"Record Collecting: A Groovy Way to Make a Buck"
Phonograph records begin as vinyl but some end up as gold
by Jill Rachlin
Everybody knows someone who owns the world's largest record collection. And
it's probably true, subjectively. Some collectors pride themselves on owning
the clearest version of their favorite music, be it on 78-rpm shellac, in
long-playing format or on compact disc. Others want records for their
nostalgic value -- like Bill Johnson, 73, of Phoenix, who owns more than 6,000
albums, mostly sound-track and original-cast recordings. Some collect pre-1940
Duke Ellington performances or albums and tapes of failed Broadway musicals.
Though collectors invest thousands of dollars in records, most do it for love,
This is just as well, since record collecting is not a passion that often pays
off. The average used disc rarely commands more than $30. While a few vintage
rock-and-roll can be worth up to thousands of dollars, only the rarest jazz
recordings break out of the $200 range. Says Steve Smolian of Backnumber
Records in Frederick, Md.: "You aren't going to buy your next house on the
proceeds of what's in your attic -- unless you want to live in a tent."
THE CD THREAT
Now, with the influx of compact discs, collectors wonder what will happen to
the value of their records. Says Gerald Gibson, curator of the motion picture,
broadcasting and recorded-sound division of the Library of Congress: "People
will dump LP's the way they dumped 78s -- it's history repeating itself. In
both cases, only the most popular and biggest hit music is reissued. We still
get one phone call a week from somebody wanting to sell or donate 78s."
Yet, as was the case with 78s, the exceptional LP -- of music no longer
available or of original recordings by well-known artists -- is apt to retain
its value. Says Paul Mawhinney of Record-Rama Sound Archives in Pittsburgh:
"For every CD released, there will probably be three by the same artist that
are never released."
But simply being old doesn't make a record valuable. Les Szarvas of
Discontinued Records in Burbank, Calif., owns 2.5 million used records. Of
these, he concedes, 99 percent are not in demand. "I don't know which 1
percent people will want," Szarvas says, so he spreads a wide net when buying
collections to resell.
One obvious benchmark is a record's condition. Dealers complain that they
often hear that a record is "in excellent condition, considering its age." To
experts like Smolian, that's like comparing a baseball pitcher's speed at age
60 with what he threw at the peak of his career. Contends Smolian: "A small
scratch may reduce the price by at least half for a first edition." As owners
of either 78-rpm or LP records well know, very few records are without
COVERS COUNT, TOO
The condition of both the cover and the sleeve affects the value, too. If you
collect 45-rpm records, the illustrated sleeves are frequently worth as much
as the record, since most people threw sleeves away. In the case of 45s, only
first editions in superb condition are coveted. An original Beatles 45 that
sold in the 1960s for about $1 is now worth $30.
Even the actual paper label pasted to the record can enhance its value. Dan
Morgenstern of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University points to
Blue Note as an example. The earliest and most valuable Blue Note records bear
labels that say "Lexington Avenue." The firm later moved to West 63rd Street
in New York City, and labels eventually read simply "New York." Then Blue Note
was absorbed by Liberty Records and finally EMI. Each switch to another label
lowered the value of the record by 10 percent, says Morgenstern.
Out-of-print records obviously carry special value. For example, the album
Straight Up by the band Badfinger, issued on Apple Records for $4, is now
worth $30 to $50. Or take Jim Reeves, the first album made by the country-
and-Western singer, on the Abbott label. Reeves later switched to RCA Victor,
and his maiden effort, priced at $3 in 1956, now sells for $500 -- if you can
find a copy.
By the same token, original issues of a record are more valuable than later
reissues of the same material. In 1956, band leader Stan Kenton recorded some
of his classic 1940s jazz compositions for Capitol in the new stereo format.
Called Kenton in Hi Fi, it now sells for $40 to $50 in mint condition. The
same album reissued in the 1960s on Kenton's own Creative World label, and
still in print, has little collector's value. Original versions are
particularly important for works by such artists as Elvis Presley. The first
five singles he made for Sun records, like "Mystery Train" and "Blue Moon of
Kentucky," are now $400 to $500 apiece. The same songs reissued by RCA are
worth $2 to $3.
An entire collection organized around one or two major themes is worth more
than the sum of its individual records. Wendell Echols of Atlanta, who has
been collecting since the 1930s, counts among his 20,000 jazz records some
6,500 by vocalists and an equal number by pianists. Philadelphian Frederick
Williams owns more than 80,000 military-band records, and specializes in John
Philip Sousa music. Says Williams: "If you're not concentrating on a subject
or an artist, then you have an accumulation -- not a collection."
Jazz lover Geoffrey Wheeler, 51, of Manassas, Va., has collected records for
40 years, and now owns 2,100 78-rpm discs and 1,600 LP's. Says Wheeler, "My
favorite artist is Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist. He's the sum and
substance of jazz." Wheeler's collection includes 100 records by Young, who
was known as "Prez."
Some promotional copies of albums or unreleased versions of albums given to
clients or radio stations are rare, too. In a period when Rolling Stones
albums were issued in monaural, London Records remixed some songs in stereo
for use by FM radio stations and sent out 300 copies in a simple brown-and-
white cover. One is now worth $2,500.
Collectors of movie themes look for the unusual. The out-of-print sound track
of the 1966 James Bond movie Casino Royale, issued by Colpix, sells for $50
to $75 in stereo, $30 to $50 in mono. A precious few copies of the sound track
of the 1954 Humphrey Bogart film The Caine Mutiny were manufactured before
an artistic dispute halted production. One in near mint condition might be
The buying and selling of used records is a big business. If you want to sell
your collection, you'll get less from a dealer than if you sell directly to
another collector, but a dealer will save you the hassle of disgorging your
records one or two at a time. You can also buy or sell through auctions or
auction publications like Goldmine and Shellac Stack. Another way to buy is
"junking" -- bargain hunting in thrift shops and garage sales. To separate
jewels from junk, consult such price guides as Rockin' Records, published in
Tempe, Ariz., by Jerry Osborne, or American Premium Record Guide, by L. R.
Docks, published by Books Americana in Florence, Ala. Prices quoted by these
publications often reflect the highest bid by an avid collector and assume the
record is in near mint condition.
Most record collectors discover the hobby is addictive -- there's always one
more find. Observes New York City collector John Lissner: "I have records all
over my 2 1/2-bedroom apartment -- under beds, in linen closets, everywhere.
Half of them I don't listen to. I just like the feeling that they are there."
"The Tower Records phenomenon"
Its stores combine size with entertainment
By Michael Kimmelman
Philadelphia's sidewalks are dotted with people carrying the distinctive
yellow-and-red Tower Records bag. Since Tower opened a few weeks ago on trendy
South Street, it has become in Philly what it has been in 33 other U.S.
cities, plus London and Tokyo -- a phenomenon. The Sacramento-based chain ha
turned record selling into the art of entertainment. For dramatic effect,
stores are designed like stage sets. Banks of TV's display music videos: neon
People come to Tower's cavernous spaces to meet friends, watch the crowds --
and, yes, to browse the huge inventory of tapes and LP's. Tower stores, says
Roy Imber, president of the competing 71-outlet Record World chain, are "run
to be happening places -- a place to hang out and be entertained, as well as
to buy records.
Sheer quantity distinguishes a Tower store from others. Most large chain stores
carry roughly 25,000 items. A smaller Tower outlet has 150,000, its Manhattan
store a staggering 600,000. Claims founder and owner Russell Solomon: "We're
looking to please the serious vinyl junkies." It's working. The 41-store chain
grossed $250 million last year, right behind the 525-store Musicland/Sam Goody
chain, at $412 million. Solomon, 61, started Tower in 1961 in the back of his
father's drugstore. Over the next several years, he expanded along the West
Coast. But not until 1983, when he opened a $4 million venture in Greenwich
Village, did Tower gain national rank. He bought success without alienating
competitors. "He's a nice guy -- I consider him a friend and a good
colleague," says Record World's Imber.
Solomon puts Tower stores in the center of cities. He doesn't "lowball"
competitors with price wars. Many executives of other chains contend that a
Tower store helps them by generating a sense of excitement about record buying
while leaving room for suburban-based competition. "It's definitely a plus in
the long run for all music sellers," says Mark Colvson, manager of the
Philadelphia Barnes & Noble record stores.
Solomon's laid-back style belies his aggressive methods. "I think Russ wants
to conquer the world," jokes a store manager. Solomon cheerfully agrees.
Expanding Tower, he says, is "a wonderfully infinite process."
- U.S. News & World Report, May 18, 1987.
"How To Keep That Old L.P. Playing Long"
by Melvin Spivey
The party's over but that doesn't mean that your records have to be. You've
battered the best, now save the rest. Believe it or not, a badly damaged record full
of dust, smeared with mustard, or drenched in soda pop can be washed clean! Now
don't try tossing the latest Rod Stewart LP into the washing machine, because the
chances are that even with a non-polluting detergent it will ruin your album. However,
there's a little known method to save your disk when all else has failed.
First, prepare a clean, lint free drying cloth by spreading it out on a clean table.
Then prepare a washing solution by using two drops of detergent to each pint of
clean, warm water -- not warmer than 90° F. Rotate the record in a basin, cleaning it
on its edge. Wash the record using a clean cellulose sponge. Rotate the record until
the entire surface has been washed several times. Always cleaning the direction of
the grooves, never across. Repeat the entire procedure for the reverse side of the
record. Then shake off as much excess water as possible and lay the record on one
end of the drying cloth. Fold the other end over the record and dab gently until it's dry.
Here's some more helpful hints to help keep the good times rollin' and the LPs
1. A ruined LP can be washed like a pair of dirty socks, but disc-washing should be
saved as an emergency way to cure a sick LP.
2. A stylus is less than 0.00025 of an inch thick and has to trace thousands of miles
of twisting grooves.
3. Although some turntables have a built-in stacking device, an album plopping on
top of another causes scratches, screeches, and knicks.
4. Never touch the surface of a record! Invisible finger grease ruins more LPs than
any other cause.
5. Always save the seemingly pointless inner-sleeve. The paper helps retain the
shelf life of vinyl against cardboard particle damage.
6. The sun wilts more than flowers, my friend. Watch that simmering back dash or
everybody's gonna' sound like Black Sabbath.
7. Careful when cleaning dope on double albums. Lost seeds can wedge in-between
discs and wreak havoc on grooves.
8. Mind that pets/pet hair steer clear of a record collection. Covers and contents
make great chew toys and scratching posts.
9. An LP is not a frisbee! That's Long Playing, not Launching Pad.
- from Dazed and Confused (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1993).
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