Over the years I've gained some notoriety for my love of vinyl records. Since I'm often approached for advice about buying vinyl, where to get record players, etc, I thought I should compile some of my advice into a post. This is by no-means a complete guide to buying vintage vinyl. If anyone is interested in some tips for buying new vinyl or turntables/vintage gear, let me know and I can put together a separate post on that topic.
My buddy Jason Yoder, who is probably the world's biggest collector of Indiana 45s- see www.indiana45s.com, has a good saying about vinyl condition which goes something like- "Condition is to vinyl like location is to real estate." An extremely rare record can be worth anywhere from $1 to $10,000 depending on condition. There are two main condition considerations for condition- vinyl and jacket.
Vinyl- when inspecting vinyl look for scratches that break the surface. Most vintage vinyl will have some surface marks but it's the deeper scratches that will add real noise. Another thing to look for is dirty vinyl. Unless you have a VPI vacuum cleaner, or know someone that has one, then I recommend avoiding dirty vinyl. A dirty record can have no scratches and still have tons of noise. It's amazing how different vinyl can sound after a proper cleaning so find someone with a VPI if you don't want to make that investment (about $400).
Jacket- things to look for are ring wear- when the jacket starts to visibly wear around the vinyl inside, mold- usually from being stored in a damp basement for years, seam splits- when the seams, uh, split, and general wear and tear including anything from water damage to writing (usually the original owner's name). The good news, for the beginning collector, is that a record with clean vinyl and a damaged jacket will often sell for much less than an all around very good to near mint record. Which brings us to...
Grading- if you start buying records you will start to encounter grading. This can be especially important if you are buying online. Since you can't inspect the record in person, and condition is critical in determining what you will pay for a record, you will have to rely on trusted sellers that adhere to standardized grading. Most sellers follow the Goldmine grading standards which you can find here. In general I would recommend only buying records with a VG+ or better grade for the vinyl and then relying on the pictures and description for the jacket. Still, always assume what you are buying is probably a grade lower than what is listed. VG+ means the vinyl looks and plays well. Not like new but pretty close.
This can be a real problem for the beginning buyer- how much should I pay for that Beatles record I want? To some degree the only real answer is- whatever it's worth to you. But here's an equation to consider: price= (scarcity + demand + pressing) * condition. I realize there is no way to really plug numbers into that equation but it's roughly how I look at it when I inspect a record and consider its value. Some helpful examples- expect to pay $5-25 for most vintage Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones (expect original 60s pressings in great condition) records, $10-50 for Beatles vinyl that is 60s or early 70s pressings in VG+ or better condition, $1-10 for really common and/or low demand artists (not that they aren't worth having) like James Gang, Yes, Aerosmith, Genesis, Fleetwood Mac, etc. There are many exceptions even to these rough guidelines. I recommend you use PopSike.com or Discogs.com whenever possible, they are a great resource for finding out what a record is worth. Discogs is a great place to buy, sell and catalog your collection. I am in the process of uploading my collection to Discogs. You can see it here if you are curious. I'm almost into the "Ds" as of January 2016.
Also, it is important to make sure you are comparing apples to apples in terms of pressing and condition. So on to pressings...
You will spend years collecting vinyl and still have trouble determining a true "first" press. But over time you will build a sense for pressings. If the album is originally from the 60s then the original vinyl was pretty thick, the record label looks nicely dated, might even have a street address, the jacket is thicker cardboard (unless UK/Europe then it will be really thin and glossy), the sleeve will show albums from the same time period (if the sleeve has stuff from the 70s then chances are it's a re-press from the 70s). If it is mono then it is almost always an original or early pressing. Mono wasn't regularly pressed except for AM radio after 1968 or so. One really simple rule of thumb is- vintage pressings (pre late 70s) will NEVER have a bar code on the jacket.
Earlier pressings are generally more valuable for a few reasons. They sound better, they "feel" better (the heavy vinyl, etc) and they often have details to the artwork that later pressings dropped for reasons of expense, etc. For instance, the original pressings of Neil Young's "Harvest" and "Tonight's The Night" albums have jackets that are soft and almost furry and have a big inside lyric sheet (as do many of his original vinyl releases). Later pressings are shiny and don't always have that big lyric sheet. When you compare those two records, visually and sonically, you can really appreciate the original and that's why it costs more. The further you get from the source, generally speaking, the less authentic the experience.
Sometimes the original can be cost prohibitive. Just do a search for Blue Note lp on eBay and you will see what I mean. An original Blue Note (jazz) album from the 1950s can go for hundreds up to thousands of dollars. A later pressing, still sounds pretty great, will go for $10-50. Same with The Beatles and many other really high demand labels and artists. The original pressings can be crazy money. I suggest you start with a later (more recent) pressing and work your way backwards (to earlier pressings) as you upgrade your collection.
Where To Buy Vinyl
There are roughly 5 ways to buy vinyl and sometimes a 6th option appears. The first is your local record store. Chances are you are going to pay a little more to buy from a local store. But the trade off is that you can inspect the vinyl, possibly return it and most importantly, build a relationship with the store. This way you might get early access to new inventory and they are almost always interesting people worth knowing. Also, having a local store that goes out it's way to buy and stock quality vinyl should be rewarded for their efforts, regularly and repeatedly. You can use the website/app Vinyl Hunt or Yelp to find local record stores. The second way is thrift stores- Goodwill, etc. There was a time in the 1990s when you could regularly find pretty good records at thrifts stores. I've found Neil Young, Beatles and even the Stone Roses at thrift stores. I know people that have found killer records at thrift stores. But most of the time it's total crap. The third is Half Price Books. They usually a very nice selection of vinyl at good prices. The forth is online, there are many good sites out there including eBay, InSound, GEMM, Discogs, Amazon and others. On eBay I like to save searches for wish list records and then I will usually let a few pass me by before I start to be more aggressive. I find this way you get stuff at the right price or a little below. In general most collectors think of eBay prices as equivalent to what "book" prices were 10+ years ago. As I mentioned above there is a great site, popsike.com, that is a searchable database of all vinyl sold on eBay over the last 10 years. Recently I've relied more on Discogs for online buying. The fifth is garage sales. You can find some amazing stuff at garage sales. Just head out on a beautiful weekend and hit 4-5 garage sales. I would be surprised if you don't come across some decent vinyl at some point. The sixth way is buying collections. This is my favorite way. Sometimes you will hear of a family member that has a collection, or a friend is moving, etc. Once people know you are collecting it's surprising how many opportunities can come your way. Pick the stuff you want and sell the rest to friends or a record store or throw it in a garage sale. Sometimes you can get some absolutely amazing records in a collection as long as you deal with a bunch of Dean Martin records as well. If you have a collection and want to sell it please let me know.
Some more tips and tricks
Listen before you buy if possible. A badly pressed record is a real drag, especially if you paid a lot of money for it. Some of the pressing issues to look for include low volume pressings (usually when the original "mother" is cut at too low of volume, this leads to a record that has noise issues more quickly than a "loud" pressing), weaves (when the spindle hole in the middle isn't really in the middle and the record "weaves" which leads to modulation- frequency of the music going up and down), warps (usually from the record not being stored properly, a warped record can be rough on a needle and when badly warped, simply unplayable) and factory errors (this covers issues with the vinyl and all kinds of things that can go wrong when it comes to pressing vinyl, normally this will show up as noise or distortion. I've seen this issue repeatedly on newer releases where the quality doesn't always match vintage vinyl pressings). This is part of the reason I started the website www.recordgeeks.com so I could give new vinyl users feedback on pressings. But, as I mentioned above, new vinyl is a whole other story.
Thanks for reading!