Paying The Price – Collecting Records In 2021

One topic I want to cover more aspects of on here is music collecting. Not everyone does it these days but several of us still have collections of various physical formats. I’ve done one post so far on my own collection, as well as this post specifically about my Iron Maiden collection. And there are numerous issues within the realm of collecting that I plan to discuss going forward.

Today I want to get into vinyl collecting specifically and one huge elephant in the room that comes with modern-day record buying. Overall it’s the price of records today that has become an issue of huge concern among collectors. Back ten or so years ago old records were in flea markets for a few bucks apiece, while new records that were coming out could be had for maybe $20.

The music industry flipped on its head a few times in the past decade though, and now we live in a world where new releases push $30 or more and many old records are sought-after relics that command big prices depending on the shape they’re in. Flea market rummaging these days is reserved for the old polka classics that never had much of a market in the first place.

This isn’t a simple examination that ends with “damn, records are expensive.” There are a number of factors that play into the vinyl price inflation and why the market is the way it is today. Of course the prices of everything go up over time. If that was the only issue here I wouldn’t have a topic to write about. I know people love to lament how much cheaper things were way back when, but it’s a baseline business education fact that prices go up every year. This affects manufacturers, distributors and obviously, consumers. There’s nothing else to see here in regards to increasing prices.

What we have is a resurgence in vinyl interest. The record was a dead format, having been killed off in the early ’90’s in favor of the smaller CD. Then the digital revolution came and threatened the very existence of physical collections. I myself was still buying CDs and even a few records into the 2010’s but by and large people kept their music on their phones. This then gave way to streaming, where all you have to do is pay someone $10 a month to listen to more music than most people could ever bother with.

But then the vinyl boom came around and totally turned the physical market on its head. Records had never totally gone away – they were issued in limited pressings for diehard fans and collectors. Some of those 2000’s releases are now small goldmines. I’d love to have a vinyl copy of Neil Young’s 2007 Chrome Dreams II, but the price of admission is at least $100. And in the same year Nine Inch Nails released Year Zero, one of my favorite albums from them. If I want that record? We’re talking $250, at least.

Now both Neil Young and Trent Reznor have been pretty good about doing album reissues. I don’t have the income or desire to have original presses of everything ever released so I’d be more than happy with a new pressing of either album. Reissues do come around for a lot of albums, some that were scare in the first place or perhaps not even done on vinyl, as with much of the 1990’s. It is the saving grace for the middle-class or modest-income music collector.

But even reissues can be tough to come by, much like new releases. I don’t have a huge problem getting what I want but I have learned one valuable lesson – if I know a record is coming out, I better pre-order it and make sure I get a copy. Some new releases might be available at retail price until the pre-order sells out and will be two or three times higher ever after. And while some labels do their best to make sure reissues of even recent material are out there, the record manufacturing sector is in such short supply that lead times on new pressings are months out. It especially hits independent labels hard when the majors are filling orders in every available plant for Record Store Day reissues of the same ten albums.

I will say this about Record Store Day – I think it’s fantastic for the stores. Retail music stores were nearly extinct before this vinyl resurgence. I don’t at all mind seeing lines of people outside shops I frequent, I want these businesses to succeed and more customers is always going to be a good thing.

But RSD has a bad side, too. Multiple, in fact. It clogs up record plants, which again are in very short supply. But it also feeds into the modern market we have going on in music, gaming, shoes and even toilet paper at times – the secondary “flipper” market. In less savory terms, vinyl has fallen prey to the scalpers and price gougers.

The play is this – a record label offers a reissue or new release in limited scope, between 1,000 and 2,500 copies. Flippers buy up as many as possible and immediately post them on eBay and Discogs for insane mark-ups. Regular fans who really wanted the record but had no shot at the one copy in their local store with 35 people ahead of them in line on RSD are left out in the cold. It’s either suck it up and pay the scalpers’ prices or go without.

This issue plays out in consumer goods everywhere today. Scalpers using bots have turned current-gen gaming consoles into a total fiasco. PC stuff like GPUs are unobtainium these days. But it has redefined music collecting and not for the better.

I honestly have not gone to a Record Store Day. I’m not fond of huge lines for small buildings and also I often don’t see anything I absolutely have to have on the release lists. There’s always a record or two I wouldn’t mind having but nothing that gets me out of the house.

I did miss out on one record I would have like to have, though. In 2020 a reissue of Skid Row’s excellent Slave To The Grind was released for RSD in a limited format with bonus tracks, which is a creative way to get the clean and explicit versions of the album on one release. I was very stoked for a chance to get the record, but that chance never came. None of the local shops were able to get a single copy for their RSD allotments and the record instantly sold for $75 or more the day of release. The current price has gone over $100 on Discogs. It’s truly cheaper to get an original 1991 copy on record which was only released in a few countries and is pretty scarce.

I’m not willing to pay that much for the record even though I’d love to have it. It’s something I’ll just have to live without unless a local store gets a copy in someday and I can trade a bit into it. I’m fine with the CD copy of the explicit version I have that cost me $4.

Even without the dark aspect of flippers and scalpers, sticker shock is getting to be a thing with vinyl these days. Prices had moved to a rough average of $30 for a new copy of either a new release or reissue. But now that needle is moving upward. I’ve noticed a fair bit of new releases going for $40 or more. Hell, I paid $60 for the triple-vinyl copy of Iron Maiden’s new album Senjutsu. Yes, it’s Iron Maiden and yes I’m going to pay it, but I sure as hell noticed.

I do think this combination of factors like scalpers, supply shortages and rising prices might lead to the end of this vinyl boom. Let’s be real – this was never going to last forever. Collectibles as a whole are a weird market with unpredictable rises and falls, and in some cases those markets have now been entered into by investors. Just look at the collectible card game market for a prime example of that.

I’m not trying to be doom and gloom here, if I had my way a healthy vinyl market would continue on for the end of time. My town is lucky to have a handful of local stores that offer great selection and a much better shopping experience than ordering crap from Amazon or Discogs. But there are some alarming signs that, when put together, could lead to reduced interest in vinyl and an eventual crash in the market.

First off, labels are having issues getting records pressed. Smaller labels especially face months-long delays in getting their new albums to press. This causes smaller runs of vinyl, which feeds the scalper market by creating scarce supply to feed greater demand. The prices rise, both because of flippers and the natural or otherwise rise in prices.

What does this do? Seriously – Spotify is $10 a month. The other streaming services are roughly the same price. This is what the vast majority of music listeners use anyway so the economy of that is going to sway yet more people to it versus hunting down overpriced vinyl.

And for the diehard physical collector that refuses to give all the way in to streaming? As luck would have it, there is a much cheaper and more convenient format to consume music with. The CD is still around, though it was a battle for life there for awhile. I’ve noticed more collectors and music fans going back to the CD. Hell, any back catalog release is $5 or less these days and CD’s are literally all over the place. It’s a quiet undercurrent of people returning to that format but it’s noticeable and it’s getting a bit louder.

Should more people be turned off by the array of factors leading to higher record prices, I fear the market will suffer as a result. Many of the stores today are small businesses – they can’t survive a huge drop in demand. The vinyl boom needs to continue or at least plateau to something sustainable for them to continue on. If people keep running from the format or limit their purchases to their absolute favorite artists who often sell directly, it could spell trouble for what has been a fantastic renaissance for record stores.

Again, I hope this doomsday scenario doesn’t play out. In this crazy world that changes and mutates more often than most people change their underwear, I’d like to have something last for longer than a few years. I have X amount of life left and I’d like to spend it as a music fan and collector. Hopefully circumstances change a bit and the market can push through the rising prices, supply issues and scalper problems.

In the end, the price of records is an issue that needs to be dressed for the long-term health of the market. I can’t fix flipping nor do I have any practical ideas on how to, even though it’s a much-despised part of the modern process. But it’s not the only issue the vinyl industry faces today.

As a footnote – let’s give credit where credit is truly due to the vinyl resurgence. The independent and underground scenes in every genre kept vinyl going in a time where no one else cared. But it’s that oft-derided subculture from a decade or so ago that truly brought vinyl back. Give a round of applause to your local hipsters for kick-starting the vinyl revolution. I’ll talk more about them (uhhh, them…) another time but I wanted to throw a mention in while I was talking about this.

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