7 Things You Need To Know About...Vintage Records
Our latest collecting guide tells you 7 things you need to know about collecting vintage records.
It's official. Vinyl is back.
While digital music sales fall year after year, the market for vinyl records is booming.
These days you'll find modern vinyl reissues of almost any classic album you can think of, and for many music fans the pleasure is simply in owning a physical copy of their favourite records.
But for some collectors only the originals will do. Delving through crates of records in search of treasure can be highly addictive, and there's always the chance you might come across something truly valuable.
So if you're thinking of starting your own vintage vinyl collection, here are seven things you should know...
What to collect
If you're wondering where to begin, start simple. Who's your favourite music artist?
It could be The Beatles, Madonna, David Bowie, Nina Simone, Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis, The Clash, Prince or Nirvana.
Pick up an original, good condition copy of your favourite single or album, then explore their back catalogue. The chances are, you may discover records by your favourite performers that you never knew existed.
Some collectors are completists, and will have to own every version of every recording by a particular artist. This can sometimes take a lifetime and a fortune to achieve, so if that sounds like you – good luck!
If not, don't worry. Just collect what you love, and what you can afford.
If you're a fan of a particular genre or era, you can build your collection around it, whether it's jazz recordings from the early 1950s or punk singles from the late 1970s, classic 60s soul or 80s New Wave.
Instead of a specific artist, you could focus your collection on a particular record label. (This is also a great way of discovering new artists). Some devoted rock and roll fans will track down every 45 single on the Sun Records label, whilst jazz lovers will seek out albums on Blue Note.
Once you've been collecting for a while, you may decide to specialize even further.
Picture discs, coloured vinyl, movie soundtracks, Japanese imports, live bootlegs, Christmas albums – no matter how weird and wonderful a record is, someone out there is probably looking for it.
The type of records you're hunting for will depend on the genre of music and the era it was recorded in. Here's a quick list of the main vinyl formats you might come across.
78s are records pressed to play at a speed of 78rpm, and can be found in both 10" and 12" formats.
They were produced up until the late 1950s, and predominantly feature original jazz, blues, big band, classical and rural country music recordings.
78rpm records are made from shellac, making them more fragile than modern vinyl records, and usually require a high quality turntable (or antique gramophone) to listen to them on.
LP (long playing) records were first introduced in 1948, and are the standard vinyl format for all albums.
LPs cover every genre of music, but the most collectible tend to be rock, pop, folk and jazz albums from the 1950s to the 1970s.
7" records are also known as 45s due to their rpm speed, and have remained the standard vinyl format for pop, rock and soul singles since their introduction in 1949.
12" singles feature wider grooves than 7" singles, increasing the volume and dynamic range of tracks. They became popular during the disco era and boomed in the 1980s, as artists released extended tracks and remixes aimed at the dance floor.
The 12" single is the most common vinyl format for disco, hip-hop, electronic and dance music released over the past 40 years, including 'white labels' – rare releases pressed in limited numbers without printed labels, specifically for use by club and radio DJs.
Acetates are special discs predominantly used in recording studios to transfer tracks from tape to vinyl. The format was also used to press records in small numbers, such as demos or advance copies for DJs and label executives.
Often an artist's first-ever recording, or an early version of a song or album, will have been cut onto an acetate disc – making them highly collectible.
However, they are also fragile and will quickly deteriorate if played too often.
Flexi-discs are records pressed onto thin sheets of flexible vinyl, which were often given away as free gifts inside magazines.
Due to their low production cost, flexi-discs were often used for strange novelty records, comedy, spoken word and even nature recordings.
They can be played on normal turntables, although the volume and sound quality is often poor.
As a rule, the most valuable copy of a record will be the first pressing.
However, spotting these original pressings can sometimes be tricky, even for seasoned collectors.
The best way to find out is by looking at the catalogue number of the record. You'll usually find this on the spine or back of a sleeve, and printed on the label.
To complicate things further, later pressings may often have the same catalogue number as earlier ones, so you can use the record's 'matrix number' as an additional guide.
These can be found on the run-out grooves of a record, and were originally used in-house by record pressing plants to identify side A from side B.
First pressings may also have different cover artwork, or even different track listings, and the value of a record can also depend whether the pressing is in Mono or Stereo, so a little homework can help you know what you're looking for.
There are several online databases, such as Discogs or 45cat, where you can check a record's catalogue number. These will tell you which pressing you have, the label it was released on and the country of origin.
Also highly sought after are test pressings (created in very small numbers to check recording levels), promotional pressings (issued to radio stations before an actual release and never intended for re-sale).
The value of a record is almost entirely based on its condition. Even the world's rarest records will plummet in price of they are covered in scratches, or their covers are torn.
If buying in person, always check the record for scratches, warping and major dirt marks. Vintage records will likely have a few light surface marks, but anything which affects the quality of the sound should be avoided.
Check record sleeves for tears, split seams, ring wear around the edge of the record inside, and mildew marks from being stored in damp, musty conditions.
If you're buying online you'll have to rely on the seller's description, which should include photos of the sleeve and a grading for the vinyl.
In general, collectors and professional dealers will use the Goldmine grading guide to describe their records. The guide ranges from Poor [P] right through to Mint [M], but ideally you should be looking for records graded Very Good [VG] or above.
These records should play without skipping and little surface noise, and their covers may be marked by stickers or writing, but should not have tears or split seams.
If you're building a collection with an eye on future value, you should aim to purchase records graded Very Good Plus [VG+] or Near Mint [NM].
If a record is described as being in 'Mint' [M] condition, exercise a little caution. Very few vintage records are perfect and unplayed, and most dealers will rarely grade copies as Mint unless they're still sealed.
Storage and cleaning
Vinyl records are fragile things, so you'll need to think carefully about where to store your collection.
Your records should always be stored upright, as stacking them flat on top of each other will eventually cause them to warp.
Buy yourself a sturdy record box to start with, and as your collection grows, you may need to invest in a larger shelving unit.
You should also always keep your collection in a cool dry area, away from direct sunlight and damp conditions. Sunlight will cause your records to warp in the heat, and mildew will form in damp conditions, ruining the sleeves.
Keeping records clean is the key to ensuring the best sound quality, and will help them retain their value later on down the line. So if you want to start your own collection, you should arm yourself with a few essential tools first.
To clean vintage records by hand you'll need a microfiber cloth or brush and some record cleaning fluid, both of which you'll find online or in most good record stores.
Drizzle the fluid evenly onto the surface of the record, allowing it to seep into the grooves, and wipe it away carefully using the microfiber cloth.
Gently wipe anti-clockwise around the record (the same way it revolves on a turntables), and always use a clean cloth, as dirt particles could potentially scratch the surface.
Once you're finished cleaning, leave the record to dry on another microfiber cloth before playing it. Even a quick clean can drastically improve the sound quality, so you should hear the results of your handiwork straight away!
If you've got a little more cash to spare, you could always invest in a special record-cleaning machine. These devices can range in value from around $75 to more than $700, but will save you time and effort if you have a large number of records to clean up.
And finally, get yourself a special anti-static carbon fibre brush for keeping your records dust-free.
Give your records a brush before each listen, to prevent dust building up on the needle as they play, but use a light touch, as brushing too hard can cause deeper scratches.
The most valuable vintage records are the ones autographed by the artists. If your record sleeve or label has authentic signatures, you may have hit the jackpot.
For instance, you can pick up a good original pressing of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for around $150.
A copy signed by all four Beatles could set you back $300,000.
But if you're looking to collect signed records, be careful: the majority advertised for sale on sites such as eBay turn out to be fakes.
Forgers are often highly skilled, and it can be difficult for anyone other than an expert to spot a fake signature, so it's important to buy from a reputable dealer or auction house.
But to start with, there are a few things to remember.
Check the date and catalogue number of the record in question. You'd be amazed how many John Lennon "signed" records for sale are actually later issues pressed after his death in 1980!
If your record dates from the 1950s or earlier, it probably won't have been signed in felt-tip pen, as they didn't become popular until the 1960s.
If you have a clear photograph of the autograph, have a quick search online and compare it to other examples. Often forgers will trace the same signature again and again, meaning there are multiple items with identical signatures on the market.
And finally, the most obvious. If a signed record has a price tag that seems too good to be true, it almost always is.
When it comes to collecting autographed records, there's no substitute for experience. You'll probably make a few mistakes along the way, but you'll eventually get a good feel for what's genuine and what isn't.
The Holy Grails
There are countless books about the world's rarest records. If you want to start hunting for valuable vinyl, you should probably invest in one or two of them.
However, as a (very) brief guide, here are a handful of the most valuable to look out for, just in case. Consider these some of the 'Holy Grails' of vintage record collecting...
The Beatles - Yesterday and Today Butcher Sleeve (Capitol Records)
This U.S release features a creepy cover image of the Fab Four dressed in white coats, covered in raw meat and doll parts. Capitol Records pressed around 750,000 copies, and sent the first wave out to record store managers and radio DJs, but they were quickly withdrawn after complaints about the sleeve.
Most copies were returned, and the company pasted new covers over the front, but a handful escaped censorship. These 'First State' albums are now highly sought after, with mono copies known to fetch around $40,000 - $50,000, and stereo copies more than $100,000 in top condition.
Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) - Frank Wilson (Soul)
This classic soul tune was recorded in 1965 by Frank Wilson, a songwriter and producer for Motown Records. Around demo 250 copies were pressed on the Motown subsidiary label Soul, but most were destroyed when Motown boss Berry Gordy decided he didn't want his producers having their own successful solo careers.
It's thought that up to five copies survived, and it has since become one of the Holy Grails for soul collectors. The last copy to appear on the market sold in 2009 for $35,000.
The Sex Pistols - God Save the Queen 7" (A&M Records)
When punk band The Sex Pistols signed to A&M Records in March 1977, the company pressed 25,000 copies of their second single God Save the Queen.
Six chaotic days later they were kicked off the label, and almost all those copies were destroyed. Just nine are known to have survived, and today they can fetch up to $20,000 each.
Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia)
Very early first pressing copies of Bob Dylan's classic 1963 album featured four extra tracks: Rocks and Gravel, Let Me Die in My Footsteps, Gamblin’ Willie’s Dead Man’s Head, and Talkin’ John Birch Blues.
Columbia replaced these tracks with four new songs just before it was released, but a handful of copies were produced with the original track listing and escaped the pressing plant.
There are fewer than 25 copies known to exist, and they have been known to sell for as much as $35,000 each.
Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin (Atlantic)
The cover of Led Zeppelin's seminal 1969 debut album originally featured the band's name in turquoise lettering. However, at the last minute they decided orange was a far more 'rock and roll' colour, and changed the sleeve design.
It's believed that less than 2,000 copies with the turquoise lettering ever left the pressing plant, and today they can sell for more than $2,000 each.
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