LJC Essential Guide to Buying Records Online, Successfully

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.

Your credibility

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.

Seller Location                                                                                                                 

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.

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 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”.)

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, 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.

Payment

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!

20 thoughts on “LJC Essential Guide to Buying Records Online, Successfully

  1. “…It is not an original (pre-1966) Blue Note,…” What about all the albums released on Blue Note post 1966? Are they not originals? There are many variations and discrepancies in the Blue Note catalogue. Dumbing down the subject is not a solution.

    • Hi James and welcome

      There are “Blue Notes” being released today by the Blue Note label Group, and many “Blue Note” first pressings released after 1966 by Liberty Records, including those prepared for release prior to 1966 and released out of catalogue order. Absolutely true.

      Faced with 1st, 2nd and later pressings and reissues, not always properly described by sellers, the question collectors ask is what is an “original Blue Note”, if those words are helpful. Frankly, its as much about the price as the quality.

      Some collectors, me included, take “original” to mean a record pressed prior to the sale of Blue Note Records Inc to Liberty Records Inc in 1966. It’s a rough and ready line in the sand, drawn as a sort of short hand at catalogue number 4250, well aware there are exceptions and variations. The Plastylite ear confirms pressing prior to the 1966 sale, as Liberty immediately shifted all pressing to RCA

      I have many prized records which fall beyond the 1966 line and I don’t consider them any lesser for it. They are not necessarily inferior recordings or inferior pressings, though in the years approaching 1970, in my opinion, the quality of vinyl pressing becomes increasingly an issue, as it does for the industry as a whole.

    • In terms of collecting, re-issues are not sought after or valued. Collectors want the original pressings – and the earlier the better. When Blue Note was sold to Liberty in 1966, Liberty went about re-issuing the catalogue on inferior vinyl, but using labels from some of the original pressings so collectors have to be careful when buying, as they could spend $$$ on a worthless re-issue rather than the real deal. Original copies are often referred to using the shorthand “not original (pre-1966) Blue note.”. The main way to tell if a copy is original pre-1966 is that the original will always have the P (Ear) mark in the runout.

      • Also, to put this in context a bit more, you will find many sellers on eBay trying to offload re-issues as if they were first issues by failing to mention the presence of the P (ear) in the runout and other identifying details.

  2. And not forgetting warped vinyl! Sellers who just finger through a crate of vinyl and do not play test never catch warped vinyl – something I have had increasing amounts of lately via eBay.

  3. The other issue I have come across is sellers “cleaning” records so they can then grade them as VG+++ rather than VG+. Often they make the record worse by cleaning, with all sorts of weird liquids, etc. I even saw a seller use a duster and lighter fluid once! Looked great, nice and shiny but sounded awful. Not to mention steam cleaning… At the end of the day I just go on the sellers feedback – and if they have the odd negative (more than a few and I am not interested), I always look to see how they respond to them. Any seller how launches a tirade of abuse in response to negative feedback is not going to win my business no matter what they have for sale.

  4. You’re exactly right, Dottore. Some records look beaten up, but still play great and sound heavenly. Best example is my recently acquired Al Cohn/Zoot Sims Sextet. The trail off close ups reveal a record that apparently has seen wars, but consider that the ‘ugly dress’ since it plays just fine 😉

  5. I’ve never bought a record for the pleasure to own it, but for the pleasure to hear it.
    felixstrange is right: play grading is a rarity, the best for buyers, the worst for sellers.
    a record could look nice but the only thing that’s important is it plays good.
    many 50’s Blue Note and Prestige can have an attractive lustre no more, but they play really good. For others it’s the opposite.
    I love what plays good, even with tics.
    I get mad when a record that looks nice plays in a awful manner for groove wear: I talked in the past of two copies of Music for the connection which were unlistenable, and I still don’t own it.
    I’ve a copy of Miles Davis Conception, Prestige 7013, looking almost mint.
    I can’t listen to an entire side.
    Recently I obtained a copy of Sonny Rollins Blue Note 1581,first pressing, that looks bad: it’s still listenable. The request was 50 €: I already had it but couldn’t resist in getting it home and gave a couple of records for it.
    so, what do you like best?
    a nice woman with a bad dress or an ugly woman with a nice one?
    (both original……)

  6. How do you find buying from the US & Japan when it comes to customs charges, handling charges etc. So far I have never tried but as I’m not a big bucks kind of guy would my £10–£40 type records excite HM customs?

    • Hi David B and welcome!
      1st class postage untracked from US to UK is around $12/£8 for one record, customs into the UK from outside the EU is a wopping 20% VAT plus a totally evil charge of about £8 by the Post Office for collecting the VAT. There is a waiver for goods below about £18 in value and since the declaration of value is voluntary you know what you should agree with the seller. Japan is a little dearer, but the position is much the same as regards taxes.

  7. Well written. I may not be a high roller -so far I’ve never bid over $200- but this is exactly the way I do it. I’ve never returned a record though.

    One tiny teeny itsy bitsy bit of comment on the title though, LJC: don’t we always talk about Jazz Vinyl instead of Vinyl Jazz? So may I suggest “Buying Jazz Vinyl Online for Dummies”? Vinyl Jazz reads like Vinyl Trim or Vinyl Undies 😀 😉

    • Blimey the thought of vinyl undies had never occured to me, though now you mention it…phew! it’s hot in here, or is that only me? Out with the Photoshop tomorrow. You remind me of when I used to work in hospital management (dont ask) I had a surgeon who was very keen to start his own website. His subspecialty was colo-rectal surgery, It took some persuasion how to name his site so as not to attract the wrong type of interest!

      • Hahaha… priceless. And I just couldn’t resist of course.

        Sent the link to this article to my neighbour who always cleans my records on his nifty VPI machine. He has still has to buy his first record through eBay 😉

  8. Many thanks for a great guide with plenty of helpful hints. However, there is one aspect of grading that doesn’t seem to be widely addressed in general: groove wear.

    One of the problems I have with most grading systems is that they presume that accidental damage is the only factor in a records condition. As most of us know all to well, even if a record was extremely well cared for, if it was played non-stop on a short-armed 1950s portable player with 10g tracking force and no anti-skate, for example, you are going to hear a terrible distortion by the last track, if not sooner.

    I recently purchased a copy of “The New Miles Davis Quintet” which was listed as ‘Buy It Now’. ‘Buy It Now’ is quite the conundrum. On the one hand, it seems to be a favorite tactic for sellers to unload flawed records: it’s listed at a price perhaps a little to good to be true in the hopes that when you discover said flaw upon receiving the record, you won’t feel cheated enough to return it. However, I’ve also gotten some pretty nice records this way listed by sellers who simply don’t want to go through the risk and hassle of the auction process. Either way, with ‘Buy It Now’ the clock is ticking, so don’t make the wrong decision…

    When my copy of ‘Miles’ showed up, I could see that it was ruined as soon as I removed it from the sleeve. It was covered in the little gray radial wear marks the indicate severe groove wear. The record had been played to death. And then some.

    The seller had sold it as Goldmine VG+ which, strictly speaking, was correct. There was nary a scratch on it. However, he had neglected to mention the fact that the record was unlistenable (a minor detail, apparently).

    I’d be very interested to hear others experiences and opinions about this problem.

    As for the matter of feedback for sellers who grossly misgrade records: it seems to me that there are many sellers who consistently overgrade their records in order to get the maximum price possible. If they happen to have to accept a return or two, no skin off their back. They can simply re-list the record until they find a buyer who doesn’t bother to return it.

    Mistakes certainly happen, but I feel it’s appropriate to leave honest neutral feedback about inaccurate grading in cases where you feel that the seller either knowingly exaggerated the condition or put little-to-no effort into examining the LP before listing.

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