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Fred Mills: That Vinyl Goldrush? Don’t Cash Those Checks Just Yet…

vinyl

Thanks to ill-informed dialogue from Kim Komando and other consumer tech gurus, any monkey with a typewriter, er, box of moldy old LPs thinks he/she is on the eBay road to riches. Guess what? You’ve been duped.  BLURT’s helpful hint: check “completed listings.”

BY FRED MILLS

It’s a familiar scenario these days: some mainstream media outlet publishes yet another article about the current resurgence—“explosion” is the occasional term, and not without total merit; see below—of vinyl, and suddenly the hinterlands are alive with the sound of (vinyl-borne) music, wherein every Johnny, Judy and Aunt Marge within earshot gets the proverbial dollar signs in their peepers because they just remembered that somewhere in their basement, attic, tool shed or rent-in-arrears storage unit they’ve got a dusty, beat-up, poorly-packed, climate-challenged box of Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass LPs they’d totally forgotten about.

Here’s a preemptive tip, folks: run, don’t walk, to the nearest trash bin with that load. (Emphasis load.) I’ve done it plenty of times, particularly over the course of the past 3 years while I toiled at a small but successful North Carolina independent record store. I mean, seriously: who are you gonna believe, someone who’s actually in the business of buying and selling a commercial product who willingly dumpstered hundreds of pieces of that product, or some self-styled personal tech maven with a radio show who claims she’s got the inside track on how to turn those dust-gathering antiques into cold hard cash?

Sigh. I should have guessed which one you’d pick. But hopefully you are at a stop light, reading this on your smartphone, and will see the light before THE light changes, then turn around, go back home, and put that box of LPs out by the curb. Or drop by the Goodwill store if it’s on your route.

Kim

Now, I have nothing against radio personality Kim Komando (not a made up name, although that bleached ‘do is remarkably Real Housewives-esque), who is billed as “host of an American talk radio program based on the popularity of smartphones, televisions, tablets, personal computers, the use of the Internet, and the complexities of buying and using all forms of consumer electronics.” Fair enough. We probably need more tutorials in the media, not less, given how dense the average consumer tends to be. Still, that old saying stick with what you know does come to mind from time to time when listening to her or reading her editorials in the print and online media. Because when she doesn’t stick with what she knows and ventures into foreign territory, the fact that she has a pretty significant audience that’s earnest but naïve means that she can create a monster in the space of a single missive. Which means, in turn, that she can also create a ton of problems for those of us out here in analog land.

Such is the case with a recent, and borderline klueless, Komando kolumn, “Old items collecting dust could net eBay cash,” published in USA Today this past week. In it, she returns to a topic beloved by all, the value of your old crap at eBay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, although with eBay now 20 years old and counting one supposes that anybody who is just now discovering the online marketplace has been living in a cave with a dial-up modem and a clock-flashing Betamax for company. Those old Beanie Babies your granddaughter forgot about and left at your house some time ago? Dang, Marge, they just might be worth their weight in plastic pellets nowadays, so get off that telephone so’s we can plug our computer in and get online to check them out!

In the USA Today column (recycled from her online posting earlier in the month, by the way; the daily newspaper is rarely ahead of the curve when it comes to popular culture), Komando proposes you peruse your old stash of videotapes, iPods and vinyl records because there just might be gold in them there boxes. Of the first, well, that’s probably a judgment call. True, a lot of out-of-print material still has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray, but one supposes that the first line of attack might be to scare up an old VHS deck that’s in good working condition in order to determine whether or not that Black Diamond Edition of The Little Mermaid you hung onto will still actually play. There’s a pretty good chance it won’t, given the finite lifespan of videotapes, a little factoid that Komando konveniently forgot to mention in her column. “Prices… vary wildly based on condition, version and how many you’re offering,” she adds, almost as an afterthought. Now I’m not saying that a “rare” VHS tape can’t have glitches repaired, but the bottom line is that if the magnetic tape is stretched, flaking and otherwise just worn out, it’s worthless. (Nobody “bakes” VHS tapes to restore them. The Little Mermaid is not a Jimi Hendrix outtakes reel.)

Regarding iPods, well, there are so many for sale on eBay right now, of every possible generation/iteration and of varying conditions (some have original boxes, earbuds, USB connectors, etc.; some are loose and scratched), that it’s impossible to get a reading on precise values. This is a common experience on eBay, of course, and speaking as someone who has bought and sold on eBay for about 15 years now, all I can tell you is that (1) do your research before buying OR selling on eBay; (2) always check the “completed listings” function rather than what people are trying to get for their swag, because if one guy wants 50 bucks for an item but the same one has routinely been selling for 20, then that item is only worth 20 bucks, capice?; and (3) check the sellers’ ratings to get a sense of whether or not they actually know what they are doing and will treat you, the customer, with respect.

(Aside: after reading Komando’s iPod screed I did momentarily see dollar signs in my eyes over my kid’s old iPod Shuffle (silver; 2009 3rd gen; 4gb capacity; original box, earbuds and USB connector). Then I saw that it is currently changing hands for between $17 and $22, which in all honesty just ain’t worth the hassle of listing, selling and shipping. I’ll keep it instead, fully charged, in case the apocalypse hits and I want to spend my last 18 hours listening to a bunch of Clash and Springsteen live bootlegs on “random.”)

But Komando’s “informed” tutorial on vinyl records is what simultaneously angered and alarmed me. Go HERE to read her original column at her Komando.com website. In it she pretty much tells Grandma Marge, Uncle Lester and Feebleminded Cousin Ralph that they are on the verge of hitting the lottery if they’ll only drag that box out of the attic and brush a little of the dust off:

“Depending on the record or collection, you can make some serious money. User “albertjukebox” is selling his collection of 13,000 high-quality records for $278,000. Of course, you probably don’t have a collection quite that large, and he’s probably not going to get that price.

“Still, if you have a rare early record, say from the ’30s or ’40s, you can list it for $10,000 or more. An original or otherwise noteworthy record of a famous artist like Nirvana, Pink Floyd, or the Beatles, can list for several thousand. You might have a set of albums from Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones or someone other artist that together could be worth a bundle. Even if you don’t think an album or collection is worth anything, it’s still not a bad idea to post them.

“Just glancing down the list of high-priced albums for sale, there are plenty from obscure artists and genres you wouldn’t expect would sell. You never know what some collector or fan might be dying to get their hands on.”

Oh sweet jeezus. Hey Kim, guess what? You had them at “list it for $10,000.” And that’s ALL they heard. After that, it was just white noise buzzing in their ears as they mentally tallied their future bank balances.

While I am no longer at the record store due to having recently moved across the state, I am still active on eBay and buying private record collections on occasion. In addition, I am in regular contact with fellow dealers and a number of record store owners and employees, and the near-unanimous consensus is that articles like Komando’s do NOT help at all—in fact, they undermine our collective business by reducing it to a simple old = valuable formula, which as any dealer of antiques or vintage cars will tell you is a recipe for disaster if that’s your only guideline.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a tutorial on how to buy and sell used vinyl. Smarter and more experienced guys than me have written entire books on the subject. And in all fairness to Komando, she did include one caveat at the end of her vinyl screed, my point #(1): “Just be sure you do a little research first.” Indeed, that should be your mantra if you decide to get into the used wax business. Wait, I didn’t copy her entire sentence: she also wrote “so you don’t charge too little.” Oh gawd. Too little. “Okay, Marge, let’s see if we can get $10,999 for that Blind Melon Chitlin’ rekkird from 1932 over there in that box… did you ever find the cover for it?”

Here’s what happens when well-meaning-but-clueless consumer gurus put a bunch of poorly-phrased information out to the public: that public in turn responds with a bunch of clueless, poorly-executed actions. I absolutely, positively, 100% guarantee you that the very morning the September 16 issue of USA Today hit newsstands and mailboxes, within an hour independent record stores across America started getting phonecalls from Marge, Lester and Ralph—or, perhaps, their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters and caretakers—inquiring about their desire to turn those boxes of battered LPs into cold hard cash. Here’s the phonecall that every record retailer dreads:

Them: “I’ve got a box of old records that I found after cleaning out my late Grandma Marge’s attic…”

Us: “What kind of records do you have?”

Them [eagerly]:“Well, they are REALLY old!”

Us [hesitantly]: “Uhh, um… what are some of the records you have?”

Them [triumphantly]: “Well, it’s a LOT of records. They are really old. I read in USA Today that old records are really selling well again. Your store buys old records, right?”

Us [trapped]: “Ahhhhh… yes. It depends. Could you tell me just a few of the records you have?”

Them [bothered]: “I’ll have to go get the box. Hold on a minute, this phone cord won’t stretch that far… [long pause, sound of a box being pushed across the floor] Okay, umm, here is a Johnny Mathis, love that young man! Also Perry Como, Barbra Streisand… and, oh yes, Herb Albert and his Tee-ju-wanna Brass…”

Us [hopefully]: “For Herb Al-PERT, do you have “Whipped Cream and Other Delights?”

Them [confused]: “What was that?”

Us: “Never mind. Do you have any first generation iPods you want to get rid of?”

***

I rest my case. Honestly, Kim, while I know you are populist to a fault, every time a vinyl-related article like yours is published, it simultaneously distorts the realities of the record market (which in turn, sets unduly high expectations among the public) and makes the jobs of the folks who actually have a stake in keeping the market stable and prosperous more difficult.

Put another way, in language you might understand: yes, there is a vinyl explosion currently going on, but with pie-in-the-sky reports and loaded lingo such as yours, there is also a bubble being created. Everyone knows what happens with bubbles: they pop. (If you need to, refer to “tech” and “housing” from years gone by, just to refresh yourself.) But it’s unnecessary. We collectors, fans, dealers and just plain maniacs have been doing great all along, and everyone has been pretty happy, whether we traffic on eBay, Discogs, GEMM or the so-called “dark web” (that’s where you can find Prince and Jeff Buckley bootlegs, FYI).

To summarize: Please. Stop. Now.

Admittedly, once in awhile a retailer or dealer does indeed unearth a genuine nugget, so the general rule of thumb is to at least take a quick look at the person’s box of junk. Coming a copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today with the butcher cover is the exception rather than the rule, however. The screening process on the phone outlined above—if during the conversation they don’t can’t a single artist that has value, you gently inform them that the collection is probably not going to net them anything—has proven to be pretty effective, saving the retailer time and saving the customer the hassle of hauling the box down to the store. It’s worth noting that if they come away thinking they’ve wasted their time and energy, they blame the retailer and figure that he really doesn’t know jack about records after all. You don’t want to insult a customer, even unintentionally, because they will go home, get on Yelp, and complain about how rude and ignorant you are.

Of course, some folks simply refuse to believe you when you tell them that every pre-‘70s collection is going to have Johnny Mathis and Herb Alpert in it, or (if you’re feeling kinda sadistic that day) that anybody who might have wanted a Perry Como album is probably dead by now. Sometimes you also have to tell them that while they have a few nice pieces in the collection they are just too beat up to sell, which generates a response bordering in incredulity: “But it’s a BEATLES record! Beatles records are VALUABLE!” “Um, sorry ma’am, but that Sgt. Pepper’s you have there is missing the inserts, the spine has been shredded by cats, and the actual record looks like it was used as practice for a pumpkin carving contest.” Translation: they still don’t believe you, they still decide you’re a dummy, and they still get on Yelp. You can’t win.

Now let’s be clear: we are in the middle of what most folks will agree is an unprecedented vinyl revival. Some speculate that the same thing has happened or will happen with cassettes, but that’s confusing a retro/hipster fad with an actual trend. Cassettes are an inferior audio format—more so than even VHS tapes. (Don’t even get me started on the so-called 8-Track Revival.) Whereas vinyl was never truly supplanted by each new format iteration, and it never actually lost its audience. The reason no one was buying new LPs was because they weren’t being manufactured, so of course they weren’t shopping in record stores any more. Dealers in used vinyl continued to do decent business because there were still tons of collectors out there. Granted, it wasn’t always enough to justify staying in business, which in addition to the disappearance of new wax is why a lot of retailers closed up shop in the ‘90s and ‘00s.

But vinyl never went away, and in fact it did continue to be made by specialty labels and never-say-die indies. It’s just that now all the labels, including the mega-monoliths like Universal, Sony and WEA, have realized that for some bizarre reason, people want new vinyl again, both as new releases and as reissues. So naturally they are going to jump back into the game, hoping to recoup at least partially in the face of the dip in revenue wrought by digital streaming, in the process jacking up prices, which has had the ancillary effect of causing the prices of used records to rise, and… can you spell B-U-B-B-L-E?

Aw hell, vinyl also never lost its charm—it’s a lotta fun to collect, to sell, to trade, to covet. The current explosion may have been kickstarted (term used metaphorically) by hipsters, but it was bolstered by longtime fans who’d previously been frustrated they couldn’t find anything except at inflated eBay prices and who now are thrilled they can make that weekly trek down to the record store and resume their hunting. Things will crest and plateau off, and there will be an inevitable “correction” in the market (to use an Economics term) and a decline of some sort, but as vinyl has endured all these years, so too will it continue to endure. Viva le wax!

But please, Kim Komando & Co., no more stories about $10,000 records being discovered in the attic. You’re just fucking things up.

Fred Mills: Did YOUR Local Store Get Copies of that U2 White Label LP?

U2

BY FRED MILLS

Currently on the hunt for a copy, I am (as Yoda might put it), but I ain’t gonna pay 50 bucks, much less 400…

You can describe it along lines of “gaming the Grammys” — which is essentially how Stereogum describes U2’s decision to “quietly release a few physical copies” of Songs Of Innocence yesterday in order to qualify for consideration in this year’s Grammy contest — or simply “creating an instant collectible to ramp up fan mania”… or both, most likely. U2 is nothing if not marketing-conscious. Regardless, lucky shoppers (and no doubt eBay-savvy clerks – see below) at a handful of indie record stores around the country did in fact get black vinyl/white label LPs yesterday (but not specifically promotional; note the UPC code in the photo above), and U2 got the album out there in time for the Sept. 30 deadline.

It’s worth nothing that the fan site @U2 reports on all this with a little less cynicism, but no matter; everyone’s a weiner, er, winner. This much I know from doing a U2 fanzine, U2/USA, back during the ‘80s. U2 collectors are indeed nuts, but they are still passionate and seriously all about the music, so that counts for a lot in my book.

Meanwhile, though, there are the capitalists, such as this entrepreneur, who put his copy on eBay yesterday and, as of this writing, has bids nearing $400 (he disingenuously lists it as a “test pressing”). Look closely at the price tag sticker on the record sleeve: it originally sold at a store for $49.99, so clearly some of those stores that did get copies, like Amoeba and Looney Tunes, had no problem with jacking the price up right outta the gate. Meanwhile, here’s someone with a copy already at $460 make that $550 make that $635 and counting.

Certainly our friends Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis of nationally syndicated radio show “Sound Opinions” are enjoying the moment: this past weekend they took some freshly sharpened, deeply serrated carving knives to Songs of Innocence and decided that it was a load of Irish bollocks (I’m putting it crudely, but conservatively). Listen to the podcast of the show to find out more.

What do we here at Blurt think? No peeking – you’ll find out the week of Oct. 13 when the white vinyl version and CD of the album gets a full release!

 

 

Johnny Mnemonic: Music Journalism 101 – eBay Trolls Must Die!

ebay trolls

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Meanwhile, wanna buy a slightly used lawn jockey?

BY JOHNNY MNEMONIC

My girlfriend and I recently moved across town, and in the ensuing packing/unpacking ritual I realized I had wayyyyyy too many CDs. How many is too many, you ask? Too many to listen to in a single lifetime, that’s how many. Too many to fit onto my office shelves, that’s how many (ask me sometime about the U-haul boxes still filled with CDs).

How about too many to load onto a two-terabyte hard drive? That’s a lot of fucking discs.

I know, I know, don’t cry for me, Argentina. One could call it an embarrassment of riches, but to my girlfriend it’s just an embarrassment when the aforementioned U-haul boxes are spilling out of my office and into our den. “I’d love to have a nice large ficus in the corner of the room,” she sniffed, “but your damn boxes are in the way.”

So I did what every music journalist worth his profession does at some point in his career: I decided to eBay the stuff. And yes, before you folks in the peanut gallery get started in on me, many of the CDs are indeed promotional items that record labels sent to me in hopes of netting a review, and yes, many of them were never listened to. Did I mention I have too many CDs to listen to in a single lifetime? So do you really think I have time to write about ‘em? Let me be perfectly clear here: I didn’t solicit their arrival at my mailbox—as a writer I have always made it my policy that if I do request a specific title I plan to review it, and I always send out the links to the labels upon publication—and they are considered gifts to moi, and once they have been handed over to me I can absolutely do whatever I want. I can play ‘em, write about ‘em, land fill ‘em, sell ‘em, re-gift ‘em to a friend, even toss ‘em in the air and practice my skeet shooting.

Those stickers or stamps on some of them that say “loaned for promotion only” and “promotional – not for sale”? They’re bullshit. The labels put those notifications on there to scare you from trying to unload your promos for profit, but they are not legally binding in any way, shape or form, and this has been tested in the courts with the judges ruling in favor of the resellers, not the labels, so don’t be fooled.

Back to eBaying in a sec. Let me just interject at this point that I an eternally grateful for all the swag I’ve received over the years—when I was a contributing editor at Spin I routinely received over a hundred discs per week, sometimes more; the head reviews editor would get twice that many—and I hope I have reciprocated in some small fashion by writing about the artists on the labels who have serviced me promotionally. Back when I started out as a cub reporter in the late ‘80s I was thrilled to be getting the occasional LP or cassette, and I still get a charge opening up the daily mail to see what musical treats await me. I do not take any of this for granted, trust me, and even though I went through, roughly speaking, a two-year stretch living in England when I wasn’t doing a lot of writing, the music that continued to arrive in the post helped keep me plugged in and stay current. Upon completion of my overseas job and returning home to the States, I’ve resumed writing for such fine publications as BLURT, so a big thank-you to everyone who has been and is still sending me physical promotional materials. (That Black Keys tour attire was pretty sweet, by the way. I didn’t know anybody but me still appreciated satin baseball jackets.)

But have I mentioned that I receive way too many CDs to listen to/review in a single lifetime? The surplus is astounding. (You can read my previous “Music Journalism 101” column for my thoughts on digital promos.) At the moment there isn’t a used record store near me where I would normally be able to unloading that surplus, so my only option is eBay. A cinch, right?

Boy, was I wrong. The first thing I learned was that people who shop on eBay are bargain hunters, which didn’t really surprise me because when I have shopped on eBay I was looking for a bargain myself. The second thing I learned was that people who shop on eBay for music are extreme bargain hunters—the type who have taken that whole 99-cent CD ethos so closely to heart that they expect ALL discs to sell for under a buck. But c’mon: would you expect to get, say, the 3-CD deluxe edition reissue of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours for 99 cents? It has a list price of $25, and it typically sells for around $18 or $19 new, so getting a pristine, only-played-once promo copy from me for $12 + $2 shipping seems like a pretty fair deal, right?

Wrong. The third thing I learned was that people who shop on eBay for music and are extreme bargain hunters like to lodge complaints after they’ve won an auction and received their merchandise in order blackmail the sellers into giving ‘em a kickback. They are trolls, pure and simple—bullies and cheats who think that the customer is always right and then take that notion to extremes.

Here’s what happened with the Fleetwood Mac joint. (Seller = me, Troll = buyer, who, in the interest of diplomacy, will not be identified, although I am mulling over at least listing his eBay I.D. so other folks can avoid doing business with the jerk). Troll wins auction, posts $14 to my PayPal account; Seller ships it right out, w/complementary USPS tracking (actually, that’s more to protect me than the buyer, but it’s still standard procedure). Troll receives merchandise, promptly opens a dispute with eBay, claiming the item “didn’t match the description” in the original listing (Seller’s PayPal funds are therefore temporarily frozen): “The item was listed as brand new at the price of a brand new set. The item was open and used. I would like A partial refund before I make my decision on feedback for this item.” (Note veiled threat about leaving negative feedback. That was my first clue that this was not going to go swimmingly, or in the words of Hans Solo, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”)

troll

Seller responds: “Hi – The CD is indeed brand new and never played, just not in plastic; it is a promotional copy. Please refer to the original description in our eBay listing, which clearly stated: ‘Item is brand new and unplayed. NOT in shrink wrap.’ However, I have no problem with a partial refund of $5.00 OR with you returning the item for a full refund if you are unhappy with your purchase, and will also be happy to refund your return postage so you don’t incur expenses. If so, please ship the CD back 1st class WITH TRACKING (that protects both of us).”

Troll responds: “I believe I should be offered more than 5 bucks back on a item that is clearly stated Brand New / Never Played, not opened because it is a promotional copy like New, like your heading should have stated. Also promotional copies are usually marked not for resale and there is a reason for that, like issues as this one. Also there is legal liability on the buyer and the seller on promotional copies because promotional copies are given out freely by the record label. All your really doing is taking off the shipping price for me. So is 5 dollars really your best offer? Because that is not even close to middle of the road with your customer.” (Note the comment about “legal liability,” another veiled threat; I have explained how THAT actually works several paragraphs earlier in this editorial.)

Troll additionally responds: “I believe that a refund of $8.50 would be fair for both of us. And then proper feed back can be given. Thank you.” (Note the leaving-feedback threat, levied a second time, and since a dollar amount is mentioned, additionally note that I am now being blackmailed by the Troll, who apparently wants to get the Fleetwood Mac set for a total of $5.50 instead of the original agreed-upon price of $14 + $2 postage.)

Seller responds: “Hi – thank you for your response. As the buyer you are clearly very unhappy with your purchase, and that is never my goal. So please return the item in the mail (make sure you ship First Class WITH Tracking in order to protect both of us). Upon receipt and inspection of the item a Full Refund will be tendered via PayPal. If you also indicate what your return postage fees are, I will additionally refund that amount as a good faith gesture so that you will have incurred zero expenses and are 100% satisfied.” (Here I quickly determined that this whole transaction sequence needs to be eliminated so I’m covering my ass by documenting that I have demonstrated my willingness to abide by eBay’s policies on refunds.)

Troll responds: “Hope you like the color red because that’s what you get when you don’t work out issues with your customer. No I will keep the Item and send you negative feedback. I will never buy from you again. Good day.” (Note that I made not one but two good faith gestures in order to “work out issues” with the Troll, and also strictly adhered to eBay’s stated policies on refunding when a customer is dissatisfied. The Troll did not accept either.)

As the Troll had decided to keep the item he had paid for, the case was duly closed by eBay and my PayPal funds were freed up. He also kept his promise to leave bright red negative feedback about the transaction: “This person sends counterfeit, replica, and unauthorized copies! (F-)” So what we have now is a blatant and deliberate misrepresentation by the Troll, who is accusing me of selling fake merchandise on eBay—like someone selling bogus Louis Vuitton designer handbags or something—when he has already acknowledged that the Fleetwood Mac was indeed a promotional copy. Clearly he aims to get me booted off eBay. Did I mention that I had a bad feeling about this all along?

 

I know, I know… don’t cry for me again, Argentina. Upon doing a little research, I discovered several other similar transactions gone awry at the hands of this Troll. Maybe I should “screen” all prospective buyers when I’m eBaying to minimize the risk of getting “Troll’d”, I dunno. That seems like a lot of extra work for what are essentially simple, low-dollar transactions; the most I’ve made on a single item to date has been $75 for an out-of-print (not promo) box set. But the eBay forums are full of similar stories in which Trolls, er, Buyers have bullied, blackmailed, scammed and otherwise ripped off Sellers, and the scales at eBay definitely appear to be tilted in the Buyers’ favor. So I probably have no choice.

The fourth thing I learned from all this? To paraphrase an old saying—seller beware.

***

Johnny Mnemonic is the pseudonym (duh) of a “highly-regarded” national writer with, he advises us, over a quarter-century’s worth experience working as a music critic, reporter, editor and television executive. We’ve never met him face-to-face, and he further advises he will be delivering his blogs to us via the “double blind drop-box method,” whatever that is, to ensure his anonymity. You can contact him via this magazine or simply by posting a comment below. His Twitter handle is @JohnnyMnemonicX

 Here are links to his last installment, as well as previously published blog originally written in 2012.

Seven Deadly Sins of PR