Hardcore collectors spend hour upon hour at estate sales, crawl through dank, dirty basements and crawl spaces in search of that rare gem among the rubbish, hoping to make the one find that will net tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could understand such behavior if they were looking for diamonds or gold. But vinyl?
Oddly enough, perhaps, in an increasingly digital world, vinyl records have become a hot item. And the most valuable items only seem to be increasing in value.
Thinking there might be something valuable in a crate of records in your attic is one thing. But getting involved in the vinyl record collecting business requires hard work, perseverance and knowledge of the industry.
While CD sales have plunged in recent years, vinyl album sales increased 89 percent in 2008 from 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But the rare finds are what pique the interest of collectors.
At the top of the heap are such scarce items as acetate discs and test pressings. Acetates are aluminum discs recorded directly from the master tape to test the quality of tape-to-disc transcription. They’re especially rare because only one is made per recording. An acetate of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Wedding Album, for example, is currently on the market with an asking price of $25,000.
Test pressings, also used to evaluate the quality of disc production, are produced in small quantities (about five usually) and contain notations including the catalog number, the artist, and recording time.
But when it comes to the less obviously rare items—the standard 33 rpm albums and 45 rpm singles—collecting is a tricky proposition. After all, not all copies of The Beatles (aka, The White Album) are of equal value.
“There were at least 13 issues of Blue Hawaii [the soundtrack to the Elvis Presley film of the same name] that came out after the original, each one of them with something different,” says Jerry Osborne, author of more than 150 record price guides. “The average person would look at the cover and say, ‘I have that album,’ and think it’s worth as much as the one that came out in 1961. It’s like saying a dime today is the same as a dime that came out 200 years ago. It’s not.”
“They’ll tell you if an album is valuable or not,” Lindblad says. “You can get an idea of what they’re worth, then it’s a matter of shopping them around to people and seeing what you can get. If you’ve got something valuable, put it up on eBay and see what kind of responses you get.”
The recession has had no effect on the going rate for rare items. In fact, tough economic conditions tend to fuel the market.
“When times are tough, people often tend to look for things that they can sell,” Osborne says. “Times like this tend to flush more of these collectibles out into the open where you have plenty of buyers who are not affected by the recession and have the dough and are waiting to gobble those things up. It turns into a buyer’s market, but there are enough buyers to keep the market flush.”
Hendrix and Stones, Not Haydn and Schubert
Keeping up with trends is essential for the serious record collector. Just as sectors within the stock market fall in and out of favor, some music genres become inexplicably hot while interest in others cool off. The exception is when an artist dies suddenly. But even then, the effects are likely to be short term.
“I’m sure the pressing plants are hard at work pressing copies of Thriller,” says Robert Benson a longtime collector and author of The Fascinating Hobby of Vinyl Record Collecting. “The copies of Thriller from 1983 will be worth more than the copies pressed in 2009. They’re worth about $30 to $50, but the price has tripled. But six months from now, that’s going to drop back down.
Benson notes that demand for classical music is currently low, while demand for jazz, rockabilly, and early blues is on the rise. But he says there’s always interest in classic rock artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and especially The Beatles. Early punk rock records are gaining traction, as well.
“Some of these records were things where only a couple of hundred were printed,” Lindblad says. “A 45 of ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols went for nearly $5,000 recently.”
Perhaps the fastest growing market is for a genre known in England as Northern soul, populated by lesser-known soul artists who recorded for small labels in the 1960s and 1970s. The most coveted disc in this genre is a 45 rpm of Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do),” which recently sold at an auction for $37,000 (see list of the most valuable vinyl records).
The emergence of Northern soul as an object of desire is a prime example of why vinyl record collecting requires extensive research. You certainly don’t want to be the one who sold a valuable item at a garage sale for a quarter.
“You would definitely have to know your stuff,” Lindblad says. “It’s not a field for the casual collector. You might be looking through your vinyl and see names like Dobie Gray or Al Wilson and think this is probably not worth something, but it eventually may be.”
Not for Dilettantes
It’s certainly possible to find a valuable record for 50 cents at a flea market, or to discover that a few of the records on your shelf are worth a few hundred dollars. But seriously engaging in the record collecting business requires a lot of time and effort.
It involves working with a network of dealers, keeping up with trends, and spending hours scouring through bins of worthless records to find the one that just might be worth something, not to mention attending conferences. Then there’s the process of selling.
“Records require a little more specialized packing, they require an inventory of cardboard mailers made specifically for the different size records,” Osborne says. “You have to advertise, you have to respond to the customers, you have to solve problems. There are all these things that make it a full-time job. The only people I know who get into it are ones who don’t have anything else they have to do.”
(Editor's note: This article was originally published in September 2009.)