid the use any teenage couple would put the rooms to.

The categories are unfamiliar too. The main divisions will be classical, jazz, popular vocal, popular groups and instrumental. Popular vocal will be divided into Male Vocal and Female Vocal. There’s a music shop in Bath that still had these categories in 2011 when it closed: the original racks looked as if they had been subdivided to fit CDs.  Instrumental doesn’t mean The Shadows, The Ventures or even the John Barry Seven either. Those are in Popular Groups. 

Instrumental is an LP dominated section, the LPs emblazoned with logos like Phase Four Stereo. This is a section of lush easy-listening stereo samplers (never mind the music, listen to the width), with a little bit of Victor Silvester and Joe Loss for ballroom dancers. It might have a sub label STRICT TEMPO. 

Is a classical orchestra conducted by Ron Goodwin doing 633 Squadron in classical or instrumental? That was cured by the fact that stage musical and film soundtracks dominated the late fifties / early 60s LP charts so Soundtracks was granted its own section.

As with all sub-divisions, there are headaches. Do Buddy Holly (solo) and The Crickets (i.e. early Buddy Holly) go in different sections for Male Vocal and Vocal Groups? Say you revert to alphabetical. Period. That avoids categories … so do you file Buddy Holly separately to The Crickets under H? What about Buddy Holly & The Crickets? What about The Crickets post-Buddy Holly?

So when we look at the labels on racks today, the mindset was not the fine divisions of today. Little Richard, Solomon Burke, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Matt Monro and Adam Faith were all ‘male vocal’ rather than rock ‘n’ roll, soul, easy listening and pop.

Reading Record Fair, 2019, UK

The picture above is typical for secondhand categories:

AC -DC / Beatles- Stones / Bob Dylan / Queen / Pink Floyd / Nirvana- Pearl Jam – Grunge / Punk – New Wave / Hard Rock-Metal / Reggae -Blues – Soul- Jazz / Indie- Brit Pop / 1980s, 1990s, 2000s / Seventies / Sixties / New Stock – Just In / Collectable 7″ singles / CDs as priced.

Sellers can buy pre-printed 12″ and 7″ dividers (you can dictate what is to be printed) or they can use a marker. The already pre-printed packs of four would only suit the tiniest selection … Pop, Rock, Soul, Reggae.

No two will have the same categories, and it’s fluid. If a shop buys in every Bobby Darin LP in Excellent condition by chance, then it would create a Bobby Darin section.

Category: 50s & 60s. Then alphabetical. Disc-O-Box, Blandford Forum, Dorset

Artist sections are usually dividers within alphabetical sections. They’re based on stock. The most common will be Sinatra, Elvis, Cliff + Shadows, Beatles, Dylan, Rolling Stones, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen, Queen, Madonna, Prince, but it’s whatever comes into the shop in any quantity. Several sellers have Beatles and Beatles solo separately. Specialists will have Beatles, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starr, Covers. One of my favourites has dividers in the rock ‘n’ roll section: Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis.

All collectors and sellers have special interests. Most shops will be happy with a single Reggae section, but a specialist store might sub-divide into Ska / Blue beat / Reggae / Dub and more.

Soul? Yes, but in the South at least there will usually be Soul, Motown, Disco. Jazz? That’s a category that no longer flies off the self, but you can find Big Band, Trad, Modern, Soul jazz.

Others: Pysch, Prog, Mod, Mod-Revival, Two-Tone, Merseybeat, Rockabilly, Humour, Novelty, Sound effects, Children, Folk, Country & Western, Bluegrass, Americana. I’ve see ‘Trad folk’ ‘Folk rock,’ ‘Nu-folk.’

I don’t even know what the sub-sections are for rap and hip-hop, or for ‘dance.’

Secondhand stores? While they’re usually alphabetical and in sections, some secondhand dealers still use the time-honoured system of categorizing by labels for singles and EPs, especially at Record Fairs. I like it … you have an image of Stateside, or Sue, or London-American, or Pye International and what you mind find there.

Another useful secondhand category is JUST IN or RECENT for regular customers.

Nashville, Tennessee … alphabetical 45 with artist names within sections

One store (Weasels, Southampton, now gone … yet another one) had a novel presentation, which was having sections for individual years, so you browsed 1962 or 1968 or 1971. It’s categorized by release or chart date (which you can look up), not from the production date of the recording, which is often a year earlier; sometimes several years earlier. I was told some collectors aim to find the entire Top Ten or Twenty or Fifty for a particular week or weeks.

One category that many secondhand stores have is Rare. Or Collectable. That means the box is kept on the counter right by the shop owner and the contents are expensive.

The worst category is “Speciality.” This photo is HMV Bath in May 2022, They’d moved from three floors to a single floor. After you get past the T-shirts and games you find that instead of the excellent jazz, classical, rock and roll, blues, folk, soundtrack, C&W, Reggae, World sections they used to have, there is just one section”Speciality Music.” Chopin, Boccherini, John Denver and Johnny Cash rub shoulders with the Annie OST, Fats Domino and French language. I hate to be pessimistic, but it’s exactly what Virgin music stores did … just before they folded.

Recycled Records: Haight Ashbury, San Francisco.
No particular reason. I just like pictures of record stores.