In the Hobby of Record Collecting, Sometimes You Need a Little Shrink-Wrap

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“Are you sitting down?” my pal Joe asked when he phoned a few days before Christmas. I knew what was coming.

Joe calls about once a year, each time with the same news: He has found yet another sealed copy of a record album by some heavy metal band, and he wants to tell me about it.

This time, it was a dead mint copy of Born in America by Riot. Joe loves Riot. “But, listen, it’s the European version on ZYX Music, that little label they went with after Elektra dropped them,” Joe enthused. “I mean, it’s so clean it’s still got the Sam Goody price sticker on it!”

I don’t like hair band music, and I wouldn’t know Riot if they entered me from behind. But I share my friend’s enthusiasm for old LPs in pristine condition. And I understand why he has to call me with his good news: No one else really cares.

For most folks who buy records, either those who always have or those returning to the hobby during vinyl’s new resurgence, owning a super-clean copy of a beloved album means getting to enjoy some of your favorite music without the clicks and pops that can spoil listening pleasure. But some of us take the importance of record condition maybe a little too far.

Joe, for example, doesn’t own a turntable. Oh, sure, he’s got a mint-in-box 1978 Kiss Record Player on display in his man cave, but he doesn’t listen to his heavy metal collection on it. “I couldn’t if I wanted to,” he reminded me last time we talked. “All of my albums are sealed.”

For Joe, who does his headbanging to MP3 files of Ratt and Motorhead and Anthrax, owning hundreds of untouched, unopened record albums by his favorite bands is about control. Abandoned by his parents when he was a teen, Joe lived in foster homes and never, as he puts it, “had my own stuff.” His high school friends bought the latest Megadeth record and went to see Quiet Riot at the Coliseum; Joe did not.

Today, pushing 50, Joe has all those records he didn’t own in 1986. “And they’re all perfect,” he’s quick to point out. Having flawless versions of the records Joe wanted 40 years ago is a way of saying “fuck you” to his own past. He can’t go back and change what happened to him, but he can make up for it by having the most perfect and complete collection of Slayer albums in all of North America.

I get it. Most people who aren’t collectors do not. Sigmund Freud swore that an interest in gathering inanimate objects stemmed from unresolved toilet training conflict. Jung thought collecting was connected to ancient hunting and gathering practices. More pleasantly, the neurologist Steven W. Anderson has posited that collecting is simply a nice way for likeminded people to connect (though he has also published several studies indicating that collector behavior can tip over into the depravity of hoarding).

I wish I were more like my friend Jim, who has eclectic taste in music and a record collection that’s taking over his house. But Jim actually listens to the music on his records and doesn’t care about scuffed covers or torn inner sleeves.

“I like the pops and snaps on an old record,” Jim confided once when we were out hunting for vinyl. “They sound like a fireplace crackling in the background. And a worn cover means someone loved the record and kept it with them awhile.”

But if I love an album, I need to replace it with a copy in better shape — and sooner rather than later. Sometimes that means buying the record a couple more times, because an immaculate jacket might contain a scratched LP. Or a disc that’s clearly never been played, that sends warm and crackle-free music through my speakers, might come to me in a sleeve marred with ring wear. (I’d rather have chicken pox than ring wear, that dirty crescent at the top and bottom of an album cover caused by the LP rubbing against its jacket. Gah!)

For me, there’s anguish with every upgrade. Most collectors who’ve replaced an LP with a cleaner copy can resell the extra, less-perfect one that came before. But I have peculiar taste in music, and pretty much no one wants my extra Jerry Vale records or the copy of the Sugar Bears album I’ve just upgraded to a version still in the original shrink-wrap. (Shrink-wrap is my thing; I’ve been known to buy a record I already own because I’ve found a copy still in its factory cellophane — or, as my husband said once, eyeing a cello-clad copy of Introducing Miss Teal Joy, “Congratulations, you’ve just paid $70 for a sheet of clear plastic.”)

Record sellers often aren’t collectors themselves, and although most use grading systems, there’s no universal appraisal for old LPs. I recently bought a Japanese import of Sarah Vaughn’s Sassy Swings the Tivoli from an online vendor who rated it “NM (Near Mint), still in shrink wrap.” When my treasure arrived in the mail, the vinyl was clean but scuffed, and the dealer neglected to mention a seam split on the record jacket spine. This record was clearly a VG+ (“Very Good Plus”), and I put it back on my “to be upgraded” list.

My friend Mike didn’t used to care about the condition of the records he was buying until last month, when he got ripped off buying the Divinyls’ What a Life! LP last month. “It was listed as ‘mint and sealed’,” Mike told me, “and arrived open and dinged up. I went from being an ‘I don’t care what the record looks like as long as it sounds good’ person to a ‘I will hunt you down, seller, and give you the worst review of your life for claiming this is mint’ person.”

“Wait,” I said to Mike. “You bought a sealed record that you planned to open and listen to?”

“Yes,” he replied. “If you don’t open it, how do you know the guy didn’t sell you a hunk of cardboard or a scratched copy of William Shatner Sings The Beatles?”

He had me there.

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