In the world of collecting, the subject of condition by experts and novices alike stirs a great deal of conflict for various reasons. For someone such as myself, who has been purchasing new and used vinyl LP’s and singles since the age of five, I’d like to think that my rather large investment of time, energy and money made me a more discerning collector, and later dealer. I’ve also come to the realization through the years, that despite by knowledge, there really is very little exact science and far more subjectivity in this hobby but there are ways to understand the market place better which I feel can make collecting a more fun and happier experience. So it is with this in mind, I’d like to start by giving an overview of grading and condition and their effects on pricing in the market place as well as some little quirks to the hobby.
Availability and Prices: A Graphic Primer
The great dilemma with record grading and its relationship with price is first correctly grading an item and then pricing it based on its relative value to similar items. For example, why does one nice copy of a black and rainbow band mono pressing of “Magical Mystery Tour” cost $65 and another with identical labels and jacket $500? Well as the old adage goes, the devil’s in the details. And in the case of the $65 Magical Mystery Tour, those details can be found in the grooves of the vinyl, the surface scratches, the groove wear, the name written in pen on the LP label, the wear around the insertion hole for the phonograph spindle and the split spine, seams, punch holes, clipped edges, pen and ink marks, stickers and dented corners of the jacket, and the formerly but now unattached booklet. Visually, what these flaws tell us is how far or close to new condition a used item is, where that item will fall on the price scale relative to that same title from the same pressing and scarcity of that particular item. Compared to the $65 Magical Mystery Tour, the $500 one looks like it just left the factory last week.
The mono Magical Mystery Tour price disparity can be best explained using this simple graph created by yours truly:
What this graph tells us is that mono copies Magical Mystery Tour in near mint condition or better will fetch top dollar and the more modest copies will be more affordable. This type of price-condition relationship can be applied to most collectibles though with different price values depending on the item.
I’d also like to point out that the overwhelming majority of used records out in the world fall between the fair to excellent condition range, those closer to true near mint and better are far scarcer and prices for those items will fetch much steeper prices. This bell curve distribution (also created by yours truly) can help shed light on the relationship between availability and condition and its subsequent effect on pricing.
Though not evenly distributed as you can see, most items will fall in the range of good through very good plus with items in near mint condition or better far scarcer. An item whose condition is in the near mint range will command higher prices than those in the very good plus range or worse, as there are a lot less of them to go around, they look and sound closer to new, and collectors will pay premium cash for them. This is just simple supply and demand. While items in poor to fair condition may be on the scarce side, it’s largely due to the fact that because they looked and sounded terrible, they were relocated to their final resting places in landfills.
There are also other items whose extreme rarity, usually due to low pressing quantities, such as original stereophonic portrait covers of “The Beatles And Frank Ifield” on Vee Jay that prices will be quite high even for copies in fair condition, while true near mint copies will sell for stratospheric prices. A very early pressing of the original While Album double LP is another example of where very low numbered covers (let’s say under 000100) are so extremely unusual, that they may fetch ridiculously high prices out on the open market as there are just so few low numbered copies to go around for collectors who desire to own them. These are examples of mass production items. In addition, there are also very limited pressings, such as the original Love Me Do UK promo 45 which were produced in such limited numbers to begin with, that only a few have survived since 1962 and the ones that hit the market are commanding not just four but five figures. Again, supply and demand is the simple explanation.
Other observations about buying records
There are some further quirks enlightened record collectors are often subjected to. It often gets brought to my attention by record collectors that they often see records in so-so condition get priced by sellers in record shops, online auctions, swaps , garage and estate sales as if those items are in far better condition than they actually are. For example, think of a VG- copy of US mono pressing of Meet The Beatles with rainbow band labels in VG- condition being sold for $50. An outrage right? And why would anyone pay that? This is unfortunately the reality of antiquing in general. Exactly why this happens is anyone’s guess. But there are lots of would-be dealers who may get their hands on stacks of records in average condition, and either have no idea how to grade a record and price it accordingly to fair market value, or do know, and are seeing if they can price gauge naive buyers. With the continuing massive popularity of The Beatles, this is a pretty common problem with uninformed sellers thinking anything with the group’s name on it has to be seriously valuable, in spite of the fact that there are still loads of beat-up to average condition original Beatles records and memorabilia out in the universe available for very affordable prices. And there are novice collectors who see an item an item they want, figure it’s price correctly and just buy it without a care in the world. It’s more than likely though that those overpriced records will sit around and eventually get reduced. With so much information now available to novices and experts alike, it’ll be harder for dealers to move average condition inventory at seriously inflated prices.
It’s also worth noting that premium condition rare records will almost always go for premium prices when listed by renowned dealers, regardless of whether they are auctioned or offered at a set price. In some cases, items may even be sold for three or four times market value. These dealers often have years of experience as well as a large body of satisfied return customers. They are most often used by those who have the means not to have to deal with price shopping. And the impatient.
And also consider that brick and mortar (mom and pop) record shops have overhead such as rent, insurance, power bills, heating bills, employees who expect to be paid, etc and all of these factor into their prices. They may buy vinyl at one rate, but their mark-up is essential for their survival. Don’t take it out on them if their prices are 10-20% higher than online-only sellers. They are just trying to survive in an increasingly competitive global field. Consider the market, the price of having fun searching through racks of vinyl in person.
About audio quality
The medium of vinyl itself also is a bit dicey in terms of grading and pricing. A record may look pristine and yet sound a bit worn. Conversely, a record may looks somewhat worn but have really pleasant audio. This is a big conundrum for both collectors and dealers. Though audiophiles wish it were true, for dealers, it’s almost impossible to play every second of every record in their inventory. If they see an album that looks mint and unplayed, it will be priced accordingly. And for those who collect to own but not play records, where the visual quality alone is enough to pay the premium for the mint-looking item, this works out just fine. This however is of no comfort to audiophiles whose main purpose is to collect pristine-playing audio copies and will pay premium prices for those titles they desire. While one collector may pay $1000 for a visually mint original UK mono copy of “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society”, the audiophile may not pay anywhere close to it if that visually mint looking piece of vinyl has a lot of surface noise and loud pops. I would suggest finding sellers who have the means, and audio systems to listen to records in their entirety. Talk and develop good relationships with those sellers and they will usually go out of their way to assist regular clients who are audiophiles with specific audio requirements. But don’t expect a 100% rate of satisfaction either.
There is the simple fact no two audio systems can provide the exact same results from one to the other. What may sound great on a seller’s system, may sound less than stellar on the buyer’s, or vice versa. Between amplifiers, preamplifiers, turntables, phonograph cartridges, speakers, cables, room acoustics, etc. there is just no way to control for all of these different variables. Ideally, you’re trying to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges but it rarely, if ever, works out that way. So what can you do? If your shelling out big bucks for perfect audio, make sure the seller has a no-questions asked, full return policy. And I’d advise to be patient when looking for premium audio. It’s out there, but it’s pretty uncommon as the public bought millions of records through the golden age of vinyl to listen to and enjoy on modest systems. But there were also audiophiles who preserved vinyl as best as they could. My father was exactly that, and he taught me early in life how to properly handle and maintain vinyl.
Finally, you the collector has to determine what’s important to you and how much you plan on budgeting your hard-earned cash for your hobby. And ask yourself these questions: Are you a completist who need to own everything? Does condition really mean that much to you? Will you only be satisfied if you own vintage items in pristine condition? Will you be listening to the record and how important is audio quality to you? And then, invest the time and shop around, do price comparisons. There are some great items out there that might be underpriced but know that there are a lot of other serious collectors and dealers out there also zeroing in on those bargains. That’s kind of the thrill of the hunt. And lastly, educate yourself on what you like because you’ll find that having greater knowledge and applying that knowledge in your buying practices can lead to far happier purchases and collecting in general.