Thursday, February 21, 2008

Vinyl records get new attention


While many people are busy listening to downloaded music on their iPods, a surprising development has been taking place in the music marketplace: vinyl records are making a comeback.

Some youngsters, romanced by today's technology, may not even know that records were the primary music delivery system in the 1960s and 70s when rock 'n' roll revolutionized popular culture. Folks who lived through the era, however, often collected the 12-inch discs.

Perhaps, you even have a crate or two of old records gathering dust in your living room or basement. Looking through them will remind you of why you bothered to collect them in the first place. These record albums, also called LPs (short for long players) or 33 and a thirds, for the speed they rotated on the turntable, offered the music fan more for their money.

The covers usually displayed some appealing artwork or a photo of the artist. As you were listening to the music you could read some entertaining and informative liner notes. More facts about songwriting and publishing were revealed on the record's label.

But, most importantly the LP delivered a "warm" sound compared to the often "tinny" sound of compact discs and compressed downloads, even with the noise of scratches which came with repeated plays.

Many folks swear to the superiority of the LP to this day, and record companies have responded by issuing selected titles in the vinyl format. Internet merchandiser has even introduced a vinyl-only store and the CBS-network Sunday Morning program recently aired a feature on vinyl's return.

Truth is vinyl never went away. Collectors have amassed them for decades. A magazine called "Goldmine" has served the advertising needs of collectors, to say nothing of the giant internet auction house Ebay, which lists over a quarter million records at any given time.

A search on Ebay will show the wide variety of vinyl available for bidding. A few records sell for impressive prices, while many offerings expire without bids. Of course, the reason is that not all records are collectible or valuable.

Demand for vinyl is based, not on the age of the record, but on scarcity and condition. The Beatles have thousands of entries on eBay, as one might expect for the most popular musical group of all time. Yet, the Beatles sold tens of millions of records, so many titles are common. Still, finding some of their original LPs on the original labels in mint condition may be difficult because kids played the heck out of their records.

The Beatles

One highly sought-after Beatles title is known as the "butcher cover." This early version of the "Yesterday & Today" album pictured the Fab Four in butcher's smocks with decapitated baby dolls and raw meat scattered about. It was quickly recalled and can fetch a good price today.


Elvis, certainly rock's greatest early performer, is at the center of many collections. Some people assume his "Moody Blue" album, pressed on blue vinyl must be valuable. I've seen dozens of copies of this record and it's only worth a few dollars. Find that record pressed with black vinyl and you have something quite collectible.

Some media, like "Antiques Roadshow" on public television, occasionally highlight a rare Elvis or Beatles collectible, with some people drawing the mistaken assumption that everything issued by those two music icons must be valuable.

In fact, the very nature of a hit record tends to make it common. Millions bought Michael Jackson's "Thriller" or "Rumours" by Fleetwood Mac. Discs by the likes of Elton John or the Eagles will never gain in value because so many were sold. Of course, that doesn't mean that the music contained in the grooves isn't worthwhile.

If you ever take to listening to your LPs, you'll realize it always pays to take care of them. So, when you're through listening to an LP it's always best to slide it back into its inner sleeve and cardboard jacket. Records should also be stored vertically at room temperature. Attics aren't good storage areas because of the extremes in temperature and basements add the possibility of moisture and mildew into the mix.

Folks new to collecting vinyl might want to study up on the hobby first. But, you can never go wrong collecting what you like. Of course, you can go to Ebay to buy, but don't forget about used record stores, antique shops and thrift stores like Goodwill, Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul. During warmer months, persistent buyers often find bargain priced records at garage sales. Mountains of records are available from these sources for just a few dollars each.

Mae West

I have to admit I still enjoy picking-up records here and there, adding to the collection I started as a teenager. I recently bought three LPs from the 60s. The first is by Mae West, called "Way Out West." Although the title can be taken several different ways, the record features the actress singing rock 'n' roll hits to the backing of an obscure garage-rock band named Somebody's Chyldren.

Paul Revere and the Raiders

The second LP, by Paul Revere and the Raiders, was issued at the height of the Vietnam War. Called "Hard 'N' Heavy (with Marshmallow)" the cover pictures the group crushing a guitar by driving over it with a tank. Most fans probably understood the symbolism.

The Sunrays

The third record has a great story behind it. The Sunrays, who issued an album called "Andrea," thought they would be the next Beach Boys. That's because they were told so by Murry Wilson, who produced the record. Wilson had recently been fired as manager by his sons and was out to prove HE was the real Beach Boys. He wasn't, but the Sunrays had several hits, nonetheless.

Considering the recent additions to my record collection, you might want to take up the hobby yourself.

Even if the pieces you buy aren't particularly valuable, there can be joy in collecting. After all, it's about the music.

In the end, pursuing records gives you something tangible to collect, quite unlike downloading music with your computer.

Happy collecting.

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