Tips for buying records online
Health Warning: I can only offer my opinion based on my own experience as a buyer of over 300 jazz vinyl online purchases, with about a 5% catastrophe rate, which I think is probably better than average. Your mileage may vary.
For Newbies only: what you need to start
As with any self-assembly furniture leaflet telling you what tools you will need, buying records online also 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.
After this, 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) 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.
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.
Because the whole world has access to the internet, and there are people out there who are immature timewasters and troublemakers, 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 online, 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. Don’t cry for me, Argentina. So far I have never had a problem simply on account of location, provided you have confidence in the seller, see below.
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 selling vinyl, or you are introducing an element of chance. (My favourite: ” I am selling this for a friend, I don’t know anything about records, it looks in quite good condition”.)
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, along with refusal to accept returns. Walk away. Another copy will turn up at some point.
Description of record issue
There are often many issues of recordings – first pressings, second or subsequent later pressings, original pressings or reissues, remastered pressings, contemporary re-issues, and clones. Sometimes the collector will know more than the seller unless they are a jazz specialist. Do not rely on sellers descriptions. Do your own due diligence.
Some sellers fail to state the record is a reissue and not an original., or leave a clue buried in the small print, a trick I fell victim to recently, practiced by a seller from Portugal whose neutral feedback indicated this was not the first time. Note the email used by the seller failed.
Emboldened by success, the seller improved the “re-issue” confidence trick by baiting the auction with a high opening price appropriate to an original pressing, and not a cheap reissue, which is what it was, a sting.
Sometimes essential detail is missing, and the photo is blurred. Ask questions well before close, but if you get no reply, walk away. Silence is not golden. However, questions may alert the seller he has something more valuable than he thought – I have had items withdrawn from auction for this reason – or alert other bidders and up the ante.
In the case of reissues of pre-1966 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 99% 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, just not by Plastylite. There are around twenty Blue Note recordings (catalogue number lower than BNLP 4250) released out of catalogue sequence after 1966, so without the ear. I call this group The Van Gogh Blues. There are also over a 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.
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.
Does this look Very Good Plus 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. “Excellent” is worth paying more for, in my view.
“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.
Auction or Buy It Now?
Generally, desirable records will be found only in an auction, which can realise the best price for the seller, sometimes with a reserve, (or a hidden shill-bidder for insurance!). 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 shopfront. 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 the large EIL 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 Collosus 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.
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. 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, 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. It’s a good test of how badly you want it. Update your snipe if necesary, 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.
Winning tactics and the danger of shill-bids
Unlike real world auctions, the final price of an item auctioned on Ebay is set by the second highest bidder, an increment above the second highest bid – not the amount of the winning bid. You can make an “oversize” bid to guarantee you win, knowing someone else will set the final price. That is how wealthy collectors play it, because ultimately they don’t care how much it costs. Unless you are in that very fortunate position, an oversize bid leaves you open to another collector playing the same tactic, and “shill-bidding”, an illegal but not uncommon practice where a seller uses a second account to bid on his own item, to push up the final sale price. If you win an auction but there was an unexpected price hike, check the bidding history of the price-setting second bidder. If they have a high proportion of bids with your seller, it’s probably a shill account. Decline to pay and report the auction to Ebay customer support.
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.
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
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 point 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?
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!