How To: Shop for a Record

by Rafe Arnott

If you fancy your loved ones and are fairly serious into high end audio, then you probably will want to restrict your together time to something other than record shopping. The reality is your wife, kids or parents probably don’t want to be dragged to dusty, run-down vinyl shops that smell like a mix of library and old dog. Neither do they want to spend time in gleaming, monochromatic temples of curated black discs. It doesn’t matter how old, or how modern, and hip the places you shop for records are, the people who mean the most to you want nothing to do with your analog “habit”. And, let’s be honest, you don’t really want them there with you either. The careful selection of pressed vinyl tends to be a private affair, perhaps shared with a few like-minded friends or acquaintances who share your sick predilection for rare LPs of early jazz, or test pressings of post-punk. Yet despite all this you insist that they come with you to the record store: “I’ll just be 10 minutes,” you say. My children would look at me with such incredulous disbelief when I would utter this lie to them. Heartbreaking, really.  To this day they still claim mental scars from the all the time spent being dragged from shop to shop whilst on the hunt for a Japanese pressing (with obi, of course) of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, or whatever other album du jour I was fixated on. So let’s do away with the pretence that crate digging is a social pursuit, and concentrate instead on the fact that it’s a really a solo pursuit (akin to sailing) that usually starts out innocently enough (like pot), but soon spirals into a type of addiction (like heroin). There’s a rush, a high associated with finding an extremely rare, or sought-after album in a record store. Multiply that by a significant factor if it’s a particularly valuable copy, and it’s marked for $5 or $10. Ever watched Antiques Roadshow? Yeah, like that. (*Note to self: Write elevator pitch for LP Roadshow). But how does one shop for albums? It’s completely different than shopping for CDs, or buying high-resolution downloads online (which I’ve done, and I can tell you, no buzz there).

While there is an entire protocol just to the way one is expected to behave in a record shop, and more specifically, the process/interaction of how one flips through the stacks while digging, I’m not even going to get into that (don’t hover people!). Instead, I’m going to just talk about some of the things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me streamline my methodology for LP shopping. First off, do you consider yourself a serious collector, or more a weekend warrior? Do you have an old receiver with a turntable you scrounged off Craigslist, or are you moving into more reverence for the black disc? Do you worship analog playback in your home, and is your stereo system an altar you’ve constructed? The reason I ask is because the amount of interest you’re going to have for my 12-step program is dependent upon your level of commitment. This isn’t targeted at the peeps who you play a trashed copy of The Doors they got for 75 cents at Value Village, I’m speaking to those who are happy paying upwards of $50 for a particular pressing. “Insanity!” I hear you chortle. Not really.

Consider how much most will pay for a meal or a few drinks out with friends. That $50, while certainly well spent in the sense of the memory created or shared with cohorts, suddenly seems pricey if you break down the costs of a $50 LP played dozens of times over several weeks, months or years when leveraged against that one evening out. So, where does my methodology start? Let’s start with genre. What type of music do you like? Genre plays a big part in my experience with availability, and pricing. You’re a happy camper if 80s pop, and rock is your jam, because those LPs are plentiful, most are in excellent condition, and they are relatively cheap compared to the sad lass or lad who crushes on original Blue Note, or Prestige mono jazz albums. The 1956 hard-bop masterpiece Quintet/Sextet by Miles Davis and Milt Jackson is around $500 USD for a near-mint copy right now. Ditto for those who need original pressings of 90s UK downtempo. Amon Tobin’s Bricolage from will set you back $100 USD if you can find a mint copy of this 1997 double album. Like Trip-Hop? Meiso by Dj Krush is changing hands for roughly the same amount – plus shipping, and customs costs. How do I know this? A little application that has been growing exponentially the last several years called Discogs told me. I use it all the time, and unfortunately so are most record store owners.

The days of scoring a turquoise-lettered copy of Led Zeppelin I for $20 in dusty bin at the back of the shop are as rare as the $2,000 USD album itself. So, figure out your vice, do some research on which pressing sounds the best, fits your budget, and armed with this information go forth, and start to crate dig. Remember, while the condition of the outer sleeve does add value to an album, split sleeves can be glued, most crud can be wiped off a sleeve, and you’ll want to replace the inner sleeve regardless. The most critical key to unlocking a successful vinyl mission is an unblemished LP itself. Holding it up to the light will quickly give away tell-tale surface hazing, scratches or mold, and a spin on a ‘table in-store (if possible) will let you ascertain just how noisy even a clean-looking copy sounds. Dirty records can be cleaned, and gotten back to pristine off-the-press sound quality with a proper cleaning machine, or even a soft cloth, a kitchen sink, and some mild detergent. Just don’t get the label wet, and let the washed LP dry for at least a couple hours to ensure those precious grooves are liquid free.

Go forth, and collect thy grooves.