Record collecting is the hobby of collecting sound recordings, usually of music and/or the "spoken word" (i.e. recordings of drama, poetry, historical speeches, significant news broadcasts, speech dialect samplings, etc.), but, in some cases (although mostly on a smaller scale), even of other recorded sounds (e.g. bird calls and/or other sounds of nature; railroad and other mechanized vehicle sounds; urban, rural, forest, and other "soundscapes"; various "sound effects"; etc.). Although the typical focus is on vinyl records, all formats of recorded music can be collected.
Record collecting has been around probably nearly as long as recorded sound. In its earliest years, phonographs and the recordings that were played on them (first wax phonograph cylinders, and later flat shellac discs) were mostly toys for the rich, out of the reach of the middle or lower classes. By the 1920s, improvements in the manufacturing processes, both in players and recordings, allowed prices for the machines to drop. While entertainment options in a middle to upper class home in the 1890s would likely consist of a piano, smaller instruments, and a library of sheet music, by the 1910s and later these options expanded to include a radio and a library of recorded sound.
After the phonograph cylinder became obsolete, the record was the uncontested sound medium for decades. The number of available recordings mushroomed and the number of companies pressing records increased These were 78–rpm, originally one-sided, then later double-sided, ten-inch shellac discs, with about two to four minutes of recording time on each side.
Growth in the recorded sound industries was stunted by the Great Depression and World War II, when the recording industries in some countries were affected by a restricted supply of raw materials. By the time World War II ended, the economy of these countries began to grow again. Classical music (which was a large portion of 78–rpm releases) was slowly edged into a minority status by the influx of popular and new music, which was less costly and thus more profitable to record.
The introduction of both the 331⁄3 rpm, 12-inch LP record and the 45–rpm, 7-inch record, coming into the market in 1948/1949, provided advances in both storage and quality. These records featured vinyl (polyvinyl chloride or polystyrene), replacing the previous shellac materials. Further groups of small labels came into existence with the dawning of the rock and roll era in the early-to-middle 1950s, and the growth of a market among post-war teenagers with disposable income to spend on 45–rpm singles. Rock and roll was much less costly and more profitable to produce than the big band jazz and professional singer/song-craftsman music that it replaced in popularity.
In the United Kingdom, rare 78–rpms were traded, usually American rock and roll, such as Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Labels such as London-American (now London Records), RCA and Capitol were priced at a premium. One of the earliest UK record collectors was Mike Adams, who was first known for trading in 1958 on Merseyside. He later became a DJ on the BBC and broadcast on collecting records for many years. He wrote several books on collecting including Apple Beatle Collectables. In the UK, labels considered collectible, such as Atlantic Records, Stateside, Motown, and Parlophone (EMI), turned into mainstream major record labels later on in the 1960s.
With the folk music boom in the late 1950s to early 1960s, there was suddenly a demand for archival material. Record collectors fanned out in some countries, searching small towns, dusty barns and mountain cabins for older discs. Initially, the most-desired items were pre-World War II shellac discs containing "race records" (that is, blues, country blues and hillbilly music), the precursors to then-current rock and roll and country styles. Later generations of record collectors found their passion in digging up obscure 45s in the genre of doo-wop, or LPs from the late 1960s "garage rock" and "psychedelic" genres.
The pop music scene changed forever in January 1964 with the arrival of The Beatles in the United States. In their wake, thousands of musical bands inspired by their fresh, lively take on rock music with a sharp British sensibility, picked up guitars, and many released records. Many of these acolytes released 45–rpm records in small batches to sell at local concerts and to their friends and families. Due to their relatively small pressings, these obscure local records became highly prized and valuable.
One of the "collector's items" with the most notoriety in record collecting is not a record at all, but merely an album cover. The Beatles themselves accidentally contributed what is probably one of the most well-known and valuable "collector's pieces" of the rock and roll era: "The Butcher Cover". This is an informal title for an album cover for the album Yesterday and Today. Until 1967, the Beatles' LP releases in the UK were substantially different from their LP releases in the USA. These American albums were shorter, had different songs, album titles and artwork.
Another Holy Grail for some collectors is Bob Dylan's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, the 1963 pressing that has four songs that were deleted from subsequent pressings, known to fetch up to $35,000 in stereo and $16,500 in mono in excellent condition.
One collectible record format is known as a test pressing. Test pressings are exactly what the name implies; 5-10 copies of a record pressed for the purpose of checking the mix or levels on a record, or to ensure that the die is cutting properly. Though usually meant for the band, producer, pressing plant, or record label to keep as reference, they are often placed in special packaging (such as a photocopy of the real record sleeve) and given out to friends or devoted fans.
First pressings of original commercial releases usually have higher values than later pressings. 45s with “picture sleeves” are often particularly valuable. Original editions of LPs and later 12-inch singles and Compact Discs often had inserts and other features not on subsequent editions. These are usually what the records collectors want and will pay the most for. Subsequent pressings were made, for instance, after the records were off the charts and Top 40 radio. These records most often have the same label and number but can be identified by dealers and collectors because of differences from the 1st pressings in the cover, colour of the label, matrix numbers etc. These pressings of popular records often have no more value than the original purchase price.
Promotional or "promo" records were free records sent to radio or television stations (and others) to announce a new release that would be coming soon from the record company. They were identified by the label (often plain white in colour) and were marked “Promotional”, “Audition” or "Demonstration". Most promo labels also state “Not for Sale.” Promo copies of best selling records generally have a slightly lower value than the 1st pressing originals. Occasionally promo copies were pressed for records that were never released. Obviously these records are extremely rare and obtain a very high value for the most sought-after artists or music.
“Reissues” of popular records usually have a different label and number than the original release and also have no more value than the original purchase price.
“Bootlegs” are illegitimate releases. Bootlegs vary in value. They come in several categories. LPs/12"/CDs often feature tracks not commercially released (stolen) or recorded at live concerts. 45s include re-releases of rare or valuable 45s. Some bootleg 45s are exact copies of rare records with the original label graphics and numbers - these are known in the industry as “counterfeits.”
In the 1970s, the record collecting hobby was aided by the establishment of record collecting publications such as Goldmine, Discoveries, and Stormy Weather, and in the UK, Record Collector. Price guide books were published, codifying exactly how much certain "rare items" were supposed to be worth. The "grading" of records based upon condition became more standardized across the hobby with the publication of these price guides.
With the introduction of the compact disc in the middle 1980s, there began a stratification in the hobby; commonly found vinyl specimens that had been pressed in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of copies became relatively worthless, while the rarest of specimens became ever more valuable. These rare items included 45–rpm discs in the genres of blues, rhythm and blues, doo wop, garage rock, progressive rock, and psychedelic rock. Other rare and highly valued items include pieces from highly collectible artists such as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, U2, Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Cure, The Rolling Stones, or James Brown. Some are pressings from nations where they were pressed in very small quantities (such as the Sex Pistols' South African release of "God Save The Queen").
Even in the 21st century, as music fans have often opted for digital downloads over physical releases (and indeed started to collect these in the same way as vinyl), certain contemporary bands have a following of record collectors. This is prominent for instance in the punk and alternative genres. For example, the special edition of NOFX's 1999 release, The Decline, on transparent vinyl has already reached prices of $1500. Due to the DIY ethic and constrained budget of many punk bands and labels, releases by lesser-known bands tend to be in limited edition. Specific pressing runs of records are sometimes printed on different colored vinyl, have new or different songs, contain spelling or mixing errors, or may be in lower quantity than other pressings. All such factors increase a specific record's collectibility. For instance, in 1988, New Yorkhardcore band Judge attempted to record their debut Bringin' It Down at Chung King Studios. The bad experience and low quality result left the band so disappointed that they scrapped the session and re-recorded the LP elsewhere. The older sessions, however, were pressed onto 110 copies of white vinyl entitled Chung King Can Suck It! and sent to fans who had pre-ordered Bringin It Down to reward them for their patience, as re-recording caused a major delay in the release. Copies of the record have been sold for up to $1,700 on sites like eBay.
Other music genres also have fervent adherents. For instance, fans of folk rock, psychedelia and other genres have become ever more interested in original short-run vinyl private pressings. Even when these have been reissued, the originals can continue to attract high prices. The first wave of classical collectors concentrated on early stereo orchestral recordings on labels such as the British Decca and EMI, and the American Mercury Records Living Presence series and RCA Records Living Stereo series. Some of these records still sell at auction for hundreds of dollars. However, the focus of the top classical collectors has now shifted to earlier material, and rare European monos from the 1950s by top artists have become highly sought after. The Far Eastern collectors who dominate this market tend to prefer chamber music, and solo violin and cello. Others still focus on antique 78s.
As of 2011 many pressing plants have been reactivated and new releases in vinyl are appearing on an increasing basis. The volume of product seems to confirm continuing niche interest in the format as formats such as CDs and cassette tapes fail to compete with digital downloads.
Bob George, a United States collector, was reported as having an estimated three million vinyl records in his collection, according to Record Collector 365 (August 2009). In 2014 Monte Reel of the New York Times reported that he converted his collection into the ARChive of Contemporary Music and entered into a partnership with Columbia University; the organization having a board consisting of recording artists and others from the performing arts.
Paul Mawhinney, founder of music store and record archive Record-Rama, was known for probably having the world's biggest record collection across contemporary music genres, more than three million items, larger than the Library of Congress collection.
Zero Freitas, a Brazilian collector who bought Mawhinney's and several other major collections, plans to put his collection into an organization tentatively named, Emporium Musical, that will follow the model of how Bob George has handled the preservation of his collection, according to a 2014 article in the New York Times.
The following is an attempt to list some of the most valuable recordings. Data is sourced from Record Collector magazine, eBay, Popsike, the Jerry Osborne Record Price Guides, and other sources.
Wu-Tang Clan's "The Wu - Once Upon A Time In Shaolin" LP (produced in a similar way to the legendary J-M Jarre LP, one copy only) has reputedly received offers of up to $5 million, according to Billboard magazine 2014.
The Quarrymen – "That'll Be the Day"/"In Spite of All the Danger" (UK 78–rpm, acetate in plain sleeve, 1958). Only one copy made. The one existing copy is currently owned by Paul McCartney and has never been offered for sale since he bought it. Record Collector magazine listed the guide price at £200,000 in issue 408 (December 2012). McCartney had some "reissues" pressed in 1981 on UK 10” 78 RPM and 7” 45 RPM, in reproduction Parlophone sleeves, 25 copies of each, these are estimated to be worth upwards of £10,000 each (Record Collector 382).
A fully signed copy of The Beatles' "Sgt Pepper" LP sold for $290,500 (£190,000) in 2013 (Heritage Auctions, Record Collector 414). Normal copies of records involving famous people can often rocket in price when autographed, as for example in the case of a copy of John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (Geffen US Album, 1980), autographed by Lennon five hours before his murder. This sold in 1999 for $150,000.
Original master tapes of historic recordings can fetch very high prices at auction. A tape of The Quarrymen performing live sold for £78,500 (Dogget & Hodgson, Christie's Rock And Pop Memorabilia, 2003). Other high prices for obscure Beatles-related tapes include $30,000 at Bonham's in 2008 for a recording of John Lennon singing at a party in 1973 (Record Collector 360, March 2009).
The earliest known tape of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards rehearsing fetched £50,250 at auction (Dogget & Hodgson).
Record Collector 353 (September 2008) reported tapes of The Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1968 Woburn Music Festival performance selling for £48,050 at Christie's.
The Silver Beatles Decca audition tape fetched £35,000 at auction (The Telegraph, 4 December 2012).
The Beatles - "Love Me Do" (EMI) one-sided acetate, the only unedited version with count-in - estimated at $50,000-$100,000 in Record Collector 404 (August 2012).
The Beatles – Yesterday and Today (Capitol, US Album in ‘butcher’ sleeve, 1966). $47,500 for mint "first state" stereo copies. Other pressings/states are also available, in both mono and stereo with prices ranging from $150 to $10,000.
An acetate version of The Beatles' "Please Please Me" album from the US on Vee-Jay (1963) had a £30,000+ offer refused on it (Record Collector 342, November 2007).
A copy of Joseph Beuys' 100-only 'multiple' reel-to-reel edition of "Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee" album from 1969 was valued at over £30,000 according to Record Collector 430 (2014).
A test pressing of Aphex Twin's Caustic Window album sold for $46,300 on eBay in 2014.
Frank Wilson – "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)" (SOUL#35019, US 7” 45–rpm in plain sleeve, 1966). One of two known copies of this Northern soul classic fetched over £25,000 (approx. $37,000) in May 2009. Northern soul is a highly collectible area, based around obscure American soul singles.
Pink Floyd "King Bee"/"Lucy Leave" acetate valued at £25,000 in Record Collector 417.
A copy of The Beatles' "Please Please Me" LP (the Parlophone stereo version with the black and gold label, which regularly sells for over £1,000) sold in 2009 for £22,322 (Record Collector 368, November 2009).
The Beatles – The Beatles (Parlophone UK album, 1968) - an advance copy number A0000001, was sold by US Heritage Auctions for $35,000 in August 2013 (Record Collector 419).
Long Cleve Reed & Little Harvey Hull – "Original Stack O’Lee Blues" (Black Patti, US 78–rpm in plain sleeve, 1927). $30,000 offered to Joe Bussard.
Jean Michel Jarre - "Music for Supermarkets" (Disques Dreyfus, France, FDM 18113), Only one copy of this LP exists. It is auctioned for 36,000FR (approx. $14,000 at the time, or about $30,000 in 2010) in Paris in 1983.
Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground & Nico (US Album acetate, in plain sleeve, 1966 with alternate versions of tracks from official release). Estimate $40,000+. Sold on eBay, December 9, 2006, for $155,401. However bids were fake and record was relisted. Final selling price was $25,200.
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Wedding Album - USA Capitol LP acetate with handwritten sleeve notes, 1969 and offered for $25,000 at Forevervinyl.com. Recent find and possibly the only acetate available of this record.
Elvis Presley – "Stay Away, Joe" (US, RCA Victor UNRM-9408, 1967). Single-sided promotional album of which only one well-publicized copy is known to exist, and it came directly from Presley's personal collection. Valued at $25,000+.
Langridge, Derek. Your Jazz Collection. London: C. Bingley, 1970. N.B.: Concerns both private and library collections of jazz sound recordings and of literature about jazz. SBN 85157-100-X
Moses, Julian Morton. The Record Collector's Guide [to] American-[Issued Classical Music] Celebrity Discs. New York: Concert Bureau, College of the City of New York, [ca. 1960].
Overton, C. David. The Gramophone Record Library. London: Grafton & Co., 1951. 123 p. N.B.: This book is aimed at sound recordings collections in libraries, but much of the advice may be of some use to the private collector.