For the record: The state of music collecting

An astounding find emerged in late 2006 that set the world of record collecting on its collective ear.

Actually, the story begins in 2002, when a Kenny Rogers Roasters employee from Montreal, Canada, named Warren Hill happened to be poring through a box of records at a street sale in Chelsea, N.Y.

Along with a Leadbelly 10-inch recording on Folkways and a water-damaged copy of the Modern Lovers first LP, Hill spied a 12-inch piece of acetone-covered aluminum labeled “Velvet Underground. 4-25-66. Att N. Dolph.” It was an acetate of the Velvet Underground’s debut LP The Velvet Underground & Nico, but it was different from the commercial version.

There were different mixes of “Black Angel’s Death Song,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Femme Fatale” and “Run, Run, Run.” The sequencing was not the same, with “European Son” leading things off instead of “Sunday Morning.” Even more incredible, there were markedly different versions of “European Son,” “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Venus In Furs.”

Guitar lines and solos were different in some cases. In others, it was the vocals or the drumming that was not the same. Or, there were instances when just the feel of a particular song was different.

The hope of such a discovery is what drives collectors to dig through crate after crate after crate of LPs, searching for that rare recording that nobody knows even exists. It’s mostly a fruitless occupation, but Hill’s discovery proved it can happen.

In the end, the ultra-rare Velvet Underground acetate, went for $25,000 in an auction sale. Initially, a bogus bidder on eBay submitted a bid of $155,000 for it. After much haranguing, it was resold for $25,000.

The moral of this story is, no matter how unlikely it is that you’ll find something of this value — be it historical or monetary — such finds can happen.

In the meantime, however, you have records to sell, or you’re looking to buy. And you want to know the lay of the land. How is the vinyl record collecting market? What’s hot and what’s not? And more importantly, how much are my records worth? We’ll try to give you as good a sense of what’s going on in the marketplace as possible here.

How’s the market doing?

There’s no simple answer to that question. However, Wayne Johnson of Rockaway Records in Los Angeles, California, describes it as “very healthy.” But, that “thumbs up” doesn’t apply to everything.

While sealed Beatles records, like the Yesterday And Today “first state” Butcher Cover, once owned by former Capitol Records president Alan Livingston, that Johnson sold this year to an unidentified collector for $80,000, still command big dollars, other areas, like the ’50s, are “soft,” he says.

“The problem is, you don’t have any new collectors taking the place of those who pass away,” says Johnson. “As time goes on, the people of that era are dying away and there are not a lot of kids getting into ’50s music.”

John Tefteller doesn’t necessarily agree. In talking about the market in general, Tefteller, a dealer who specializes in rare records, especially blues 78s, says, “Overall, it’s really good, but it’s only real, real good if you have real, real good stuff. I talk to a lot of dealers who say it’s horrible, that they’re having trouble selling, that older stuff doesn’t sell.”

But, says Tefteller, the rarest stuff does, and he has no problem finding buyers.

“The rarest of the rare will always be rare,” says Tefteller, and he adds that the price will only go up for the stuff. “It’s climbing in value astronomically. It’s so expensive that some of the old-time collectors have been priced right out of the market.”

On the other hand, used LPs can be had for less than $10 or $5 in many cases. That’s not the case for sealed original LPs, according to Tefteller. “Stuff from the ’50s and ’60s does very well, but it has to be original seals.”

Buyer beware: Not all sealed original LPs are legitimate. According to Tefteller, some will try to sell fake sealed Beatles LPs, where they take original Beatles LPs and shrink-wrap them with seal material taken off other LPs.

“I tell people constantly to find a dealer who will stand behind what they’re selling, who are knowledgeable [about such things] and if not, will make it right if there’s a problem,” says Tefteller. “Those people are few and far between, especially on the Internet.”

And while the Internet can be a marketplace to get good prices for fairly common records, those looking to cash in big might want to avoid it.

“People who pay big bucks don’t go for eBay,” advises Tefteller. “Yes, you will get more than if you go to your local record shop or to a record swap, but the real money doesn’t come from eBay. It comes from private sales.”

With records in their original seal, the question of condition becomes moot. As for the rest of the vinyl world, condition is paramount. “In real estate, it’s location, location, location,” says Tefteller. “In record collecting, it’s condition, condition, condition.” Mint is prized.

And then there’s the old “supply and demand” issue. Finding a buyer willing to pay what you’re asking, if the price is substantial, is the key. “It’s condition and you have to have access to customers willing to pay, and you will not get that on eBay,” says Tefteller.

Johnson feels the collecting landscape has changed over the years, and customers are more sophisticated.

“Collectors are getting more and more picky,” he says. “When I started, there was no Internet. The market was local. Now, it’s such a global market. You can go online to see what’s common and what’s not.”

Future

As more and more of today’s youth discover vinyl, it seems record collecting has a fairly bright future. And it seems that rare records, especially those in exquisite condition, will always command high prices, and those prices aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

What’s more, the vinyl records being issued today are improving in sound quality, as labels produce records that feature half-speed mastering and thicker vinyl. With their deeper grooves, albums that come marked as 180-gram or 200-gram releases are made for hardcore audiophiles.

But, when it comes to the records of the past, condition is everything.

“For records in common to mid-range condition, the price is soft, ’cause they’re so abundant, because of eBay,” says Johnson. And the prices those records used to fetch 10 to 15 years ago aren’t likely to be available.

For rare records, prices are only going up. “In ’75, I bought a Robert Johnson record on Vocalion for a couple hundred bucks,” says Tefteller. “In ’85, it was up to a couple thousand. Today, it’s worth $10,000.”

What’s hot?

Northern Soul is on fire right now. It’s been the flavor of the month — and the next month, and the next month — for a while now. Tefteller knows it sells, but while he’s unfamiliar with that market, he is well aware of its skyrocketing value.

“It’s hot. It sells,” says Tefteller. “The only problem with that market is it’s up and down and all around. It’s really very popular in England. It all depends on what they’re playing on the dance floor.”

Obscurity is the key to a Northern Soul record’s value. Other factors enter in, of course, but the rule is the more obscure the artist, the higher the price.

What’s not?

Taking the temperature of ’50s music, as it relates to the collecting field, is tricky. It can be warm or cold depending on who you talk to.

Two genres that are generally considered weak are easy listening and classical music, according to Cooper. “Classical music is almost non-existent,” adds Cooper. “I have a bin here where they’re priced at a quarter each.”

As far as groups go, all have their ups and downs, says Johnson. The Beatles are always going to be hot, and the market for acts like Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys is heating up.

However, with used LPs, it can be a struggle to not only sell them, but also get the price you’re looking for.

“There are thousands of records that are priced $10 to $20 that people can’t sell for $2,” says Tefteller, unless they’re really unique.

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