Vinyl records turn the tables for collectors and investors
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“That’s a big one. That’s massive,” says Mark Burgess as I produce a prize specimen from my record collection — a vinyl original of My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album Loveless.
Mint copies these days sell for as much as £300. But alas, not mine. “Oh. There’s a gouge there,” says the vinyl connoisseur, inspecting a deep scratch on side two of the indie-rock classic. My record’s estimated value promptly plummets to about £70.
I am in Mr Burgess’s shop, Flashback Records, in Islington, north London. Browsers riffle through rows of second-hand vinyl and CDs. A stereo system plays dub reggae and vintage soul. Record sleeves line the walls.
A portrait of Phil Collins has been doctored to give him vampire’s teeth. Mr Burgess, 52, has the long hair of the rock star he failed to become. “What else do you do with a maths degree from Cambridge?” he says.
My visit is to calculate the value of an asset that has taken me more than 30 years to build up. My music collection comprises almost 500 vinyl records, several thousand CDs and more than 12,000 digital songs. The total includes the large quantity of free music that I am sent as the FT’s pop critic. But it also represents thousands of pounds worth of expense.
The records are my starting point. Discogs, an online resource for selling recorded music, has a tool enabling one to estimate the value of one’s collection. It is a laborious but addictively geeky process by which you use a record’s catalogue number and the etchings in its run-off groove to work out when it was pressed. The result is then matched to records sold on the site. For the next step I have gone to Flashback Records for expert verification.
Mr Burgess set up the Islington shop in 1997 and now has two other London outlets. He characterises the second-hand record market as “very buoyant”. Its current state of health comes after a deep trough in the 2000s. Record Store Day, which takes place this weekend, was set up to protect independent record retailers from extinction. Three-quarters closed in the UK in the 2000s. Mr Burgess had to sell his north London home in 2006 to keep his business afloat.
Vinyl’s resurgence is an unexpected side-effect of the trend that at one point seemed set to kill it off — music’s transition into a digital world of streaming and MP3s. People have grown nostalgic for the aesthetic, tactile pleasures of records, the look of the sleeve, the feel of the disc. More than 4m vinyl albums were sold in the UK last year, the highest level since 1991. The boom has raised the value of used vinyl too.
“Your records are likely to be gaining in value pretty much across the board,” Mr Burgess says. “There will be very few which are actively going down.”
His words trigger a pleasurable frisson of smugness. Those of us who kept buying vinyl amid the various existential threats it faced can congratulate ourselves on holding our nerve amid testing market conditions. We have played the long game with consummate skill, or perhaps luck. Meanwhile, those who got rid of their collections under the disastrous pretext of decluttering deserve sympathy. But don’t despair. There is still time to get back in the proverbial groove.
“Ten years ago you could have invested in a record portfolio, so to speak, which will probably have tripled in value since then,” Mr Burgess says. As growth rates vary across genres and eras, prey to the unpredictable whim of fashion, investment opportunities still exist. “I could advise people of the sort of records you should be buying now that are likely to go up in value,” he says.
Tips for building a record portfolio
1 Look for limited editions of new releases like the records specially pressed for Record Store Day. They become instantly collectible.
2 Respected record labels are a good guide for quality, such as Vertigo Records and Dandelion Records in prog rock, or Black Ark and Studio One in reggae.
3 Anticipate trends. If there is a revival of interest in 1990s’ rap, stock up on originals. Cash out before fashion’s bandwagon rolls on.
4. Be morbid. According to Flashback Records’ Mark Burgess, David Bowie’s records doubled or tripled in value after his death. They are now dropping again.
5. Store your records properly. Keep them upright and away from radiators or direct sunlight. Handle with care. Change the stylus needle regularly.
The worth of a record collection depends on several factors. The quality of the sleeve and vinyl is one, graded according to standards ranging from “mint” to “poor”. Rarity or status is another variable. As most of the people who bought My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless in 1991 did so on CD, my vinyl copy of the cult album has become a collectible.
Working out which records do well is not straightforward. I have a 1961 UK original of Joan Baez’s self-titled first album, originally bought by my parents-in-law (a number of their records have been ruthlessly incorporated into my collection via my wife). It strikes me as eminently desirable but Discogs assigns it a price range of between £1 and £6, while Mr Burgess plumps for £5.
“Her style of folk is not really respected so much any more,” he says, with the ex cathedra certainty of the record store owner. “It’s a fiver even though it’s a 57-year-old album.” Five pounds? I might as well return it to my parents-in-law.
I have better luck with Blonde on Blonde by Baez’s old flame Bob Dylan. My copy of the 1966 album turns out to have the original gatefold sleeve, with a photo of the actress Claudia Cardinale that was withdrawn from later pressings after she complained. It is worth about £30.
A good-quality original copy of With The Beatles can fetch about £70. But mine is a £15 dud. “Of all The Beatles’ albums, it is probably worth least,” Mr Burgess says. “This is actually a 1970s’ reissue. In fact it’s a French one, it’s not even an English one.”
Revolver is more sought-after. The first mono pressing had the wrong mix of Tomorrow Never Knows and now sells for up to £400. Mine is the mono recording, not the stereo, but it is the corrected second pressing. It is worth £60.
Fame is no guarantee of resale value. Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming is a key release of its era. But my copy, with very good condition vinyl and colourful gatefold sleeve, is apparently worth less than £10. It came out in 1981 when cassettes were the only rival to vinyl. There are too many copies knocking around the nation’s charity shops. The same is true of singles: their value is driven almost solely by rarity.
Genres that hold their value well include psychedelia, progressive rock and soul. To my surprise, Britpop albums are among the most valuable. Pulp’s 1995 masterpiece Different Class would be around £85 if in mint condition. My much-played copy is valued at a still impressive £45.
The 1990s was the decade when vinyl was eclipsed by CDs. Records from that period, especially after 1993, command a premium due to relative scarcity.
My copies of Massive Attack’s Protection, DJ Shadow’s Entroducing and Cornershop’s When I Was Born for the 7th Time are each worth about £30. The jewel in the crown of my collection is a promotional vinyl copy of the White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan, of which only 300 copies were made in 2005. One was sold by Flashback Records in December for £150.
There is dross among my records too. Chart Hits 81 Volume 1, a 1981 compilation featuring Bill Wyman’s Si Si Je Suis Un Rock Star, has a median value of 97 pence on Discogs. I suspect I would be lucky to get even that much. But a gratifying quantity of my albums have held their worth despite heavy usage. Prince’s Lovesexy — technically my wife’s copy — has a sticker on the front showing she paid £5.99 for it in 1988 at HMV. It is now worth about £15, a sum that has kept pace with inflation — not bad for a mass-produced artefact of 30 years ago.
I do not have any records that are worth serious money. The first UK pressing in 1971 of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, whose cover shows Bowie reclining on a chaise longue in a woman’s dress, can fetch £1,000 in mint condition. A first pressing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon could expect the same.
My collection is full of solid performers (and the 97p one with Bill Wyman). Overall its value is about £5,000. Although only if I sold the records myself. If I flogged the lot to Flashback Records I could expect 40 per cent of the retail value. Vinyl is a good investment, but a tricky asset to dispose of.
Rise and fall of the CD
My records have proved profitable, not only in hours of listening pleasure but also in retaining much of the capital spent assembling them. Unfortunately the same cannot be said about the format that I own in far greater numbers — compact discs.
“From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete,” the electronics firm Philips boasted when it unveiled the world’s first CD player in 1982. Discs were marketed as indestructible, a sci-fi mechanism for playing music involving the use of that great token of 1980s futurity, the laser. But we shouldn’t have believed the hype.
CDs have fallen from grace. The futuristic musical wonder of 1982 has become today’s landfill. Sales are plummeting, both new and second-hand. There are no pleasurable frissons of smugness when I confront the value of my own CDs. Viewed purely as an investment, I should have cashed out several years ago.
“If they were in a collection we’d probably be looking to pay 30p each if they were in a reasonable state, where once it would have been at least £1,” says Rob Lythall of VIP Record Fairs, a Leicester-based company that organises record fairs around the UK. That would give my stock of 1,250 discs a weedy valuation of about £450. I could expect similar for the thousands of more basic promo CDs I also own.
It is not quite game over yet. “The market lies in specialist areas like folk, reggae, blues, soul or heavy metal,” Mr Lythall says. “Certain genres where there’s a small collecting market, not big enough for record labels to do reissues — CDs are still just about holding their own there.”
Hit albums are worth almost nothing, however. “Any Oasis CDs, you may as well chuck in a tip,” Mr Lythall says (he speaks as a fan). Whereas my 1993 vinyl copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind is worth about £50, I’d be fortunate to sell the CD version from the same date for £2.
The small round shiny discs with their fragile plastic cases lack the tangible appeal of vinyl. No one has ever really clasped the CD to their heart, apart from scarecrows in fields wearing them to dazzle birds. But perhaps future generations will see them differently. “We never thought vinyl would come back and it has,” says Mr Lythall. “No one’s an expert any more. It’s just see what happens.”
A near-obsolete music format provides a faint shred of hope. In 1989, 83m albums were sold in the form of cassette tapes in the UK. By 2004, the equivalent figure was 900,000. Yet in recent years the cassette has staged something of a Lazarus-like recovery. It has become a cult object, a retro-chic token of the 1980s. Sales are rising from their near-extinct base. Last year there were 174,000 cassette album sales in the US, up from 129,000 in 2016.
Cassettes were once my main source of music. I still have them. Even though the tape player was junked years ago, I haven’t been able to bring myself to part with them. The likes of U2’s Unforgettable Fire and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill are packed away in boxes in my house, their magnetic tape slowly corroding.
“Standard albums by well-known bands we can still sell for a couple of quid,” Mr Burgess of Flashback Records says. “Cassettes don’t age well.” The cassettes in my collection are worth about £100. Their value is not declining at the moment, but nor is it likely to increase. They will not be a nest egg for my children. But I still won’t be getting rid of them.
Diverging into digital
The value of the music on my computer rests on an imminent decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.
Currently it is worth nothing: digital property laws do not permit me to resell the albums and songs I have bought online. I can’t complain too much as I’ve only spent about £350 on them (I am sent hundreds of MP3 albums a year by record labels). But it is galling if you have spent large sums creating a digital library. You do not own it in the same way that you own records and CDs.
Online marketplace ReDigi wants to redress the balance. Based in the US, its ambition is to allow people to sell second-hand digital goods — ebooks, albums, films, whatever — as they do unwanted vinyl and DVDs. Only officially purchased files can be sold. “You can see in the atomic structure of a file whether it is legitimate or not,” explains Mark Nair, ReDigi’s president, speaking by Skype from his home in Amarillo, Texas.
ReDigi launched in 2011, initially focusing on music. Unusually the pricing model includes a commitment to pay rights holders when their work gets resold. “If you sold me a song and I sold that song to someone else, the initial creator of that song still gets a piece of all of those sales,” Mr Nair explains. “It’s different from a used bookstore or a used record store.”
Within months of starting up, however, ReDigi was hit by a lawsuit from Capitol Records alleging copyright infringement. The judge found in favour of the record label in 2013. ReDigi appealed in a case heard last August. The appeal court’s decision is due any day.
Mr Nair and his colleagues are ready to resume work if the appeal goes their way. “It has been a little ugly up to this point but I’m pretty confident that we’re going to be great coming out of this,” he says. Until then, digital music must remain an investment black hole.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
Letter in response to this article:
Should vinyl be spun as a good investment? / From Sean Perrott, Mousehole, Cornwall, UK