Health Warning: there are probably as many opinions as there are people on this one. I can only give my opinion based on my own experience as a buyer of over 250 jazz vinyl online purchases, with about a 5% catastrophe rate, which I think is probably better than average. Your mileage may vary.
1. For Newbies only: what you need to start
Buying records on-line requires access to a number of services . You will need a permanent postal address supported by a national postal system of repute – many sellers will not post to countries where the postal system has a history of items going missing.
You will need a good internet connection, a permanent email account, an eBay account, and a Paypal account with a verified bank account and two verified credit cards. Verification is carried out by a Paypal-initiated token transaction used to verify you are the card and account owner. You must wait for the transaction to appear on you card statement or bank statement, and provide the code supplied with it to confirm you are the card holder. The latter is important as Paypal is the preferred and most secure means of payment, and Paypal sourced via a credit card gives you a third layer of protection. Some of these services take a while to set up, but once established you are ready to start buying.
2. Where to buy on-line?
Ebay is the biggest, best and most trusted source, the world’s marketplace. No guarantee of being without problems but other channel sellers of vinyl like through CDandLP do not safeguard their reputations in the same way as eBayers, and I have had bad experience of overgrading, refusal of returns, failure to answer emails, or replies like “I’ve got your money, basically, two fingers”. Discogs sellers tend to be more hobby sellers than professionals but operate on an asking price not auction, which can be cheaper. Other channels often do not operate trusted Paypal facilities or have proper feedback facilities. It is rarely a good idea to hand over credit card details to strangers and you have to ask – why don’t you sell through eBay? They may have been kicked out. Ebay sellers are “policed” and you have back up if things go wrong, which inevitably, they sometimes do.
3. Your credibility
The whole world has access to the internet, and while many are sensible and of honest intent, there are also time wasters and criminals. Some sellers will not accept bids from buyers without a minimum number of purchases to their transaction history, usually around ten. Your score and rating is as important as that of sellers and if you are new to buying on-line, you should first establish your credibility as a buyer.
Mostly I try to buy through eBay from within my own country area, in my case, UK and Europe. No customs hurdle, quicker and cheaper postage, proper standards of doing business, less hassle if things go wrong. For rare or much wanted records, however, you may have no choice but to go further afield. I have bought from around the world – Japan, US, Canada, even Croatia once, though I draw the line at freight from Argentina or walkabout from Australia. So far I have never had a problem simply on account of location, provided you have confidence in the seller, see below.
5. Seller experience
Always check the seller’s feedback! Reasonable volume of sales, 100 plus ideally, and look at what they sell. Almost all vinyl sellers bread and butter is 60s rock and pop, which is fine, but if it’s all used car spare parts, and you are bidding an expensive jazz, think twice. You need the seller to have some level of experience in what you are buying, or you are introducing a possibly greater element of chance.
6. Seller rating
100% rating based on sale of records, obviously, but a tad lower is not necessarily bad. Have a look at the negative or neutral feedback, especially reasonably articulate complaints of overgrading, inflated posting charges, or poor communications.
Some buyers have totally unrealistic expectations (“It’s got a mark!!) or are chancers hustling for a discount, so response to feedback is important. Some buyers are trouble, but there are sellers who consistently over-grade and if they have three or four complaints which are plausible, this should be your biggest alarm bell, walk away. Another copy will turn up at some point.
Note: It is not unusual for sellers to say they do not accept returns. A “return”on Ebay (I’ve changed my mind, don’t like it, don’t want it) is not the same as “Item not as described”, which is a formal claim of misrepresentation, which is serious stuff. If it is not as described, the seller has to accept its return, though you will probably lose out on postage.
7. “Is this the ‘original’ record”?
There may be many different releases of a record, only one of which is the most valuable Original release, seller abbreviation ”OG”, buyer abbreviation “OMG”!.
Starting with the original first pressing in the country of origin, for which there will also be a test pressing (white label) and a number of promotional copies. Later, there may be second and subsequent pressings, often using the same original master/matrix and derived mothers and stampers, sonically indistinguishable, but with a change of label detail, and without the “original” cachet. Some collectors and sellers consider a second or subsequent pressing by the same label as still “an original”, as in “an original Blue Note” ie. before the company’s sale in 1966. (Watch closely for sellers who say the record bears the “original label” .An original labels does not mean an original pressing. It was common practice to use up inventory stock of labels on reissues.)
A special category of original is the first release in other countries e.g UK or European original release of a US recording. This was usually remastered locally from copy tapes, the exception being Prestige, who for a number of years supplied some countries with US stampers taken from the original master. There are a number of examples eg Rollins Saxophone Colossus where the UK pressing is acknowledged to be superior sonically to the original US pressing, but the domestic original will still sell for three times the price.
…or is it “a reissue”?
Lower down the scale of desirability and price come what are properly called ” reissues”, recordings re-released over the following thirty or forty years by the new owners of labels, or licensed to other labels, some times re-mastered, and all too frequently suffering from the declining quality of vinyl manufacture since 1973. To collectors, reissues are generally worth less than a tenth of an original, and reissues passed off as original is one of the biggest hazard of buying on-line. Do not rely wholly on sellers descriptions – I have seen the word “original” on many later pressings and reissues.
In the case of reissues of earlier Blue Note releases, the most common description problem is “omission” – as in “RVG! NY! 63rd address! 1957!” Where you would expect the “ear” and it is not mentioned, there is a 90% chance that is because it is not there. It is not an original (pre-1966) Blue Note pressing, though it may still be worth chasing as the first wave of reissues by Liberty using old stock labels and covers contain many very fine quality pressings by Liberty-owned All Disc, Roselle, N.J , just not by Plastylite. There are around forty Blue Note recordings (catalogue number lower than BNLP 4250) released out of catalogue sequence after 1966, so without the ear. There are also over three hundred “Blue Notes” whose first pressing was by Liberty Records Inc after 1966, on the Division of Liberty label, for whom the ear is not expected either
Sometimes sellers of a reissue – innocently or deliberately – remain silence on it being a reissue or leave a clue buried in the small print, a trick I fell victim to recently, practiced by a seller whose neutral feedback indicated this was not the first time. Emboldened by success, the seller improved the “re-issue” confidence trick by baiting an auction with a high opening price appropriate to an original pressing, and not a cheap reissue, which is what it was, a sting. Ebay will support a dispute case only where there is deliberate misrepresentation.
Watch out for sellers who tell you when the recording was made, not the record he is selling – ” Hank Mobley Blue Note 1957″ Sure it was recorded in 1957 – so what? He may be selling you a reissue of the 1957 recording, which is a near-worthless cheap pressing from 1987. He just wants you to think he is selling the 1957 pressing. Strangely this is not against the rules.
8. Asking questions of sellers
Ebay auction gives you the facility to ask questions of the seller. Ask questions well before close of auction, and thanks the seller in advance for his help. If you get no reply, walk away. However questions may alert the seller he has something more valuable than he thought - I have had items withdrawn from auction for this reason. The seller can also choose to make public his answer to you, alerting other bidders of its value and pushing up the price. There is a balance of risk and reward and silence may be the key to a bargain.
9. Condition of vinyl
If you intend to play the record – not all collectors do – this is the hard part, with the greatest element of luck. The seller can see the record, you can’t, so we are all depending on words to describe condition. Despite systems like Record Collector grade definitions, many sellers use common expressions such as “in very good condition” or have a different interpretation of the huge grey area of VG and VG plus, or are talking up the grade to get a higher price. Most sellers are reputable and honest, however some are hustlers, inexperienced, or just have a different opinion to you.
I recently returned a record (above) described as “VG plus” which I grade as “Fair” – which means almost unplayable. At the other extreme, some sellers describe every fault in grisly detail, and from experience, the record plays very nicely.
The premium gradings like “sealed, still in shrink, looks almost unplayed, NM (near mint)and Excellent (as a grade) are obviously the most desirable but can fetch double or even treble a similar copy graded as VG plus. Wealthy collectors, often from overseas, demand NM for the rarest of records, hence prices in thousands of dollars. A look at Popsike is essential to tell you what you need to know about how scarce an item is, what price top condition copies fetch, and where average price and condition sits. Always look before you bid, because other bidders will have. But at the end of the day, only you can decide how much you are prepared to pay, and what condition is acceptable to you.
“VG plus” or VG++ (some sellers only use VG), correctly applied, I consider the lowest grade worth considering. Acceptable wear and tear means with a few clicks and pops, superficial scratches which don’t sound, or if they do, are few in number and of short duration – no more than three or four rotations. Any needle stick or jump is unacceptable, as are deep feelable scratches of longer duration, and a multiplicity of scratches. If they were not declared, it will go back for a refund, and possibly a loss on postage, c’est la vie.
10. Auction or Buy It Now?
Generally, desirable records will be found only in an auction, which can realise the best price for the seller. Buy-it-now is mainly the preserve of sellers with a large warehouse of not terribly desirable records, often just reissues, who are using eBay as a permanent storefront. The best will do a buy it now or make an offer: I have found a respectable 20% discount usually hits the spot. People who make silly offers get treated accordingly.
Be warned, Buy-it-now can also be a dumping ground, to offload records with some minor fault, hoping that a lower fixed price buyer will forgive the fault in return for the low price, or won’t be bothered with the hassle of returning it. Some time back I bought a buy-it-now copy of a Mingus from a large seller that was described gushingly as Excellent but had a loud three-minute scratch through the important first track. I sent it back, but it took a month to get the begrudging refund.
Occasionally an optimistic seller will put up a desirable record on buy-it-now at a sky-high price. An Esquire Saxophone Colossus which sometimes fetches up to £300 turned up recently on Buy it Now at £400, and regularly fails to secure a buyer, only to be relisted. The seller is waiting for someone who just wants it and doesn’t care what it costs. Auction is a better deal, and a lot more fun.
11. Reserve price
Sometimes an auction will have a (undeclared) reserve price to ensure it doesn’t go accidentally too cheaply. There is a minumum reserve price of about £50, but the only way to find where the reserve is on any particular auction is to bid. While you are under the reserve price you will get a “reserve not met” flag from Ebay. There is no room for curiosity. A bid that meets the reserve price is automatically treated as a confirmed purchase bid and you will find that you have “bought it” unless someone eventually bids over you. There is no scope for deciding the reserve is “to high” and backing out, except through a formal retraction, which goes on your profile.
12. Bidding tactics: eBay for Dummies
You have found the record you want, you have done your due diligence, it is time for bidding. I don’t understand why anyone bids before the last-minute, apart from whiling away time in the office. You are giving away your own position, giving other bidders the advantage of that knowledge. None of the early pocket-money bids mean a thing. They are a lottery ticket. Usually, the final winner will not have bid at any time before auction close.
Research the market and decide what it is worth to you and leave the “lotto players” to make the early bids. Use a sniping service, I recommend Gixen, (the free, or better, premium for mirrored bid) and load it with the maximum it is worth to you, bearing in mind all the extras like postage and customs. A glance an hour before close can be a useful check, as the current price may already have overtaken your snipe. Gixen will email you automatically when your snipe has been outbid, so you can increase your snipe if you wish. It’s a good test of how badly you want it. Update your snipe if necessary, then walk away. Win or lose, you will be content, because you have decided in your own mind what it is worth to you.
If you keep losing, there is a message: you are playing out of your league and need to up your game and start to win. There are no unsuccessful record collectors, any more than there are unsuccessful parachute jumpers.
Or perhaps you are a “Lotto player” hoping one day for a lucky win, or you suffer low self-esteem and need to lose constantly to confirm you are worthless. Seek professional help.
You may be tempted to put in an “oversize” bid to guarantee you win. I am sure that is how the very wealthy collectors play it, because basically they don’t care how much it costs. Unless you are in that very fortunate position, an XXL bid is dangerous. It leaves you open to “shill-bidding”, an “illegal” practice whereby the price is pushed up by another bidder in collusion with the seller, to maximize the final sale price. Equally, there may be another XXL bidder in the wings, in which case one of you is going to feel some pain on the final price.
A word of caution: a Tokyo record chain called “Disc Union” regularly haunt US and European Ebay auctions of original collectible jazz in excellent condition. Their team of buyers are highly knowledgeable, and their budget is way above local market rates, and their standard practice is to secure the record “at any price” through a seriously large snipe . They resell high-end collectibles at eyewatering prices to wealthy Japanese collectors who can’t be bothered with the hassle of bidding, postage and customs. If you try to outbid these guys you will almost certainly end up second place, or a horrendous price tag. I have lost literally dozens of auctions to these guys. I hate to think what it would have cost me to win. The rule remains: never bid over what you are happy to pay.
Advanced bidding tactics:
In most cases a snipe for your maximum price set to a couple of seconds before auction close is the best strategy. Ignore the current price, it is meaningless. Do not bid early because you alert other bidders to your position. Just play your hand when it is too late for other “manual” bidders to respond and leapfrog your snipe.
During the final couple of days, if you are the current highest bidder, say at $100, you can opt to increase that bid and confirm it, at say $500. The price to beat which will be seen on the screen is just one increment above the current highest bid – $110. No-one will know there is a dormant bid of $500 already placed. Except if they throw in $120, or $200, they won’t become the highest bidder. At this point panic sets in, and you see the same bidder escalate bid after bid, unsucessfully, until its too rich for them and they drop out. The dormant bid is a bit like a snipe, but it does reveal your presence if not the amount, and can be beaten.
You can increase your chance of winning at an acceptable price by BOTH sniping AND bidding manually yourself at the last second. Here’s how.
Set your sniping service to snipe at somewhere around 10-15 seconds before close, which will smoke out any hidden dormant bid.
A couple of hours before close, open three ebay windows on screen, set up three manual bids, and add an “increase offer” to each for different amounts – say $200, $500 and $800 but hold back the “confirm” click in each case. These are now primed to fire on just one click. Watch the closing minutes countdown. The price will start to escalate – watch your own snipe kick in. If your snipe hasn’t been high enough to be declared winner, in the closing seconds, you have a window in which you can decide which if any of your three primed bids you fire off at one second, having seen where the price is appearing to finish.
Nothing is guaranteed, because the highest bidder will always win, but it gives you some control in the closing seconds, prevents you losing because your snipe turns out set too low, allows you to bale out if its become too rich, or escalate further if you decide its worth more to you after all. It just requires split-second timing and nerves of steel, that’s all. I hesitate to recommend this play, because you will find yourself at some point up against people who want to win, whatever it costs. And you don’t want to accidentally beat them.
If you have been successful in the auction, it’s time to pay. I always pay straight away, within the hour if possible. It costs exactly the same as paying days or a week later, but you will have given the seller what he wants more than anything, which is money straight away with no hassle. That is the time to ask favours in exchange, like could you please post quickly, or hold back posting till next week, or hold back for further postage savings.
14. Your record arrives…
Before you do anything else, inspect it closely and play it through on both sides. Some of the things to look for are covered by Inspector Vinyl
15. If things go wrong…
With vinyl there is always a degree of luck. Many sellers do not play-grade, and grade only visually. To sellers, ignorance is bliss. Records can look Excellent to the eye but have chronic surface noise, may be manufactured with recycled vinyl, or have a hard to see defect causing needle stick. Or they can look superficially terrible and play absolutely perfectly. Your record cleaning machine may be your best friend at this point.
If you feel the record condition on arrival isn’t acceptable, don’t start with negative feedback. Confrontation is the last and not first resort. Go back to the seller via Ebay “contact seller” using the “not as described” button, put your case reasonably (don’t accuse him of lying – yet!) Propose return for refund, and see what he says. If he doesn’t really want it back he may suggest an adjustment, or just OK a return. If he refuses return and you are confident it has been misrepresented, open a case with eBay and/or Paypal, and expect to wait weeks for an investigation and conclusion, and you will very likely get your money back eventually.
At the conclusion of the process, post feedback. If you have got a refund with no hassle, reward the seller with positive feedback or at worst, neutral. Leave a comment in the text. Mistakes happen. The only time I felt need of negative feedback, the seller who absconded with my money was struck off anyway. I am still pondering what to do with the US seller who just sent me a “Fair” condition record described as “VG+” . What does “Does not affect play” actually mean?
16. If things have gone right…
90-95% of the time things will be fine, so leave good feedback. If you can’t live with 5-10% failure rate, vinyl may not be for you, consider sticking with The Evil Silver Disc: CDs. Alternatively, increase your medication, keep calm, and carry on regardless.
THANKS FOR LOOKING, AND GOOD LUCK!