For all the noise over the past five years about the unlikely revival of vinyl, the focus of that trend tends to be on the high-profile segment of the market that is most easily quantifiable: new records.
We’ve all seen the numbers: Jack White selling 40,000 records in a week, year-over-year growth in the double digits and so on. But the market for new vinyl in this country is the very definition of niche. According to a Nielsen report, a little over 400,000 records were sold here last year.
Couple that with the fact that Toronto is blessed with dozens of neighbourhood record stores — a helpful guide posted this week by blogTO has no trouble picking the 20 best— and it’s clear that a sizable, if elusive, chunk of vinyl’s comeback is being powered by second-hand records.
“The used-vinyl market is absolutely the driving force behind the revival,” says Aaron Keele who, with Akim Boldireff, a.k.a. The Record Guys, is putting on the latest edition of the Toronto Record Show this Sunday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Estonian House, 958 Broadview Ave., about three-quarters of a kilometre north of the Danforth).
“It’s what fuelled the beginning of the comeback, as not many classic albums were available on new pressings even five years ago,” Keele says via email. “Even now that they are becoming available again, many new reissues of classic albums are quite costly or simply still haven’t even been reissued yet, so used vinyl fills the need.”
Despite being overshadowed by new records, used records also neatly sidestep the trap of what Neil Young sneeringly calls vinyl as “fashion statement.”
A lot of record buyers today, he said recently in an interview on Southern California Public Radio, “don’t realize that they’re listening to CD masters on vinyl and that’s because the record companies have figured out that people want vinyl. And they’re only making CD masters in digital, so all the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl, which is really nothing but a fashion statement.”
An increasingly expensive fashion statement, at that. Given the shortage of pressing plants and, in this country, the added pain of the U.S. exchange rate, is there a danger the vinyl revival could price itself out of the market?
“I see that as totally possible if the manufacturers don’t recognize this,” Keele says.
“There will have to be a price adjustment at some point, as the markup that new stores are adding is incredibly low, less than 20 per cent. Retail is where the profits are smallest and if retailers are driven out, then the marketplace ceases to exist.”
If that scenario does unfold, wouldn’t it help used vinyl?
“It will hinder the used market,” says Keele. “Both new and used exist in the same field and support each other by being sold together. Vinyl buyers want both new and used to be available in the same shop. It makes for a greater amount of stock and selection, and therefore excitement of the possibility of what is available feels limitless. That excitement is one of the key forces driving the business.”
Keele says vinyl lovers in this city are especially fortunate.
“Something Torontonians don’t realize is that we have very reasonably priced records when compared to the rest of the world. Want to buy that same album in New York, London or Amsterdam? Be prepared to pay a whole lot more than you would here.”
These days, one of the priciest Canadian records is an original copy of the first Rush album, released in 1974 on the band’s own Moon Records (and reissued on vinyl last year in an exquisitely appointed box).
What other Canadian records are fetching really high prices these days?
“The very first pressing of the Rush album is definitely valued at about $1,000,” says Keele. “If someone can find a copy of the first album by Christmas, the Plastic Cloud, the Haunted or especially Bent Wind, they’ll have $1,500 to $2,000 to spend when they sell it.”
Are there albums that are guaranteed to keep appreciating in value, like certain paintings?
“There is no such thing as a guaranteed blue-chip stock in vinyl. Many people will disagree with me, but I’ve been around the used-vinyl business my entire life and this has remained a fact for me. Have albums that were once worth $10 now appreciated in value to sell for $100? Absolutely. Lots of them, in fact. Are there albums that were once worth $100 that now won’t sell for $10? Oh yes. There’s even more of those than the ones that have appreciated. It’s a market based solely on the tastes of the current buyer and that market changes frequently.”
Keele cites a stark example. “In the beginning of the 1980s, people were paying $30 to $50 for early original pressed Ricky Nelson albums. Now, I have absolutely no customers for them, even at $5.”
So, what advice would he give to someone who a) is just starting to buy records for the first time and b) used to buy records and is getting back into them?
“The exact same advice,” he says. “Buy only what you love. Records are only the vehicle that gets you to music. Music is why we all go down this road. Forget what critics say, what Pitchfork band is hot or even what your friends might say.
“Buy what jumps out at you. Albums have great charm,” Keele adds, “and sometimes can choose you instead of the other way around.”