On Vinyl #3

By David Bottoms


Now that we’ve (re)introduced the vinyl record and discussed its rescue and preservation, we can ponder a very nebulous aspect of the hobby: the question of value. Perhaps the word should be in quotes, as there is almost no objective way to attribute value to a record. It’s very subjective, and for several reasons.

The value of any given piece, except an extremely rare specimen, hinges on condition. There are specific grades for 78 rpm, as well as microgroove records, and the grading extends to the sleeve or jacket. Accordingly, to see a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours listed as VG/VG+ tells you the condition of first the jacket, then the record. Along these lines, still-sealed records can be problematic. While it may seem that a sealed copy of a nice ‘60s Rock LP would be desirable, unless the shrinkwrap has been broken you’ve no way of being positive what’s inside. The wrong disc in the wrong jacket, or something as simple as the industry policy of utilizing jackets until they were used up (resulting in a vintage jacket housing a newer-press LP) can be still-sealed pitfalls.

The rise of online marketplace sites, eBay in particular, destroyed the notion that (most) LPs were rare and so could command big prices. Those prices—most sourced from price guides as well as collector-group figures—were changed drastically in the last ten years as people realized, even with Beatles records or the like, that there were millions of these records pressed, and that a great many of them are still out there. Regardless, there were legions of trusting souls who ran up astronomical bids for copies of Thriller in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. Such phenomena say much about the perception vs. reality of the hobby.

Having said that, we’re coming up on the 50th Anniversary (January 20th, 2014) of the release of Meet the Beatles, an iconic recording that sold trainloads of copies and went through years of constant re-pressing. As the Boomers (as well as the rest of us) realize that this milestone is upon them, it’ll spark a culture-wide reappraisal of the music of those days, which will give rise to further celebratory nods to the Summer of Love, Woodstock and so forth.

The records of this time will probably increase in demand and price simply because of the groundswell of, again, this vast cultural discussion. And at the risk of carrying my Beatles example too far, they’re a good a band as any to discuss a sub-aspect of value: pressing history. Copies of Meet the Beatles are distinguished by their proximity to the true “first press,” which came off the line at the Scranton, Pennsylvania plant in late 1963. These examples’ labels have no writers’ credits after the songs, and are considered very desirable. Owing to the popularity of the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” single, second pressings were authorized on January 8th, 1964 (a “second press”), then again on February 13th (a “third press”), and so forth. The order of your copy is indicated by the minutiae of the writers’ credits on the labels.

Furthermore, a small numeral on the lower right-hand corner of the jacket indicated the record’s pressing-plant of origin. If you saw a listing that read “Mono second press, Los Angeles, VG/VG,” then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s being offered.

A note about mono-or-stereo.

Companies began to offer stereo recordings around 1962, and by 1968 they were the norm. Therefore, when monaural was pretty much the standard, most buyers (unless they were hi-fi enthusiasts) didn’t necessarily seek out the stereo version of a record. For that reason, a collector considering a Peter, Paul and Mary stereo release from ’62 or a Loretta Lynn album in stereo from ’63 will have to part with a bit more than for the mono copy.

By the same token, “late” mono copies can fetch a bit as well. Although the US had abandoned mono by ’68, UK firms continued to issue acts such as the Doors and the Rolling Stones into 1969, with some Latin American releases continuing beyond even then.

Regardless of pressing order or sound channeling, most folks will be happy to find a clean copy of a vintage disc, and that’s what matters. If you’ve got a chance to hear Acker Bilk or the New Christy Minstrels or Lulu or whomever, and the music makes you happy, then you’ve had a successful day in the hobby!

A couple of examples can illustrate the influence of perception upon the price a person may ask for a record.

Surely, many of you have picked up a record at a friend or acquaintance’s house, and had the owner tell you with pride that “That’s a collector’s item.” (This scenario also occurs with wheat pennies, Wizard of Oz plates, comic books and so forth). The truth is that while its possessor may relish owning it, it’s of little to no value.

A few years back a co-worker mentioned that she’d come into her dad’s record collection. Would I want to have a look? They were all older…I said sure. The next day she showed up with the back of her SUV full of large, discount-store plastic tubs. These were full of hundreds of LPs. Someone had done much lifting and loading.

I began to flip through them, noting a few of mild interest, yet seeing nothing that could justify this strenuous operation.

“Um, what are you thinking price-wise?” I asked. She indicated small stickers on some of them, and here’s where I may’ve issued a small groan. There was a copy of Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling with a price that read…$40. Had I the time and inclination, and didn’t care about sparing her feelings, I’d have pointed out that anyone who wanted this music already had it, and that if they still had it on a physical piece it was likely a CD. More probable was that they had the album’s hits on an mP3 playlist. As for a collector, most would only see it as a mild curiosity, maybe good for a spin if gotten for cheap, but no one would pony up two twenties for the privilege.

Instead I made my excuses, offering the advice that she put a sign in her front yard one Saturday that said LPs–$3, and that she’d probably move a lot of them that way.

Another fellow who’d do well to follow that advice is a guy with a vintage store here in town. He’s bought out several collectors, and while he does have many sweet pieces he’s also got tens of thousands of LPs that are languishing in the gloom. I’ve made a few trips up to the counter with a handful of 45s, or a few LPs, only to watch him scamper over to the laptop and head straight to the online price guide. No, no, no. Even if you give me a discount on the “list price” per the record’s condition, it’s still dumb. No one else in this town will be wishing to buy this Les Paul and Mary Ford record today, so let’s recalibrate our policy a little, eh?

I encountered a dear couple who run a second-hand joint out in a rural area about 20 miles south of here. One day as I drove by, returning from a long delivery route, I noticed that their roadside marquee read ELVIS LPS, INCLUDING THE RARE BLUE ALBUM. Oh boy, I thought, stopping. They were referring to the 1977 LP Moody Blue, which was pressed on blue vinyl for its entire run, with only a few copies pressed on black (the true collectible). I saw no reason to burst their bubble, but seeing as how they did have quite a few clean ‘60s soundtracks, I suggested setting up an eBay page or at least a listing on Craigslist: the odds of a collector, who had the money they were asking, stumbling across them out here at a country crossroads was remote.

Records are so often a seller’s market, though that doesn’t take into account someone selling a piece for a nice price (or even giving it away) because they don’t much care for the artist, or simply out of generosity. After collecting for a while, everyone will have stories both good and bad…of absurd price tags, missed opportunities, yard-sale bonanzas and other such moments that may be shared with others in the pursuit, and that’s what keeps the whole thing fun.