You’ve got stacks of records you haven’t played in years, but you're not planning a nostalgic return to your vinyl listening roots.
Instead, you might wonder if any of the records in your collection can be converted to cash. Here’s how to find out:
1. What does your local record store say?
It’s tough to generalize about whether you’ll get a fair quote from a used record store in your area, says Charlie Essmeier, who owns RareRecords.net. But start with your local retailers. They inspect records all the time and regularly look at vinyl collections 30 years old or more.
“I know of dealers who will pay top dollar for high value records," he says. "And I know others who try to buy everything for as low a price as possible, usually assuming that the seller doesn't know what they're selling.”
2. How does your online research stack up?
An excellent place to start is Popsike.com. It has a searchable archive of more than 20 million vinyl record auctions dating to 2004, mostly on eBay.
The site is free for a limited number of daily queries. Six months of unlimited queries costs $17.90. You get a sense of a record’s value with the caveat that a secondhand record has no fixed price.
Discogs.com is another useful online resource. The site connects buyers and sellers and is like a Wikipedia for music, with nearly 43 million vinyl records in its marketplace.
Gobs of helpful information and strategies on valuing old records can also be found at Goldminemag.com, a magazine for music collectors.
3. Is the recording rare?
The scarcity of a record, coupled with someone else’s desire to have it, counts most — as with any collectible. And rarities are often from artists you may not have heard of.
The most valuable listing in the Popsike.com archive is a 1930 78 rpm record from influential blues musician Tommy Johnson on the long-defunct Paramount label. The two songs on the record are Alcohol and Jake Blues and Ridin’ Horse. It was rated in very good condition when it fetched $37,100 through a 2013 eBay auction.
Several other factors can influence a record’s collectibility, says Mark Michalek of Canadian turntable maker Fluance. Records may have been numbered by hand. They may have been “demo” recordings or test pressings from famous artists. If a musician dies, a performer's records could have a sudden, and perhaps temporary, spike in value.
4. Does the album cover influence price?
The value for a particular album typically lies with the record itself rather than the quality of its cover.
“Among vintage records, there are far more albums out there with nice covers and worn records than there are albums with nice records and worn covers,” Essmeier says. Some exceptions are notable.
The original Beatles’ 1966 Yesterday and Today album released by Capitol Records had a creepy cover showing the Fab Four dressed in white butcher smocks, surrounded by pieces of raw meat and plastic doll parts. In the controversy that ensued, Capitol pulled and then rereleased the record with an image of the Beatles sitting around an open trunk.
The replacement picture was pasted on top of the old cover, but some enterprising folks were able to peel it off. Eventually, versions were printed with just the trunk cover photo. Collectors prize near-mint difficult-to-find “first state” Beatles’ butcher covers, and they're worth a lot of money.
5. How old is your offering?
Age doesn't always matter. Age typically affects value on early releases from artists who subsequently became more famous, Essmeier says.
For example, Elvis Presley recordings on the Sun label are generally worth more than his later releases on RCA.
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6. What is its condition?
The most valuable records are in impeccable condition. The worth of LPs that have scratches, scuff marks, writing on the album cover and other wear and tear is drastically reduced. The cover, lyric sheet, booklet and poster also should be in pristine condition.
Goldmine has tried to standardize all this with a vinyl condition grading scale from “Mint,” “Near Mint,” “Very Good+” and so on, down to “Poor” or “Fair” records that are cracked, skip, are badly warped, and worth pennies at best. It’s all subjective. Buyer and seller may not reach a consensus.
If your ancient records aren’t scarce or in great shape, you might still get a few bucks from neighbors at a yard sale. Or at the very least, you might find a twinge of pleasure listening to them for the first time in decades.
Tips to Help You Get In on the Vinyl Renaissance
Vinyl records are in the midst of a renaissance. Though sales remain low compared with music streaming, vinyl album revenues exceeded CD sales last year for the first time since the 1980s. If you have a functioning turntable or got one as a gift during the holidays, you may experience sticker shock shopping for new records.
Want back in the vinyl groove? Here’s what experts suggest.
Thicker might not be better. Many modern — and pricey — records carry a “180-gram” album sticker, signifying that they’re thicker and heavier than the 120- to 140-gram LPs commonly pressed last century.
Does that yield better sound? The argument in favor of 180-gram is that the records warp less and produce sonic benefits. But not everyone’s buying that explanation.
“Technically, they don’t inherently sound better simply by having that [extra] weight to them,” says Mark Michalek of Canadian turntable manufacturer Fluance. “Source material and mastering have a much greater impact on sound quality.”
Color probably doesn't matter. Vinyl tinted in red, green, blue or other hues may be gimmicky, but doesn’t black vinyl sound better?
Not necessarily. “Most colored vinyl pressings are made from decent quality virgin vinyl, so you can usually expect a reasonably quiet playing surface.” maintains Charlie Essmeier, owner of RareRecords.net. “There's high-quality colored vinyl and low-quality colored vinyl, for example, just as there is with black vinyl.”
A good turntable enhances the experience. “Records are one of the few types of media where the quality of the playback device makes a big difference in terms of what comes out the other end,” Essmeier says. He advises against buying cheap record players and recommends spending at least $200 for a new model.
But many 1970s or '80s-vintage turntables will also work just fine with a new needle or cartridge. Other keys to delightful listening: the quality of your amp/preamp, receiver and speakers.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune, and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.