The greatest album you’ve never heard of

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Andrew Heskins’s vinyl obsession began early, with his parent’s collection of Motown, pop and disco.

By Alison Birrane

What’s hot, what’s not

What’s hot Rare and obscure rock, including punk, soul and jazz. “Outsider” music independently released by people outside the musical mainstream in the 60s, 70s and 80s and who followed no trends. Bootleg albums.

What’s Not Pre-rock’n’roll, swing band music from the 40s, middle-of-the-road pop, 1980s “hair metal’’ or pop rock

Then, in the 1990s, Heskins discovered acid jazz, a genre that was influenced by 70s funk and disco. Easy access to car boot sales and charity shops allowed Heskins to snap up older records for cheap. Now 43, Heskins has more than 8,000 records stored in his lounge and loft, which he estimates to be worth approximately GBP25,000 ($39,000). The value of the collection is, however, beside the point.

Vinyl offers a richer sound than CDs or digital, said Heskins, a graphic designer and founder of Asian film website easternKicks.com. “It became part of the experience of listening to music for me, the ceremony, if you like, of opening the gatefold cover, removing it from the inner sleeve and putting it on the record deck.”

In the London home he shares with his wife, Heskins stores his collection of mostly 70s and 80s soul and funk in custom shelving designed to display as many records as possible. The rest are arranged neatly in crates in the loft. When he’s not playing vinyl on his turntable, he can kick back on the sofa and just enjoy looking at it.

The appeal

Heskins’s story is typical of the record collector. Vinyl hoarders surrender entire rooms to stacks of analog music, lovingly collected, curated and organised, often in custom-built storage. Generally a male pursuit, the obsession usually takes hold during teenage years and continues into adulthood.

Lawrence Dawson, 51, who lives in New Malden, UK, began collecting when he inherited some 78s from his grandparents as a child. “When I hit my teens in the late 70s, I started buying seriously. I was fascinated by both punk and disco, spending most Saturday mornings in the record shops.” When he moved house last year, he and his partner commissioned a loft conversion especially to store his prized collection.

“I don’t really feel like I own the music unless I have it in a physical format,” said Dawson via email, adding that the album artwork also adds to an LP’s collectibility. “Buying an old record is like buying a piece of history — you’re hearing music the same way as someone who listened to the record when it was new and fresh.”

Collectors are drawn to vinyl for numerous reasons. Die-hard audiophiles are convinced the warmth and character of the sound simply cannot be replicated with digital music. For others, it’s about vast, encyclopedic collections of music memorabilia of their favourite artists. Others consider themselves arbiters of taste — the cognoscenti of real and rare music.

“Vinyl albums are tangible objects in today’s digital age,” said Patrick Prince, Editor of music collector’s magazine Goldmine via email. Newer generations are discovering vinyl too, he said.

Despite the proliferation of digital music, vinyl sales are up. Research by Nielsen, a global information and measurement company, shows that in 2014 vinyl unit sales in the US totaled 9.2 million, up from 6.1 million in 2013. Still, vinyl accounted for only 6% of US physical album sales in 2014, and a tiny percentage of overall total music sales, the figures showed.

“It’s resurging only in the sense that it’s come back from the dead,” said Craig Moerer, owner of Portland, Oregon-based RecordsbyMail.com, a mail-order vinyl business. Surprisingly, it’s both small labels and huge music conglomerates that are benefiting from the revival.

“Small labels in the punk era tapped into record collector frenzy by issuing all sorts of special and limited edition 45s and LPs,” said Stephen MH Braitman, an accredited senior appraiser with the American Society of Appraisers and founder of Musicappraisals.com.

“That really jumpstarted a new burst of record collecting.”

Record Store Day, an annual event started in 2007 and held on the third Saturday in April, has “increased the popularity of newly pressed vinyl, packaged sets and exclusive releases,” Prince said.

Who’s collecting

Record buyers come from all backgrounds and walks of life. However, there’s a concentration of collectors in the 30-to-50-year-old range, experts say. Most are men. “Stacking things up and organising things seems to be a neurotic male trait,” Moerer said. “98% of our customers are probably male.”

Moerer said at least half of his sales come from outside of the US, particularly from Asia and Europe. “There’s a tremendous amount of collecting going on in Japan,” he said, and a smaller amount of sales to Korea and Hong Kong.

Most coveted

Albums by the Sex Pistols and the Beatles are highly prized. Yet the most expensive record in the world is a one-of-a-kind acetate of That’ll Be the Day/In Spite of All The Danger recorded in 1958 by The Quarrymen, the group that preceded the Beatles. It was valued at £200,000 ($314,000) by Record Collector magazine in 2012.

And while large auction houses such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s occasionally have a rare, headline-grabbing gold record, signed album or acetate, most vinyl collectors are looking for records you’ve probably never heard of.

“If you had a Beatles album signed by all four, back in the day, that’s almost really more memorabilia than it is a record,” said Moerer. “It’s not even fair to mix that into the record (collecting) world.” Instead, most of the value for collectors lies in “oddballs records”.

A big part of collecting is having the inside track on rare, obscure records, Braitman said. An example is a 1969 album called Pussy Plays, by 1960s/70s British psychadelic-era band Pussy, which Braitman bought for a dollar when it came out. It now sells for as much as $5,000 if sealed and authenticated, he said.

“Original pressings are always the most collectable and condition is very important,” said Dawson. “I hate going to charity shops that sell vinyl and price records according to the Record Collector Price Guide and take no note of the condition. Even rare Beatles originals are worth little if almost unplayable.”

There’s also brisk trade in fakes. “Bootlegs can be worth more, or at least as much, as the originals. Not all repressings are ‘official’, but that doesn’t stop them being worth lots of money,” Heskins said.

Where to buy and sell

Records stores, charity shops, discounters and car-boot sales have long offered rich pickings for the vinyl obsessed.

Today, bargains can be snagged online using eBay or Discogs.com, a user-built online database of music, where collectors can not only buy and sell records, but also value and catalog their collections.

“Be careful online,” warned Dawson. “One person’s mint condition is another person’s unplayable. I always check negative feedback first.”

Hoping to track down a specific LP? Try a dealer, read vinyl blogs or an independent or iconic record store, such as the gigantic Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley. Heritage Auctions in the US specialises in collectibles, including some vinyl.

Want to make sure you’re not being ripped off? Consult the record collector’s bible, the Rare Record Price Guide, available as a book or online. Magazines such as Goldmine in the US and Record Collector in the UK are authoritative sources and regularly publish articles on what’s trending in the vinyl community.

Collectors can also be found trawling record fairs such as Crate Digger Record Fair in Melbourne, Australia; the Bay Area Record Fair in San Francisco or the London Record Fair in the UK.

The bottom line

“There are

some fundamental issues with record collecting as a hobby that still need to be addressed before it’s seen as reputable or lucrative as other collecting fields,” said Braitman, who owns about 10,000 LPs and once appraised Elton John’s personal record collection.

For one, there is no universally accepted grading system for vinyl or covers, Braitman said.

“Until this field can legitimise its relationship to quality and condition, it’s not going to attract the investor class, which makes it a really professional, mature hobby, like comics books, rare old automobiles, and stamps and coins,” Braitman said.

But, any vinyl enthusiast will tell you there’s more value to record collecting than the financial. As musician Henry Rollins said:  “Sitting in a room, alone, listening to a CD is to be lonely. Sitting in a room alone with an LP crackling away… is enjoying the sublime state of solitude.”

 

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