Vinyl Collecting: A Beginner’s Guide

Illustration: Ruckus Art

I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by vinyl records. As a kid, my parents would spin old country and western albums, and my teenage siblings were heavily into ‘80s rock. I was weaned on Van Halen and George Jones. As soon as I had enough money to hit a proper record store, I was there, standing on a box in order to reach the back of the used record bin. Almost a quarter century later, it’s still an obsession of mine. Since record collecting is not an exact science, there are no concrete rules. But there are some things to consider before you jump into it. I consulted with friend and longtime record pundit Billy Carter (from Cincinnati’s Shake It Records) and have come up with a few suggestions for starting your own record collection:

Buy records that you’ll actually listen to. 
Seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised at how many people buy music they think they should like, but will never actually play. Or worse, they buy records they hope will be worth a fortune someday. Stop it. Buy music you’ll be happy to own.

Visit the record shops and thrift stores often.
A big part of collecting is searching for the titles you want.  Not every great LP is still in production and used record stores can’t control what their stock will be on any given day. One day they might have eight used Zeppelin LPs and nine Zappas, some days none at all. That’s the nature of the business. There are also a tremendous number of faithful regulars that shop nearly every single day. A once-a-month visit from the novice record collector won’t cut it. Much like the Wild West, the fastest gun wins.

Get to know your record store clerks.
Collecting relies on a network of buyers and sellers. The more of them you know, the better they can work for you. The better they know what you’re after, the more likely they’ll be to guide you toward what you need. There’s nothing quite like walking into a record shop and having the guy behind the counter say, “You won’t believe what we just got in.”

Limited doesn’t mean valuable.
I mean, it might, but most rare records got that way because no one wanted them when they first came out. If the record company had the presence of mind to label a record with a “limited edition” sticker, then they also made enough copies to offset the cost of printing and applying said sticker. Early pressings and colored vinyl runs are normally more valuable, but not always by very much. Remember, buy it because you like it, not because you think you can finance your kid’s education later by reselling it. There is no way to predict if an LP’s value will increase.

Buy it when you see it.

If you pass on it now, it could be years before you get the chance to buy it again. If you need it for your collection, don’t let it slip away. If you give yourself the afternoon to think about it, the disc will find its way into someone else’s collection before you get back. You may never see it again. Strike while the iron is hot.

Be prepared for how the music will sound on LP.
Remember that records are pressed onto vinyl. Vinyl is softer than plastic and can scratch and scuff fairly easily. Most of what you hear when you drop the needle will be music, but there will be some background noise, especially with older LPs or junky turntables. If sound quality is a big deal for you, invest in a quality player and only buy new albums—and keep everything clean. You may still hear noise, this is the cross that the vinyl enthusiast must bear. Learn to roll with it. Personally, I rather enjoy the crackle of old records. One of my favorites is a well-worn copy of Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room.  The vinyl is rough and the cover is stained with coffee mug rings and candle wax. No way a digital copy has that much character.

Consider collecting in themes.
You will never have every record you want. It just won’t happen. But you can track down everything from a certain band or a specific music genre. You could also try collecting records based on size, cover art or record label. Remember that assembling the collection is the fun part—the digging through bins, talking to store clerks and trading records with people you meet. That’s why people get into it.  Once you enjoy the process, the collection will take care of itself.

Other Tips:
If you’re going to spend 20 minutes inspecting a three-dollar Joni Mitchell LP like it’s the fucking Zapruder film, you should really just take up another hobby. Gardening?

If the LP comes in more than two colors, it’s no longer an LP, it’s a game.

The plural of vinyl is and always has been vinyl. Vinyls is not a word. Call them records, LPs or albums, but don’t call them vinyls. We will all laugh at you.

If you are buying LPs because you find them kitschy and goofy and if you don’t really care for the music, you should just stay home.

A first pressing of a shitty record is still a shitty record.

Listen to the first eight Black Sabbath LPs.

Illustration: Ruckus Art