Condition and grading

Location, location, location goes the estate agent’s mantra.

Condition, condition,. condition is the record collecting mantra.

Condition is the over-riding factor in valuing old vinyl. Some dealers use a personal grading system such as P (perfect) P.ISS (perfect if you don’t mind hiss), P.IF.W (perfect if weight increased),  JOOK (big hole, torn label, may well be audible with a very heavy stylus in a juke box), PAGC (perfect after a really good clean), PNN (perfect but nearly knackered) and CF (completely fucked).

The last category is only ever used when purchasing stock. The other purchasing category is NDA (no demand anymore), as in Sorry, chum. There’s no demand for black and gold stereo copies of Please Please Me anymore, I’ve got a dozen out the back, but I’ll give you a quid as I’m in a good mood.

Rare Record Price Guide 2008 to 2022.
It does get tatty with use which is why some years I bought the hardback edition.

Which is why most people rely on the Record Collector Rare Record Guide (aka “The Bible” or “The Book”) for a grading system, the same grading chart which is published monthly in Record Collector magazine. There’s nothing wrong with the system, only with the way it gets applied. It relies on an absolute as the guide price; mint. This means in as brand-new condition with no surface marks or deterioration in sound quality. The cover and any extra items are in perfect condition, and it’s the right cover for the disc. 

If you listen to tales of record dealing thirty years or thirty-five years ago (Record Collector was already going then), people tell of finding that little radio and TV shop which has just decided to stop selling music, but have several boxes of unsold stock dating back 30 years in the back room between the electric kettle and staff toilet. These were mint. It used to happen quite a lot. It almost never happens now. Not “never” but rarely.

Very, very few discs are mint, which is where that system falls down. The best you can get is a category which dominates the internet  near mint. This is not a category that Record Collector recognizes. It’s either mint or it’s excellent. An excellent disc is the practical best example you’ll find, showing some signs of having been played, very little lessening in sound quality and the sleeve might have slight wear or creasing. 

John Manship’s Rare Soul 45 rpm Price Guide states:
All prices in this book are values John Manship Records would expect to sell the record for in excellent plus condition throughout: it is totally unrealistic to quote the values of MINT unplayed records. 

Rare Record Price Guide is well aware of the issue and justifies their decision in every edition. It’s produced every two years, and uses a magazine dating system. When a magazine you buy at the end of June says AUGUST on the cover, it means it can be sold until the beginning of August. So Rare Record Guide 2018 went on sale in Autumn 2016. In the Autumn of 2018, Rare Record Guide 2020 went on sale and so on. As I write this, in August 2020, Rare Record Price Guide 2022 has just arrived. They know that the Internet plumps for near mint, but it is not an objective category, and as they say, it can lead to mail order disappointment, tears and bad ratings for sellers. They steadfastly decline to switch.

Record Collector: 1983, 2001 and 2020
David Bowie, Elvis, Queen. Nothing changes in collectability.

Back in the 2012 Guide, Record Collector noted a steepening of the fall in value between mint, or excellent on one hand, and very good (and below). They had already decided that by at least 2000. The Ready Reckoner appears in every issue of the monthly magazine.

In 1983, there was a 5% price gap between mint and excellent, 25% between mint and very good. (I’ve been buying it for thirty-seven years).

By 2000 there was a 20% gap between mint and excellent and a 50% gap between mint and very good, which is just the same as 2020.

1983: 5% fall between Mint and Excellent. Top price is £100
2020: 20% fall between Mint and Excellent. Top price is now £1000.

They also defended their choice of sticking with mint as the base value, noting pressure to make excellent the base with mint at a negotiable premium to it (which Manship’s Guide does).

While they’re right that a measurable unplayed (or as unplayed) disc is objective, it does mean that 99% of records you see should be below the price in the guide. They’re not. Practically many sellers put the top “mint” price on excellent discs. 

Optimistic purchasers, justifying their expenditure to themselves (or their partners), tend to say “I only paid £5. It’s £20 in the book.” 

Very good allows noticeable surface marks, the odd light scratch, normal wear and tear on the sleeve without major defects. There is no major deterioration in sound quality. Collectors will not want anything below this grade. As noted elsewhere, pre-1970 discs can have a fair bit of surface scuffing with little deterioration.

Good damns with faint praise. There’s noticeable sound deterioration, perhaps slight distortion and mild scratches. The sleeve is folded, scuffed, split. Most of this refers to LP and EP sleeves. A company sleeve this far down the line will be missing or in the CF category.

Then Fair is just about playable but has heavy surface noise and may jump. The cover will be missing, split or defaced.

Optimistic purchasers, justifying their expenditure to themselves, will say “I only paid £5. It’s £20 in the book.” 

Very good allows noticeable surface marks, the odd light scratch, normal wear and tear on the sleeve without major defects. There is no major deterioration in sound quality. Collectors will not want anything below this grade. As noted elsewhere, pre-1970 discs can have a fair bit of surface scuffing with little deterioration.

Good damns with faint praise. There’s noticeable sound deterioration, perhaps slight distortion and mild scratches. The sleeve is folded, scuffed, split. Most of this refers to LP and EP sleeves. A company sleeve this far down the line will be missing or in the CF category.

Then Fair is just about playable but has heavy surface noise and may jump. The cover will be missing, split or defaced.

Below that they have both Poor (will not play properly) and Bad (will not play, and may be broken). It’s hard to see why anyone would want these categories (but we have used a couple of warped discs with intact centres as illustrations, so they may have some use). In some fields like early reggae and ska I’ve seen discs in fair to poor condition at £20.

Record Collector grades. MINT in blue is the base.

There’s a percentage drop between categories, but anything worth less than £10 mint is near worthless below the good category. A full ready reckoner appears in the Guide and monthly in the magazine.

Remember that note … the prices at the bottom are falling away. In contrast, charity shops dramatically raised prices about ten years ago. 25p became 50p, and in short order 75p or 99p. And this was then the price on everything in the box. There are charity shops with 80s picture sleeve singles all at £2, all 60s / 70s ones at £3. This is absurd. But given a charity shop bottom nowadays of 50p, this is equivalent to NIL, if that makes sense.

I applaud the excellent SOUND RECORDS of Stroud, UK who put grading stickers on the plastic sleeves they put on LPs for sale. The grading (M, NM, VG+, VG) is accurate too.

LPs bought at SOUND RECORDS, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK.

GOLDMINE

The American Goldmine guides take a different base value. Goldmine categories are equally important because many (even ‘most’) international sellers on sites like gemm.com and eBay prefer to use Goldmine categories.

Goldmine uses near mint as the base line, and say that a truly mint example is “absolutely perfect” and “often rumoured but rarely seen”. They also say mint should never be used unless more than one person agrees. They don’t price for mint but say price can only be negotiated as a premium above near mint between buyer and seller.

They’re strict on near mint too, which is around the equivalent of Record Collector’s description for mint.  They class it as NM or M-  (mint minus) in adverts. 

It should look as if just came from a retail store, should be shiny, and have no marks at all, not even the spindle marks round the hole from locating it on a turntable. Sleeves have no creases, ring wear or seam splits. They also state it’s not a sliding scale; the criteria for a 1956 disc is exactly the same as for a 2009 one. So “Bloody good for a fifty year old piece of plastic” doesn’t apply.

They estimate that no more than 2% to 4% of pre-1970 records are near mint. (What does 2%to 4% mean? I’d have simply put “3%”!).

Then they move to VG+ / E for Very Good Plus / Excellent. They also allow adverts for VG++ or E++. They say most collectors (adding “especially those who want to play their records”) will be content with VG+.

Then it falls to VG (very good). this has slight surface noise and the odd scratch might be audible. They also note that at 25% of NM price, these are the best value discs.

The next grade is good (G), good plus (G+), or very good minus (VG- ). This grade drops to 10 to 15% of NM value. These will all still play without skipping. There is surface noise and audible defects.

Poor (P) and Fair (F) go for nil to 5% of NM price, but more often end up in the trash.

Goldmine lists a 50% drop between near mint and very good + / excellent, and a 75% drop to very good. That’s a steeper fall off than Rare Record Price Guide.

Extrapolating from this, a Goldmine chart  if it existed would look like this:

Goldmine grades. Blue for Near Mint is the base.

DISCOGS.COM

In the last few years, discogs.com has been replacing Rare Record Price Guide for both dealers and collectors.

PRO: It has a comprehensive list of different versions and pressings and you can find the exact disc. Here are just a few of the79 versions of Otis Blue by Otis Redding listed.

Then take my UK Atlantic mono copy. Full tracklist, catalogue numbers.

It gives prices for actual sales via the sellers on the site:

Stereo version screenshot:

Mono version screenshot:

Median is a safe bet. There seems to be random choices over mono and stereo versions. I greatly prefer the Mono mix on this one. There’s a CD version with both.

You can see why collectors like discogs.com (when they’re selling). Rare Record Price Guide 2022 lists the 1965 original at £50 mint and the 1966 reissue at £35 mint. This is up from £40 and £20 in the Rare Record Price Guide 2020.

Discogs doubles that, and they are unlikely to be mint either. Copies on sale at discogs range from £8.99 (Good +) to £111 (Very Good +). A near mint one is £77. These are subjective views of the sellers. £111 is not just glass half-full optimism, it’s brimming over with champagne bubbles optimism.

CON: There is no indication of the condition of the discs – was the “lowest” broken in half? How good was the “highest”? Then you can see adverts for discs on sale. The grading is the seller’s choice, and NM / NEAR MINT is common. Too common.

Otis Blue galleries … click to enlarge

Incidentally, neither Rare Record Guide nor discogs state the obvious Otis Blue distinction upfront. Early UK copies from 1965 (ATL 5041) have VOLT RECORDS on the front and are on a plum Atlantic label. The sleeve has a thin white border. They were pressed and distributed by Decca.

1966 copies are ATLANTIC with the logo in the same location as Volt previously, with number (587036) and a red, white and purple label. They were pressed and distributed by Polydor.

Both my usual record shops know that, and would price accordingly. Atlantic plum label? Yes! So, a higher price for 1965. I know that too, but I’m a visual learner. Rare Record Guide has it in the catalogue numbers. I’m veering on innumerate. However, if you click on the thumbnail picture on discogs, it will often (not always) give you a gallery with front sleeve, rear sleeve, side one centre, side two centre. That’s why it’s so useful.

The conundrum is this. My 1965 copy is around Very Good. The sleeve less. My 1966 copy is Excellent (or Near Mint online). You can’t distinguish this in discogs.

The other thing about Discogs is that it has no cut off point on price, whereas Rare Record Price Guide has minimum prices for every category. Therefore, you won’t find the Otis Blue: Collectors Edition 2 CD set in the guide, but you will find it on discogs … and with the stereo and mono versions plus bonus tracks and live recordings, it’s highly desirable. Guide books are wary of CD and DVD prices because when a CD becomes unavailable the price can shoot up stratospherically secondhand, until a further remastered version with even more bonus tracks comes out six months later. Then the price will drop straight back down. CDs don’t have any virtue in being earlier pressings or releases and most are excellent condition.

The Rhino / ATCO Collectors Edition CD isn’t expensive enough for Rare Record Guide … in August 2020 it had a median price of £9.57 and a highest of £11.65. It’s also still on sale new at £13.99. However, discogs has far more information for a potential buyer than amazon does.

Otis Blue: Collectors Edition, Rhino. OK, I have 2 LPs and three CD versions.

Discogs can stay up to date more easily. At Record Store Day 2019, the Monterey International Festival issued the first stand alone Monterey 1967 Otis Redding set. It was issued back in 1971 with Jimi Hendrix on the other side, but the 2019 release includes the opening set by Booker T. and the MGs who backed Otis Redding. Rare Record Price Guide 2022 doesn’t list it at all. I suspect they class it as an American release … I would say there was one international release for Record Store Day. It sold fast too.

Otis Redding & Booker T & The MGs:
Captured Live at the Monterey International Pop Festival, 2019 Record Store Day release

Discogs has it. It’s on marbled vinyl. I can’t remember how much it cost me on the day in 2019, about £20, I think. So:

LOWEST: £21.09
MEDIAN: £48.97
HIGHEST: £67.04

On sale from £83 to £98. These are mint and sealed. (I left the shrink wrap, but slit it down the edge).

It’s irritating to pick up unpriced discs, be looked up and down then have to wait while Discogs is checked. On the other hand, Rare Record Price Guide costs £29.95 for the paperback, or £49.95 for the hardback … and if you use it as much as most shops do, you need the hardback. They have a continually updated web version.

British and American

While we’re on Otis Blue, back in 2007 Goldmine rated an original at $15. The 2008 Rare Record Guide (published 2006) already had it at £40. That’s roughly four times as much.

Gallery … click to enlarge images

This pretty much sums up the British market for 60s soul versus the American market for 60s soul. That brings up the question of how much the American copy is worth. Discogs in 2020 has:

LOWEST £11.60
MEDIAN £29.00
HIGHEST £151.00

Copies advertised on sale range from $9.99 in the USA (£7.50) to 165 euros in Germany (£159). The American army left a lot of 60s albums in Germany. There’s one on sale in the USA at £120. I’d say a British dealer would probably try for the equivalent British price for the condition or a little more. British record collectors would love having the Volt label.

MANSHIP’S RARE SOUL PRICE GUIDE

It’s invaluable to me, but then I’m a soul singles collector. It differs from the other guides in that it specializes in listing DJ / DEMO copy prices versus main sell-through prices. Rare Record Guide lists DJ copies sometimes, but Manship does it every time.

John Manship also sells on line. He explains the difference between the UK demo market and the US one, where demos rarely attract a premium. Because of the number of US radio stations and newspapers, promos were produced in large quantities. For some releases, RCA pressed as many as 10,000 promos. In the UK, there was just the BBC and Radio Luxembourg in the 60s, and a few large regional newspapers. So UK promos are far rarer.

There is a proviso on that. Some UK late 60s psych singles, when labels were recording any one in sight on the off chance of success, are easier to find in the promo version than the sell-through version. i.e. almost no one bought them.

The B-side is always listed in Manship’s Guide. Manship also categorizes by record label, which is how collectors commonly used to do it. With soul, it works well. Within that, he lists by catalogue number, not chronologically. The B-side is important So, if you turn to Cameo-Parkway, and remember that his price is for excellent, you find this on some rarer discs:

65 C-101 DORIS TROY I’LL DO ANYTHING (HE WANTS ME TO) BUT I LOVE HIM 150.00
65 C-101DJ DORIS TROY I’LL DO ANYTHING (HE WANTS ME TO) BUT I LOVE HIM 250.00
62 C-231 ORLONS DON’T HANG UP THE CONSERVATIVE 15.00
62 C-231 ORLONS DON’T HANG UP THE CONSERVATIVE 30.00

That’s some hike for the DJ version, and with soul it will be consistent.

AMERICAN PREMIUM RECORD GUIDE 1900 – 1965

American Premium Record Guide 1900-1965, Les Docks

This gives a range rather than a figure.

The prices in this guide are estimates of what records might be reasonably expected to bring in transactions between knowledgeable buyers and sellers. Most estimates are stated as a range ($10 to $15) rather than a specific figure. This method of pricing recognizes the partial validity of the widely held contention that it is impossible at this time, given the fluid and formative state of the market, to assign definite values to records.
American Premium Record Guide by Les Docks, 2001 edition

The base in this one is Excellent, which equates to Rare Record Price Guide to Excellent.

Excellent (E) showing only slight wear. Playing surfaces still retain much of their original shine. Surface noise is minimal.

Above Excellent, there is New.

New is ‘apparently unplayed and showing no signs of wear.’

Then they have Very Good, Good, Fair and Poor.

Good (G) A misnomer. A good record is really not so good. It shows considerable wear and usage, grayness in the groove, random mars and light abrasions from a sleeveless existence. Surface noise is prominent enough to impair enjoyment of the music.

Plus and Minus signs may be suffixed to grades.

I would have compared Otis Blue but it does not have a soul section. It has Blues and describes it as ‘negro music.’

Sleeves

Where the Guides are indisputably right is that an EP (or LP) without the original cover is worthless, as is the cover without the disc.  OK, you could keep a decent record hoping for a decent cover on a CF category disc, but the chances of matching are minimal. How many times have I seen (say) a gold lettered London EP with a triangle centre without a sleeve and been told, ‘It rates at £80 in the book, but you can have it for a fiver. You might find a decent sleeve on a rough EP one day.’ And pigs, and even DC10s can fly.

Having said that I was offered an Elvis Love Me Tender EP empty sleeve in brilliant condition for £5 and got it for £3. I wanted it for display.

Sealed copies (see SHRINK WRAPPING section)

For LPs and EPs, the American market prizes factory-sealed copies, because LPs were sold shrink-wrapped and therefore sealed. UK dealers always separated sleeves for display from the records in inner sleeves, which were kept behind the counter. Maybe the UK had more shoplifters, or could not afford security guards or door scanners. Hence there are no sealed UK LPs before the 21st century.

More on labels and  sleeves

Manship’s Rare Soul Price Guide states:

Excellent Plus Condition: The label to be classed in this condition must be free of any writing, water stains, tears, sticker residue marks, drill holes, ring wear on the higher ridges of the label and most importantly retain its original centre … This rule does not apply to companies who released the 45 with a clean “machine dinked” large hole.

Note the pre-occupation with label rather than sleeve. Sleeves are changeable on singles.

Amazon resellers and eBay

These will often be sellers or dealers who advertise on discogs, and perhaps in the classified section of Record Collector monthly.

If there are enough entries under amazon resellers, you can make a judgement, being wary of “this single at 50p” advert only to discover post and packing is £5.98. It’s far worse for books where copies are sold at 1 penny plus post and packing. The rub is “packing.”

I don’t want to know what an eBay price is, either at BUY NOW or at auction. It’s unreliable and subject to bidding wars.

Record dealers I know have started to be wary of dodgy buyers. It happens. You send off an “Excellent” disc and the buyer complains it’s “fair” with a photo of a battered disc. But it may not be the same one. I’m told that the solution is photographing discs before they’re sent out, with time and date applied by your phone, and then an invisible uv ink mark on the surface next to the label.

And in the end …

No one treats the Rare Record Price Guide guide as a bible, but every serious collector believes it’s an essential purchase as a general picture, that it’s more often right than wrong, and that its chronological listing with catalogue numbers is invaluable. In the end, this is a second-hand market. All judgments on value are subjective.

I’ve discussed Record Collector Rare Record Guide with many dealers, and the consensus is that it’s hugely optimistic on 50s trad jazz, optimistic on the late 50s (which are actively declining fast in value according to many dealers) and pessimistic on later stuff. Nothing gets in there if it’s valued at less than £5 for singles, £15 for LPs.

Be aware that you should check stickers on discs that say “Price Guide £25 mint. Our Price £6” against the Record Collector guide. I saw Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me in a Shaftesbury charity shop marked “RR Guide price £8 mint. Our price fair £5.” For starters, the then current 2010 Price Guide has it at only £5, though (e.g.) it has I Only Want To Be With You at £8. Then if it was “fair” it would be worth nothing, or at most 50p. In fact it looked “very good” to me which would be £2.50 from a decent collector’s shop. A shop with fewer than a dozen singles can’t expect to ask that much. £1.99 was about right.

Boiler Room Records in Poole would always happily hand you their copy of Rare Record Guide to check listed prices for yourself. Some dealers have a copy on the stall at Record Fairs and encourage you to check. I approve.

If you’re selling:

In the antiques world (which this is a tiny corner of), the maximum a dealer pays for a highly desirable object is half what they’ll sell it for.

For less desirable objects, it’ll be 10% to 25%. If you want to approach the purchase price; i.e. the collectors price, for any record, you have to sell it to a collector, not a dealer (unless perhaps you have an unknown spare copy of Frank Wilson’s £100,000 Motown disc).  Then you auction with a reserve.

So if you do have a black and gold stereo Parlophone Please Please Me, auction it. There are now several record collecting auctions.

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