The Price of Vinyl

(In which the author shamelessly recycles part of his comment on JC’s original post)

Back in 1980 when I was a student with grant money in my pocket (ah, those were the days), a new release LP would cost between £3 and £4 from boutiques such as Phoenix on Edinburgh’s High Street, or the small Virgin shop on Frederick Street. I still treasure my copies of Siouxsie and the BansheesThe Scream and Joy Division’s Closer, snapped up on release day for the same amount of money as a paperback novel or a couple of pints of beer.

Second-hand rummaging in Greyfriars Market on Forrest Road could net you some classic back catalogue for around £2 a pop. Amongst the bargain gems I unearthed there are four early Can LPs on their original United Artists labels and a 1969 US copy of The Stooges’ first. I recall that Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition was competitively priced at just £1, or better still, 6 copies for a fiver. My brother took his copy in to flog, and the guy just pulled open a massive drawer full of them and rolled his eyes.

Today, once I’d managed to find ye olde recorde shoppe somewhere, I wouldn’t be able to walk out of it with a new release vinyl LP until I’d left at least £25 on the counter, or probably more. In relative terms, that’s up to twice as much as I should be paying if the price of LPs had gone up by the average amount of most other consumer goods since 1980. Depending on whose calculator you choose, you should need about £4 to £4.50 today to buy what £1 would have got you 40 years ago.

Those days are gone now, and in the past they must remain (That’s enough of The Corries – Ed), for nowadays, vinyl is a niche product whose pricing dynamics are very different from the good old days. In 1980 vinyl was effectively the only way anyone could buy music, except for cassettes, which everyone knew were shit and strictly for home-taping. Even though sales of vinyl recently exceeded CDs for the first time since 1986, the actual numbers underline how nobody really buys music in physical formats anymore, and that the economies of scale in the record manufacturing business in 1980 most certainly do not apply today. Globally, some 19 million vinyl LPs were sold in the first half of 2021, pipping the 18 million CDs sold, but in 1981 consumers bought more than 1 billion vinyl LPs as well as half a billion singles.

In strict cost and profit margin terms, that still shouldn’t account for the hyper-inflation of vinyl prices today, but the niche product effect means that customers are prepared to pay a premium for the retro cachet of the plastic disc. A large part of the niche is also driven by a collector mentality. Much new vinyl is of ‘special editions’ and colour pressings. Some store owners report that if there are both black and colour versions of the same LP, the colour versions will sell out long before the black ones. Some also blame Record Store Day for fuelling this tendency, as they witness people paying stupid money for some frankly shit music purely because of the limited nature of the release.

These pumped-up prices for new discs have an inflationary effect on second-hand vinyl. Many of the buyers are the same collector/hipster buyers of new vinyl, and at the same time the supply of good used vinyl has shrunk in proportion to the decline of physical music media in general. Edinburgh has very few used vinyl shops any more. Here in New Zealand where I live now it’s the same, and the supply of genuinely worthwhile purchases is limited to say the least. That’s not to say bargains can’t be found – not so long ago I found a factory-sealed original pressing of Simple MindsEmpires and Dance to replace my discarded scratched copy for a mere $20 (£10). You cannot, however, walk into a used record shop these days and find yourself wishing you had more cash.

Record fairs are a different matter, and this is where I think the best shopping can be done. Although the sellers are often wise to the value of their merchandise, they are rarely too greedy and value for money can be had. The selections on offer are also more appealing to the ‘Serious Music Enthusiast’, bypassing the sort of badly mauled pop crud that is largely banished to charity shops. At Wellington’s last record fair I scored the expanded version of Stereolab‘s Margerine Eclipse (three discs) for $30, two Style Council LPs for a combined $35, and a mint copy of Nino Rota‘s Concerto per archi (bear with me, I’m a Serious Music Enthusiast) for just $10. For the first time in years, I am in need of larger record shelving.

I foresee the day when, in my old age, I will liquidate a large part of my collection to fund new hearing aids, or at least when we have to downsize to a small unit in a retirement village that definitely doesn’t have room for a thousand LPs as well as all my books and a commode. I see that some people are currently asking over $500 for that Stooges LP, and Can’s Tago Mago in the daft envelope sleeve might net me $300. PiL’s Metal Box, which I hardly ever play because it’s such a pain to get out of that bloody film can, is good for another $200. Even at a modest estimate, I could easily generate $10,000 from my collection and still keep a sentimental hold on some of my most precious darlings, those records of my youth that I saved lunch money to buy because I just had to make them part of my life. Even though I can listen to it all on Spotify, there’s a tactile and talismanic magic to some of those 12-inch plastic discs that will never be lost to music lovers of my generation.

mp3: The Stooges – 1969
mp3: Can – Paperhouse
mp3: PiL – Albatross

Those of us old enough to have fallen in love with records before the digital era have to acknowledge our own part in creating the collectability of vinyl, but it’s still an irritation that prices have been driven skywards by beardy hipsters in pursuit of the same bogus ‘authenticity’ that they seek in vinegary ‘natural’ wines or fermenting the fuck out of everything they eat. But one day, ONE DAY, by God I’ll make the bastards pay.