Crate-digging for gold
If you’ve set foot in an Urban Outfitters (or read any number of culture section thinkpieces), you’ll know we’re in the middle of vinyl revival.
In 2016, records logged their highest sales since 1988. And It’s not just wistful baby boomers driving the industry—half of all vinyl purchases in the US were made by people under 25. (Though from this list of 2016’s top sellers, it seems like millennials still shop like boomers.) Meanwhile, CDs only really remain useful as coasters, or else as road trip lifesavers when your rental car doesn’t have a USB port.
Bruce Romaniuk is the owner of Record Collector’s Paradise, an aptly-named Edmonton shop that stocks over 100,000 45s, 78s, and LPs. He’s not at all surprised by the modern record resurgence. “With downloading and streaming becoming so common, people are now longing for something different,” says Romaniuk. “To hear a song, to hold it, and to read about it, is a lot more fulfilling than to have it on your phone. And a lot people enjoy rediscovering the music they grew up with.”
More than just a music format that delivers a “warmer analog sound, man,” the physicality of vinyl records has also created a market for highly sought-after collectibles, one that events like Record Store Day have been capitalizing on for years now. But how lucrative is it to own, as LCD Soundsystem once bragged, “a white label [vinyl copy] of every seminal Detroit techno hit [from] 1985, ’86, ’87”?
Since Record Store Day was this past weekend, we looked into whether all those coloured vinyl limited edition pressings are really worth their weight in wax. Here’s some advice if you want to get into record collecting for profit:
First off, lower your expectations
The Flaming Lips were able to sell the special “blood vinyl” edition of their Record Store Day album Heady Fwends for $2,500, but that’s because they only printed 10 copies (and literally pressed the vinyl with blood samples from the band members, Yoko Ono, Chris Martin, Ke$ha, and more in the record—ewww). There are currently two copies available for resale on Discogs starting at around $16,000 CAD. The lesson here is that to make any real money selling records they’ll have to be:
- In excellent quality
- From an artist people might actually want to listen to (note: this is less important)
Even if you’ve checked all these boxes, a big windfall won’t be guaranteed. The market for records isn’t as stable as those of stamp collecting, coins, or even action figures. Albums can have huge swings in value based on the artist’s popularity at any given time, or the arena where you’re trying to sell it.
“I don’t know that I’d ever advise someone to get into records as an investment,” says Romaniuk. “Do it if it’s your passion, if you’re a collector or a listener. If it takes something 40 years to become valuable, you probably could have done a lot better putting your money in a stock or something.”
Historically, record flipping offers a pretty low return on investment. It’s really not something to plan your retirement around. If you’re thinking of using your mom’s Fleetwod Mac LP’s to finance your eventual down payment on a condo, check yourself, and get into more secure investing.
Got a solid savings strategy, and still want to dabble in record selling? You’ll need to know your audience.The average age of Romaniuk’s customer base is around 45, so he buys accordingly. “Resurgence in collectibles tends to happen when people who grew up with something want it again,” notes Romaniuk. “The biggest genres for us are 70’s and 80’s rock, pop, and punk.”
Gen X-ers and Boomers have a lot of money to spend on entertainment, but don’t discount the 90’s kids. Records took a nosedive in the 90’s, as people flocked to CD’s. Labels responded by printing fewer albums, and now, they’re super hard to come by. Today, mint copies of the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1995 (bloated) double-album Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness can sell for $400, certain pressings of Nirvana’s 1992 Bleach re-release go for $1,500, and Madonna’s Erotica photo LP—recalled after being deemed too sexy for 1992—could get you $2,000+
Know your quality
Record collectors use a bizarrely euphemistic rating system, one that labels a barely playable album as “good” quality. Here’s a breakdown:
Mint: Just like it arrived off the truck. Never been opened, never been played.
Excellent: It’s had a spin or two, but no signs of wear.
Very good: Maybe one visible scratch or a light background crackle
Good: Eh. You’ll experience some serious skips, scratches or warps.
Fair to Poor: Major issues. Don’t even bother.
Knowing that only “excellent” or above tends to sell, shady brokers will often take a lot of leeway in labelling their products. If you’re looking to get into high-end buying and selling, skip the Ebay auctions. You’re best off working with a specialist dealer or a notable online trader with lots of positive reviews.
Once you finally get your hands on your complete Kraftwerk set, you’re going to have to take care of it. “Keep them far away from moisture and heat,” advises Romaniuk. “Away from windows, and not stacked on the ground. Some people them keep in a deep, dark closet which seems like overkill to me. You can’t take them out and show them off to your friends, which to me is part of the point.”
Note: when it comes to quality, the state of your record can matter way than its actual contents. “The most expensive record we have in the shop is from an Ontario garage band named Plastic Cloud,” says Romaniuk. “They had a little local popularity in the late 60’s, and were lucky enough to get a record contract for a single release. Back in the day, it would go for 97 cents in the bargain bin. Our asking price is $2,500”
Just don’t get duped by a re-release. Some labels have now picked up on the vinyl craze, and they’re ordering massive reprints of hipster-approved favourites. But only the original pressings will be worth anything, and the newer editions might not even be worth buying just to listen to. Record labels often won’t have access to original analog master recording, so they’ll just copy whatever digital version they’ve got onto to the new record. You’ll have paid $20 to listen to some mp3s on vinyl.
Research your collection (then dismantle it)
Ready to part with—and profit off of—your new collection? Do some research to make sure you get everything’s proper worth. Popsike is a handy digital listing that lets you survey more than 10 million auction results to see what your albums have recently been valued at. When you’ve got a price window in mind, head to Discogs for a massive marketplace of buyers and sellers.
Hot tip: buyers rarely want to trawl through your boxes of old records. Pick out the best pieces and sell them individually. And if you’re convinced you’ve got a really rare and valuable album, you’re better off selling it through a specialized record auction that will appreciate its worth—rather than a dealer, shop, or online market that might try to lowball you.