What You Need to Know About Collecting Vintage Vinyl Records

Teenage boy in a record store

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While "vintage vinyl" is super popular today among music recording purists, people have been collecting record albums for more than a century. In fact, as soon as record albums came on the market, collections were born.

Those first collections were by and large accumulations of favorite artists and pieces of music. Today's vinyl enthusiasts relish the opportunity to buy rarities, so there is a definite market here for up and coming pickers. The history behind the hobby is also quite interesting. 

The First Records

The earliest "records" were actually wax cylinders invented by Thomas Edison in the 1880s. This was no doubt a great achievement, but one that could be improved upon since they broke easily and wore out after a few plays.

By 1888, inventor Emile Berliner came up with the 78 as an alternative. He called it a "flat disc," and experimented with different types of materials before settling on shellac in 1891. Edison responded with his own version of the flat disc, one he purported to have better quality sound (and he was right, Edison Records were superior) but they were much thicker. Berliner's discs won out though, and by the end of the decade, Edison's were no longer being made, according to Goldmine's Essential Guide to Record Collecting by Dave Thompson.

Although Edison Records do have a few devoted fans, there is not a tremendous demand for them now. They are largely seen as novelties due to their thickness, and they can only be played on an Edison player with a diamond needle. Edison made discs in the 78 format from 1912 through 1929, and that extensive catalog does have a few more devotees. The sound was still superior to other 78s, but Edison didn't keep pace with competitors. While his business faltered and eventually closed, others continued to produce lesser quality recordings at better prices for consumers. 

Grandfather playing 79's with grandson
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Enter the LP and Singles

Vinyl hit the market in 1948. These 10-inch long-playing records replaced the 78, which was limited to only one song per side. So, instead of having to buy an "album" of six 78s (similar to what we call a box set today), all 12 songs were on one nifty record. LPs not only offered convenience, but they also took up far less space.  

The new album format was great for those who wanted a collection of music, like Broadway show tunes or a symphony, all on one disc. But, there was still call for single hit songs on one recording. Enter the "single" in early 1949. These seven-inch discs spinning at 45 rpm fit the bill, and another type of record to collect was born. Turntables could be fitted with an adapter, and singles (or 45s) could be stacked to play one after another just by changing the speed of the turntable. 

Today collectors still seek both vintage albums and singles by their favorite musicians and bands. Sometimes they collect entire genres, such as jazz or classical music. Album art also forms the basis of many impressive record collections.

Valuable Albums and 45s

Some of the earliest LPs are worth pretty good sums ranging from $50 to $300, according to Thompson. In his book, he notes that an album by Western Swing artist Bob Wills, Round-up, introduced in 1949 is valued at about $300. Latin music lovers would relish finding Cugat's Rhumba by Xavier Cugat worth in the $50 range. Many albums are valued into the thousands though, so paying attention to which artists are commanding the highest prices will be good knowledge to have if you're planning to resell. Take a look at a book like Thompson's, or do a completed item search on eBay to get started. 

Early 45s also hold considerable value. Certain titles can sell for $30 to $100 or more. A number of Eddy Arnold's first singles sell for good sums, along with other country stars such as Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

But the value of any type of record hinges on the condition, and that's why you need to know something about grading vinyl if you're going to collect or buy for resale at estate sales and the like.

Grading Vinyl

Determining the condition of vinyl before you purchase it goes a long way toward making sure you're getting your money's worth. "Condition is what separates a pristine disc from a scratched-to-death one; the condition is how we determine whether a record is worth $1,000 or $1," Thompson writes.

In the record collecting world, the Goldmine grading scale is the standard: Mint (M), Near Mint (NM), Very Good Plus (VG+), Very Good (VG), Good Plus (G+), Good (G), Fair (F) and Poor (P). Many record sellers follow these guidelines, but they also interpret the scale differently sometimes. Nevertheless, there are some basic guidelines to help you understand what these grades mean: 

  • Mint (M): When you're looking at a Mint record, it should be "absolutely perfect" in all ways. It is a record that has never been played, and likely to still be sealed in plastic. Many collectors feel that removing shrink-wrap reduces the condition to Near Mint immediately. Few records are truly in mint condition.
  • Near mint (NM): Many dealers use Near Mint far more often than Mint. This means a record is close to being perfect condition. "It may possess the odd minor defect–a tiny (read all-but-invisible) trace of ring wear to the cover, the odd stray fingerprint or, around the spindle hole in the center of the record, a few silvery lines." A Near Mint record will not have creases, folds, tears, splits, scratches, scribbles, dings or anything else wrong with it (including cut holes indicating it was sold at a discount). 
  • Very good plus (VG+): Records with this grade are worth about half what a mint example will bring. This type of record will have some signs of use, and may even be slightly warped, but it will still play nicely. Labels may be a bit scuffed as will the covers. Many records fall into this category.
  • Very good (VG): When a record is deemed Very Good, the types of problems in VG+ records are usually present, along with others. You may hear some audible evidence of scratching, but the record will not skip. The cover and label will likely show more signs of use, and perhaps some nondescript writing or a prior owner's name scribbled somewhere. Again, many records fall into this category, and they sell for about 25 percent of what a Mint example would be worth. Brush up on your haggling skills to get the best prices. 
  • Good (G) and good plus (G+): These records will still be playable and not skip, but there may be more audible snaps, crackles, and pops present when doing so. Seams may be split on the covers and spines crushed, according to Thompson. They will be worth even less than Very Good examples. Unless the disc is something you've been seeking for eons, save your money for a better buy.
  • Poor (P) and Fair (F): These examples will be unplayable without skips and have other major problems like excessive warping (beware of LPs being displayed outside at garage sales) cracks, tattered covers or ripped labels. It's usually best not to purchase these types of records, but if you must, don't pay more than 5 percent of the Mint value. 
  • What about autographed records? It is important to keep in mind that if an album cover is autographed by a popular singer or musician, all this grading goes out the window. If the signature is marketable, then it doesn't matter where the grade of the record happens to fall because this is now celebrity memorabilia instead of a random LP. This is especially true for a name like The Beatles or Michael Jackson, where someone would be buying the autograph rather than the record itself.