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A Guide to Record Collecting Now
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“Did you go to school for this?”
I’d never been asked that before. I’d also never thought about whether a degree program for record buying could or should exist. As a record dealer, I’ve lost count of the number of folks who have invited me into their homes to encourage me to make an offer on their record collections. On each of these “house calls,” chances were good that I’d find myself in a colorful conversation, and all bets were off as to whether it would even be about music. On this particular occasion, I was sitting in the seller’s living room, surrounded by their records, and peering at a desirable disc that I was holding horizontally to see if it was warped. In doing so, I evidently looked very studious or very silly.
“No, no I didn’t,” I responded to their question with a bit of a laugh. But this made me think: How can one learn about buying and collecting vinyl records?
One way is to engage in buying and selling over many years. My friend Gary Burgess, who has dealt in vinyl for at least two decades, makes periodic references to his “education”: the innumerable records he’s bought, and continues to buy—whether from flea markets, thrift stores, retiring collectors, or other dealers—that fall short of his hopes for what they could be in terms of collectability and monetary value, in terms of sound, or both. (They often go hand in hand, after all.) If asked how he knows so much, he invariably responds that he’s “paid for a lot of lessons.” He’s right—so much of what you might simply call intuition is cultivated through an iterative trial-and-error process, earned one record at a time. Truly, there’s no substitute for experience; it’s a mighty teacher, even if it isn’t the most efficient one.
In my beginning collecting days, the early 2000s, I discovered a few key resources: friends and fellow volunteers at WXYC (my college radio station), local DJs and collectors, magazines, and internet message boards dedicated to funk, soul, and crate digging in general. But I craved more, and it turned out that a Burgesslike method worked well for me: purchasing records used and new, researching their value, listening to them, figuring out what I liked, and so on and so forth. Now that the internet has grown up, it offers a staggering array of record-related websites. This makes me feel both envious of newer collectors and overwhelmed on their behalf. If I were new to the game now, I’m not sure I’d know where to begin. Anyone looking to learn about vinyl for the first time, or learn more about vinyl, can benefit from a means of cutting through the sheer volume of info out there.
That’s where Vinyl Age comes in. Within these pages, you’ll find that Max Brzezinski, Carolina Soul’s marketing director, has crafted an insightful and thought-provoking work. He’s done so to give us, the readers, the benefit of someone else’s experience, to accelerate the vinyl learning curve so we can more quickly build our own philosophies, quickening the assembly and maintenance of a record collection that is most meaningful for each of us.
There are many ways to build a record collection that you’re passionate about. The best way, of course, is the one that feels right for you. I can tell you that even in my own home there isn’t a consensus on the ultimate approach. My wife, Hollie, has collected records for years and fits into Max’s description as a record “omnivore”: In her somewhat extensive collection you’ll find a variety of wildly divergent genres and styles. The vast majority are pieces that she acquired at yard sales, thrift shops, and library sales for $1 or less. She didn’t set out to accumulate a collection of great monetary worth; instead she revels in the constellation of sounds she might never have experienced if not for happenstance and affordability. For her, sticking to a low price point means that she feels free to take a chance on records that seem interesting, and she also feels just as free to eventually discard those that do not speak to her, while savoring the ones that truly do.
I’m more of what Max has termed as a “fundamentalist.” I’ve worked hard at collecting mostly within a single niche area: I’ve assembled a robust representation of independently released soul music from North and South Carolina in the 1960s through 1980s. This body of music has captivated me since I was twenty-one years old, volunteering at WXYC. The excitement of finding something obscure yet amazing, and doing so in my own backyard, initially drew me in. I loved the process of learning about the rich network of unheralded musicians that operated in the region where I grew up. Even today, I still serendipitously encounter local records that I haven’t seen before and that deserve a wider audience. I love this music so much that it seemed to be the most appropriate name for the business that I eventually founded and still operate today, Carolina Soul.
Over the last decade, Carolina Soul has grown out of my focused interests into a brick-and-mortar storefront in Durham, North Carolina, and an online storefront that routinely sends multiple genres and formats to collectors all around the world. In brief, going into business allowed me to work in a field that I was passionate about and enabled me to continue collecting within my niche area while selling my other finds to support the endeavor. In my early days of dealing, I would search out local sellers who might be offering a local record and I would look through everything else they had and make purchases, with an eye toward both education and resale. At home, I would sort through the purchases and figure out what to keep and what to sell. As is still the case now, my main avenue then for selling was through eBay auctions. I would personally describe, grade, photograph, and prepare sample recordings of each item, and then list them one by one on eBay. Eventually, I brought friends on board to help with the sales process. Along the way, we opened up our auctions to consignments from our personal connections, meaning we’d sell their records on their behalf. Today, the majority of our eBay sales are consignments, and these come to us from the public at large.
Consignment has been one of our greatest joys, and one of our greatest acquisition methods. The relationships we’ve built through consignment, and the material that we might never have seen otherwise, have been very exciting. Some of the most intriguing one-of-a-kind material has come to us on consignment: reggae dubplates, unreleased Miles Davis acetates, unreleased studio reel-to-reel tapes, promotional glossy photos, rockabilly 45s, and “radio spots” (promotional records used to advertise movies on the radio in the pre-digital era). Through the windows of these relationships, we have even more impressions of collecting types and how they can and probably will evolve over time, if given long enough. And that’s once again to show that there are no “right ways” to approach this world.
I believe that the issues raised in this book are truly worth thinking about. Some of it you may agree with, some of it you might not; regardless, you will have a fuller thought framework when it comes to buying and owning vinyl, and I believe that this is the book’s true gift to us, the readers. Whether you’re new to record collecting or, like me, have turned buying records into a profession, this book will encourage you to consider not only your approach, but also the assumptions that underlie it. If you are newer to record collecting, virtually all of this book will be particularly valuable for you. Max gives a great orientation to the record market that can serve as a shortcut to deciding how you might best approach various acquisition channels. He references some of the internet resources I personally use on a daily basis. If you’ve been collecting for some time now, I believe you will also find topics in these pages that will challenge you to consider your relationship with records. For example, in chapter 5, Max examines the experience of listening to vinyl, considering ways to appreciate music beyond the dimensions of space and time. I wonder what sound journeys this chapter will inspire. I certainly hope you’ll reach out and let us know!
Record collecting is an activity best experienced on one’s own terms. Vinyl Age will not decide for you what your approach and philosophy should be, but it will help inform the considerations you might make as part of your personal journey. The framework that Max develops here will be relevant to you whether you’ve yet to purchase your first record or whether your first record was acquired decades ago.
At the end of the day, when it comes to learning to collect, and continuing to collect, there’s no singular right way. Just start, and keep going. Bon voyage.
Carolina Soul Records
Playing the Record Game
As highlighted in our introduction, the internet has revolutionized record collecting. It has simultaneously erased old barriers to access and erected new ones. While reviving vinyl’s relevance, the internet has also turned parts of the record game into a highly speculative stock market where fortune favors the rich. It has superseded the simple world of handwritten want lists and printed price guides and put a complex new system in its place. For both new collectors and those looking to get deeper into records, it’s easier than ever to see what’s out there. But it’s also become more challenging than ever to collect records at the highest level. This chapter will map the new economic and cultural landscape of contemporary record collecting. Using charts drawn from Carolina Soul’s private sales data, I’ll detail the rules of the new record game, the challenges it presents to those looking to play it, and strategies for overcoming these challenges.
A RISE IN PRICES
One glaring effect of the internet on record collecting is a general rise in prices. From Rumours to rare Rex Harley, any given piece of vinyl is probably more expensive now than it would have been in, say, 1995. Although the record’s no longer the dominant music format, interest in vinyl both new and old has undeniably produced a seller’s market. By opening the record archive up to an international buying pool, eBay auctions have tended to redistribute vinyl wealth upward toward the 1 percent and away from everyone else. In turn, this has made rare record collecting more a game of the privileged than ever. As a result, some folks feel priced out, while others have been discouraged from even getting into records in the first place. While less expensive records are still more accessible to the average collector, the rise in record prices across the board has put the squeeze on all but the wealthiest buyers.
At the deepest level, this raises ethical questions about where records are going—both literally and figuratively. Can a system that takes records away from their local owners and puts them in the hands of a minority of rich international collectors possibly be just and fair? What’s more, most valuable records now go to high-income countries like the US, the UK, and Japan, with very few going to countries in Africa or South Asia (see Fig. 2). Wouldn’t it be better if radio stations, museums, schools, and universities could keep record collections whole, rather than the market scattering them around the world? These questions, however, point to structural problems without immediate, quick-fix solutions. They will require large-scale changes by the entire market, maybe even in the structure of capitalism itself. In the meantime, though, the situation is far from hopeless—the record game operates on many levels, and some are more exciting than ever. But if you don’t know the rules of a game, you’re doomed to lose out. And before you can play the record game well, you need to understand how it works—one method is provided below.
Knowledge of the record game is necessary both to succeed within it and to go beyond it. Even seemingly negative trends can be played to your advantage. For example, now that rare records have gone up in price, you can flip ones you don’t want in order to buy those you need. As it’s still possible to dig up such valuable records in the vinyl wilds, you can play the speculative game to expand your personal collection. All it takes is a little know-how, a willingness to travel, and an openness to getting your hands dirty.
This is just one example of a theme that I’ll expand upon below: wealth can’t buy taste. The most expensive records are not de facto the best. If you look at the best eBay sale aggregator, Popsike, you can sort completed record auctions by highest price. The records at the top of this list, the ones with the most outrageous price tags, are an aesthetic mixed bag—some are great, some just average, and some actively annoying, while still others are rare souvenirs of no particular musical interest. See Appendix 1.
The same goes for Carolina Soul’s private list of top sellers—a high price is no guarantee of aesthetic quality. For example, compare two of the company’s highest-priced Northern soul auction results: a vinyl promo. Does this mean the Larry Clinton is approximately 3.3 times the record of Saints? Of course not. In fact, I personally find the gliding elegance of “I’ll Let You Slide” superior to Clinton’s work on “She’s Wanted.” Yet the internet—by archiving, organizing, and making sales data publicly available—has seduced many into mistaking a high price for a marker of superior musical quality. This is because, at first glance, a price list seems objective, a way out of the subjective wilds of judgment and evaluation.
But data can’t save us. For example, in the case of the expensive Northern soul 45s above, remember that for any given genre, sales data reflect the taste of a small, wealthy niche audience, numbering only a few hundred people worldwide. It’s far from a value-neutral expression of the vox populi. Given that the buying data reveals only the tendencies and predilections of specific classes of buyers, it’s important to hang on to your own sense of judgment. You can use data as a tool to flip records, as a whetstone to sharpen your own taste, and to find out about music you haven’t heard. But there is no set list of classics to which you must automatically pay obeisance. Record data is fun and useful, but it does not reflect a standard on which to build a canon any more than Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
In other words, in the big-data internet era, remember that economic value and aesthetic value are never synonymous. Prices are moot when it comes to all the important questions about a record on its meaning, affective power, and historical significance. Some one-dollar records are amazing, while many expensive ones are dull. In this, as in so many other cases, you cannot trust the “rationality” of the market. Now that the internet has thrown records into a stock exchange, they’ve become subject to a host of irrational crazes and manias worthy of the Dutch tulip trade.
The internet has also put the price of individual records in flux. This means that a record you love can dramatically plummet or jump up in financial value. Take, for example, Ann Sexton’s soul perennial “You’ve Been Gone Too Long,” two of three versions of which have been dropping in dollar value (see Fig. 3). According to Carolina Soul data maven Nate Smith, this is because “the market was spooked for the most sought after version on Impel when in early 2013, quantity surfaced and 14 copies were sold on eBay over the course of just one month. The most common pressing, the Seventy Seven yellow label version, has suffered an even more dramatic decline in value, –50%, because people have been pumping copies onto eBay steadily since the early 2000s.” In response, one might be led subconsciously to reconsider Ann Sexton’s 45 in light of this market revaluation. You might start thinking of “You’ve Been Gone Too Long” as a more “common” sounding record than you once thought, equating its higher quantity with lower quality. But while your experience of listening to Ann Sexton encompasses a complex range of personal associations, thoughts, and feelings, the record’s going rate on eBay is a simple number. On the flip side, when a record rises in value like Eula Cooper’s “Let Our Love Grow Higher” has (see Fig. 4), you may find yourself second-guessing your previous take on the record, straining to hear what others now seem to hear. Or in the case of a record that has maintained a steady value, like the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President” (see Fig. 5), you may assume it’s a classic simply because it seems impervious to fluctuations in the market. But you must remember the market is just one source of information, and a narrow and faulty one even in the best of times. Charting prices is essential and a useful research tool if you want to flip records, but resist the temptation to conflate the voice of money with the voice of a record itself, because in reality the two speak different languages.
GAINED VALUE: Equatics “Doin It” (no label)
REISSUE: Now-Again, Feb 2010
RE-PRESS: Jul 2017
LOST VALUE: Milton Wright “Spaced” (Alston)
REISSUE: Jazzman Oct 2008
GAINED VALUE: M’Boom “Re:Percussion” (Strata-East)
REISSUE: Think!, Oct 2012
LOST VALUE: Edge Of Daybreak “Eyes Of Love” (Bohannon’s)
REISSUE: Numero Group, Oct 2015
GAINED VALUE: Stark Reality “Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop” (AJP)
REISSUE: Now-Again, May 2015
LOST VALUE: Brief Encounter “S/T” (Seventy-Seven)
REISSUE: P-Vine, Oct 2010 and Jazzman, Jan 2011
GAINED VALUE: Patterson Twins “Let Me Be Your Lover” (Commercial)
REISSUE: Think!, Sep 2013
LOST VALUE: Freddie Terrell’s Soul Expedition “S/T” (Lefevre Sound)
REISSUE: Jazzman, Jan 2005
GAINED VALUE: Rhythm Machine “S/T” (self-titled Lulu)
REISSUE: Now-Again, Jul 2012
LOST VALUE: Tommy McGee “Positive-Negative” (MTMG)
REISSUE: Numero Group, May 2016
As mentioned in the introduction, reissue labels were the first to capitalize on the internet’s expansion of popular musical horizons. Labels like Now-Again and Numero Group in the US, Jazzman in the UK, and P-Vine in Japan started reissuing records previously known only to “heads” or not at all. Fig. 6 explores the effect of such reissues on the value of original pressings. As you can see, half of the original pressings studied lost some value after their reissue, while the other half saw a rise in value. In other words, it’s unclear whether reissues have an inhibitive or enticing effect on buyers. Whatever the case, it seems clear that reissues and originals can coexist in the marketplace without the risk of one replacing the other.
Just as you shouldn’t take the market as a reflection of universal taste, don’t take reissues as a reflection of the underground’s taste. Take the reissue canon, too, with a grain of salt. Though respected reissue labels have brought many cool records back into wider circulation, their catalogs do not directly reflect the will of the independent music community or of hardcore diggers. What gets reissued is often an accident of copyright, the condition of master tapes, and specific dealings between labels and artists. Musical greatness or historical significance is no automatic guarantee of a prestigious reissue, while a subpar record is sometimes cynically reissued as a “lost classic” just because a deal made financial sense for its reissue label.
NAVIGATING TASTE COMMUNITIES
To establish your taste in records contra the market (including the reissue market), you needn’t go it alone. There are a variety of face-to-face and virtual communities out there, each with its own record canon methods of interpreting and using vinyl. Joining in the life of such communities will help you resist internalizing market prices as your aesthetic values. The internet has spawned a dizzying number of small taste cultures, micro-scenes, and boutique associations focused on particular subgenres. And despite the homogenizing effects of gentrification on culture, local music scenes still exist everywhere. Some are bigger and/or more interesting than others, but all challenge the objectivity of the price system in their practices. Engaging with them will help you learn and clarify your own taste.
In “real life,” find local record stores and determine their genre specialties; find niche clubs and take in their house sound. Tune in to college and community radio stations and/or volunteer there—these are spaces to learn. In Carolina Soul’s area, North Carolina’s Triangle (Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill), each local institution carves up music in a different way. While there’s some overlap, each scene has its own style. The four major independent radio stations—WXDU, WXYC, WHUP, and WKNC—attract different types of DJs and are almost always immediately distinguishable from one another. All their sounds draw heavily from their vinyl music libraries, and each one will expose you to a different vibe. Likewise, each record store in the Triangle has a distinctly different focus. For example, the records in Carolina Soul’s store in Durham skew toward black popular music from the 1950s to the 1980s, while the stock of All Day Records in nearby Carrboro leans heavily toward more contemporary dance and electronic records. Sorry State Records in Raleigh specializes in punk, hardcore, and metal. Local labels like Merge and Paradise of Bachelors put out primarily indie rock and boutique folk, respectively—and so have different canons and record cultures. The more music communities you can find, the more raw material you will have to draw on in order to decide what’s important for you. If you enter into these communities with openness and love, you will find models for new ways of hearing cool records. Not only will it help you find these records, but it’s also genuinely rewarding to make friendships and intellectual connections with people. In communities of friends, people trade and gift records all the time.
If you’re introverted and all this proposed social interaction sounds overwhelming, there’s always online record life. You can use social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and online message boards (for example, Soul Source for soul and Terminal Boredom for punk), although the latter have somewhat faded in importance in recent years. Facebook has invite-only and public groups (like Now Playing) in which you can trade records, and socialize with other record collectors. Record Instagram is another way to explore new music. While it tends to be a little more braggy than other sites, it’s still a rich research tool. While people come to these groups for all sorts of reasons, and they’re easily infiltrated by what hippies used to call “breadheads,” such communities couldn’t exist without people who find much more in the music than a way to make a buck. After all, despite the boom in prices, the profit margins for records will never equal the outrageous ones of corporations and finance firms.
On the internet, music writing and radio have also been subject to fragmentation and diversification. While older websites like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone sometimes continue to write as if they possess an omniscient grasp of the scene, smaller genre-specific sites and independent streaming radio stations are better sources to learn about new movements and trends. Rather than look to large corporate websites for the key to all mythologies, find ones that connect with you and your community’s particular interests. For example, if you want to dig deeper into contemporary dance and electronic, start reading Resident Advisor. For the history of psych, loner, and generally out-there countercultural music, look into the archives of sites like Perfect Sound Forever and the WFMU blog. There are niche publications online for almost every genre, so just start poking around. Go down YouTube rabbit holes and test out what the algorithm churns up. And maybe above all, listen to independent online radio. Freeform stations like NTS (London and now LA), Red Light Radio (Amsterdam), Intergalactic FM (The Hague), and WFMU (Jersey City) play tons of vinyl, run for twenty-four hours a day, and will expose you to new artists and subgenres hourly if you give them a chance. NTS in particular, because it permanently archives all its shows, is a treasure trove (and where Carolina Soul has had its own show for more than four years now).
- On Sale
- Nov 17, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Black Dog & Leventhal