Labour History

Shopgirls as Consumers: Selling Popular Music in 1920s Australia

Labour History (2021), 121, (1), 155–174.

Abstract

The mid-1920s were boom years for the Australian gramophone trade. The most prominent multinational record companies had established local branches, and a handful of new factories produced millions of records for sale on the local market. Department stores joined an established network of music traders in retailing these cultural products. This article explores the labour of women involved in the retail sale of gramophone records in Melbourne. Selling recorded sound animated a charged rhetoric of musical meliorism, class and taste, according to which the value of the product was determined by the supposed musical quality thereof. Australian saleswomen or “shopgirls” were required to perform evidence of their modernity in the commercial encounter. I propose that conceiving of record saleswomen as simultaneously sellers and consumers provides valuable insight into the entangled nature of capitalism and culture in the realm of Australian music. This exploration of the process of commercialisation of recorded music illuminates the connection between labour and culture, leisure and society in colonial modernity.

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Author details

Reese, Henry