After the initial expense of buying a quality record deck, the newbie vinyl enthusiast will doubtless be wanting to build up his or her record collection quite quickly. The good news is that this needn’t be expensive. The purpose of this article is to provide a few tips for those scouring charity shops, used vinyl stores and the like, in search of hidden gems.
1. Do your research. Especially if you are searching for collectable records, it’s best to do a bit of internet surfing to become acquainted with what is genuinely valuable and what is merely “interesting”. I will explain this more fully later on, but for now, be aware that there are very few records so valuable that you will be able to retire after selling them on! Resale prices are very dependent upon condition. The magazine, “Record Collector”, provides a good guide as to what to expect from records that are in Mint, Near Mint, Excellent etc… condition – for both the covers and the records themselves. Find them online at recordcollectormag.com .
2. Check out the records before you buy. It’s not unusual to find the wrong records in sleeves, or to find records in bad condition. For any prospective purchase, first check the condition of the cover. If it’s battered, the chances are the record inside will be too. Also check that all lyric sleeves and other freebies such as posters etc are included. If a previous owner cared enough about the album to keep all the souvenirs, they will probably have taken care over the record too. Making a big mental leap here, a careful owner is likely not to have played their records on a cheap 70’s music centre or 80’s stack system with a flimsy platter and pneumatic drill for a tonearm. Finally, check the disc itself for damage. Here you’re looking for obvious scratches and fingerprints. If a record that you like is damaged, pass it up and pop to the second hand store along the road, where there will probably be a better copy.
3. Second hand records are worth what you, the customer, will pay for them. Don’t be afraid to give shops a wide berth if their stock consists largely of records in dubious condition priced in the pounds rather than the pence. However, expect to pay a little more if the records look well cared for.
4. Clean your records before playing them on your shiny new Rega, Pro-ject or Clearaudio deck! Experience will tell you if a disc you fancy will clean up to a playable condition, but it’s worth following Rega’s advice about not believing ALL the claims of the makers of fancy record cleaning machines. A record that is covered in visible scratches and fingerprints will likely never give satisfactory audio quality, and could damage your expensive stylus. Life then becomes a vicious circle – a damaged record will damage a stylus and a damaged stylus will damage the rest of your records. No amount of cleaning will cure a record that jumps!! Having paid enough attention to the condition of records in-store though, a merely dusty record that is cleaned can sound nearly new. The cheaper record cleaners, such as the Disco Antistat, available for the price of a good meal in a restaurant, can give acceptable results. However, the vacuum record cleaners that hoover the dust from deep inside the grooves provide much more thorough results with an obvious positive impact on sound quality. A looked after record is only likely to require cleaning once every couple of years, although for those with large collections, the vacuum record cleaning machines can make sound economical sense. After cleaning, it’s worth storing the record in a new anti-static sleeve, available in bulk quantities for a few pounds. Paper and cardboard inner sleeves, such as those containing the lyrics of pop albums, are abrasive, and the act of removing and replacing the disc after use can cause wear on the record. Store the record in an anti-static sleeve and keep the original inner alongside the record in the outer cover.
5. Keep an open mind. Whilst the stock in a humble charity shop may consist of Mrs Mills on the piano, Black and White Minstrels records and the like, second hand records are cheap enough to encourage the broadening of musical horizons at no great financial loss if you don’t like the music. Actually, one of the most collectable genres is classical music, and if up till now you’ve ignored your symphonies and piano etudes, perhaps now is the time to start collecting! Look out for performances on the Decca label with serial numbers beginning with SXL for some excellent recordings, full of dynamic contrast and character. Other gems include the Mercury Living Presence label, but in my experience the RCA recordings have been “dubious to variable”, shall we say!
I’ll finish with a couple of anecdotes that illustrate the points I’ve made above. Both of the incidents took place on the same Saturday, when I was out with a friend looking round the charity shops.
We were in a store that described itself as a “vintage shop” – which to my mind is a title that somehow justifies the selling of tat at high prices. I am not sure who priced the records on sale, but most were in the region of £8-£10 GBP. None of the records I looked at were in playable condition – at best some of them might have cleaned up to acceptable on my Moth vacuum record cleaner. However my heart leapt when I found a stereo copy of The Beatles 1964 LP, “For Sale”. Now nowhere does the adage, “You will not be able to retire after selling your records!” apply more than to Beatles records. For one thing, the band were so popular that literally millions of so-called rare records were produced and for another thing, the really rare items only fetch full value in Mint or Near Mint Condition. Seeing as most pop records were bought by teenagers and played to death on very low quality record players, the likelihood of finding Mint/NM records is very slim! Anyway, oddly enough for a Beatles fan such as I, I’ve never heard the Beatles For Sale album in stereo. So I opened up the gatefold, to find one of the original flip back sleeves (the tabs used to glue the cover are on the outside of the sleeve rather than inside). My heart did a double leap. Could this be a first pressing, complete with the “Sold In The UK…” text on the record label? No! Tucked inside was a scratched, fingerprint covered 80’s 2 Box EMI/Parlophone record. The price for this ‘gem”? Twenty-two pounds – yes, £22 GBP! It’s safe to say that whoever priced the records knew nothing about Beatles records. A brand new 2013/4 stereo remaster would cost less AND not damage my lovely Rega Exact stylus! Needless to say, I won’t visit that store again.
This is an illustration of how careful research saved me from making a costly mistake.
My second anecdote took place in my local Oxfam shop. Their vinyl stock, in contrast to the vintage shop, was priced at around the 50p to £1 mark, and consisted of Black and White Minstrels, Jim Reeves and Mrs Mills. Not very inspiring, but nevertheless, looking through I found a mono copy of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols on the RCA Victor Red Seal label from 1965. The record label was an original RCA Victor Red Seal – not the ugly sideways RCA block letter logo from the 1970’s. The condition was good, nary a mark, in fact, and the price was 50p. I snapped that one up. Even without a clean, it played very well. I’m not familiar with Britten’s music, but suffice to say, I was enthralled by it. RCA in the 60’s had developed a technique called “Dynagroove” (not to be confused with RCA Dynaflex which is a different RCA failed technology!). The idea was to try to correct distortions to the sound signal caused by conical styli. This was achieved by actually introducing groove distortion that counteracted that produced by the cheap conical stylii found on most (including RCA’s own) record players. Not only this, but RCA developed technology that monitored treble and bass content during cutting and – ahem! – “optimised” it for those playing at unrealistically low levels. The result was records that when played with a modern elliptical stylus (and these days these are actually quite cheap, found on Moving Magnets from about £25 and up), produce audible distortion and uneven levels of treble and bass. The harp accompaniment to my Ceremony of Carols sounds slightly coloured and boomy in the bass regions, and during the loud peaks some distortion is heard. Nevertheless, the record is an absolute treasure at a bargain price, and I learnt something about vinyl’s rich history too. Not a “valuable” find but an interesting one.