Thinking About Starting a Record Collection? Think Again…

tpHard Promises
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
BSR-5160 (MCA 2446)
Backstreet Records

Looking at the prices of new albums (new artists and reissues), I’d rethink collecting LPs if I were you.

But if you’re willing to dive into the proverbial rabbit hole and understand that there is no end game for collecting, by all means jump in. But keep this in mind – collecting is an addiction and you’ll always be chasing the dragon.

You need to first ask yourself why would you want to collect LPs in the first place. Collecting records is a major pain in the ass: they’re a physical medium that require care and maintenance; you need a turntable and a stereo to listen; you can’t take records with you like you can digital downloads; you can’t listen to them in your car; they’re easily damaged; they take up a lot of room; and they’re a bitch to move.

My first marriage was doomed when, on the second day of living together, the ex told me I had to put my records into storage. Now I’d been collecting albums since 1973 or so with my heaviest collecting years between 1978 and 1986 (the year I bought into the CD lie and started collecting those fucking things). Between that period I amassed close to 1,000 records — all of which traveled with me from my parents’ house to my first apartment to a move down to St. Petersburg, FL, and then back to IL. Carried like a penance, my albums are the only material items I’ve held on to since I was a kid.

When I got embroiled in my first marriage, I was told to store the records because, to my ex, they took up too much room. And worse, to her, they were an eyesore. So to keep the peace, I put them in a storage cage in the basement of the condo building we were living in. I was smart though, I carefully placed the records upright in plastic bins and on a riser in the cage to keep them off the floor in case of flood. And, fortunately the basement was cool and dry.

When I locked them up, I turned my back on them. But, some 16 years later, I got divorced. My ex, who didn’t miss much, took half of everything I owned (including my salary) — but she missed my vinyl. One early Sunday morning I let my records out of prison and loaded them into my SUV and started a new life.

The point to all this? Had I lost all of those records, I probably wouldn’t have mustered the courage to start collecting from scratch.

That said, because I’ve kept my records, my ability to collect has been easy. And, having gotten remarried to someone who is very tolerant and encouraged me to set up a ‘record’ room in our basement, I’ve been able to rediscover the utter joy of listening to music on vinyl, which is far superior to CD pressings and digital downloads.

Just trust the legion of vinyl enthusiasts – records sound better. But this depends on the shape the vinyl is in (is the vinyl dirty, scuffed, scratched?) and your sound source, particularly your turntable, cartridge and needle, as  well as your amplifier and speakers. Grinding an album through a cheap Crosley turntable unit with sound skittering through its built-in amp and trashy speakers will never give you the full sonic experience vinyl has to offer.

But all I can share, when embarking on this frustrating and often futile past time, is the following:

  1. Don’t start collecting by purchasing expensive 180 gram reissues. You’ll go broke. I recently saw a reissue of Pink Floyd’s The Wall at Barnes and Noble for $60. That’s right – 60 large. I purchased this classic double album back in 1979 for $9.99. People will argue that inflation is inflation and that almost 40 years ago, $10 was pretty close to what $60 is now. Maybe – but $60 is a lot of dough to lay down for a record.
  2. Buy used. Find your local used record store (for me its Purple Dog Records in Naperville, IL) – most towns have them. Or go to your local Half Price Books or 2nd & Charles. Both these stores carry healthy supplies of used vinyl at decent prices. I just purchased a pristine copy of Foreigner’s Double Vision for $2.95.
  3. Don’t think in terms of ‘rare‘ unless you have tons of money to blow on records like the Beatles Yesterday and Today (with the infamous ‘butcher cover’ image) or this release of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Once you get your head around the fact that you probably won’t retire on the cash you’ll get from finding some rarity out in the wild, you’ll be a much happier collector.
  4. Collect because you love the music. Into Air Supply? Think the Beach Boys are boss? Like jazz on the Blue Note label? Crazy about the Allman Brothers? Well…more power to you. So start by collecting those artists you really dig because that’s how you can easily build your collection. Buy them because you love them. Don’t worry what other people have in their collections. Who cares? When are other people the arbiters of your taste?
  5. Don’t let variations confuse you. For instance, Steely Dan on the ABC label is more desirable than Steely Dan reissues on the MCA label. Why? For one, the ABC label pressings are cleaner and richer. MCA acquired the Steely Dan catalog in the late 70s and those pressings originally on ABC were repressed by MCA on the quick and cheap. Granted Gaucho on MCA sounds great (Gaucho was Steely Dan’s first LP on MCA) but a side-by-side comparison of Pretzel Logic on ABC to the MCA reissue is quite ear opening. There’s no question that the ABC release sounds more detailed. BUT, if you love Steely Dan and can’t find their original ABC pressings in decent shape, the MCAs will do.
  6. If first edition records do mean something to you — like collecting stamps or coins — there are numbers or symbols on LPs that you can look at as identifiers of particular editions and, ultimately, worth. LPs have ‘matrix’ numbers that are alphanumeric codes (or messages or abstract symbols) stamped and/or handwritten into the run-out groove (the non-grooved area between the end of the final band on a record’s side and the label, also known as the “dead wax” area) of a vinyl record. The matrix number was intended for the internal use of the record manufacturing plant, but they are also studied and documented by record collectors, as they can sometimes provide useful information about the edition of the record. I have an edition of Tom Petty’s Hard Promises that has “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched in the run-out groove. According to Wikipedia: “During the recording of Hard Promises, John Lennon was scheduled to be in the same studio at the same time. Tom Petty was looking forward to meeting him when he came in. The meeting never occurred; John Lennon was murdered before he could ever make it into the studio. In order to pay tribute to one of their influences, Petty and the Heartbreakers decided to have “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched on the master copy of the album. To this day “WE LOVE YOU JL” is seen on every Hard Promises first issue US non-masterphile vinyl copy pressed.” Does this make the album ‘rare?’ Yes – as subsequent issues released did not have this messaging. Does it make the album worth more? Probably. But probably not by that much. As you build your collection and want to track an album’s edition (and possible worth), the database-driven website Discogs is essential. This site includes all matrix numbers, issue release dates, projected worth of a record and how much people are selling it for on the site (you can purchase records from sellers on Discogs). Plus you can load your collection into your own personalized Discogs database for tracking your stuff.
  7. Jacket wear. For the hardcore collector, jacket condition is as important as vinyl condition. Dog-eared jackets, jackets with ring-wear, jackets with writing on them (unless its artist autographing), can downgrade worth significantly. But here’s my take – if the vinyl is in good, playable condition, the jacket’s condition doesn’t mean anything. I want to listen to my records. But that’s just me.

Finally – I envy and don’t envy those embarking on vinyl collecting. Ultimately, it’s what you make of it and if you can enter this trip as an ongoing journey, then you’ll have a helluva lot of fun.

© 2017 Chris Barry


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