We need to talk about Discogs sharks

Share

The split 7” vinyl single by The Cousins and Chakachas, a free goodie handed out on Record Store Day 2019 to customers in record shops all around Belgium, is already for sale on Discogs. Curated and selected by Belgian Record Store Day ambassador 2019 Jimmy Dewit, the release was limited to 1000 copies. Today five of these are for sale from 4,99 euro and one is even priced at 25 euro, shipping not included.

Asshole of the month

In the Facebook expert group ‘Belgian Vinyl Collectors’, the 25 euro seller was called ‘asshole of the month’. In the comments section many group members criticize both the profit-oriented discogs sellers as the event Record Store Day for becoming too commercial.

A similar discussion is ongoing on the Discogs page of ‘Lost In Translation (Music From The Motion Picture Soundtrack)’, a Record Store Day 2019 exclusive pressed on translucent violet vinyl limited to 8000 copies, original price around 20 euro. 11 copies are for sale from an astonishing lowest price of 94,99 euro. The most expensive one goes up to 150 euro, or at least that’s what the seller hopes to collect. Remarkable: one of the vendors is a record shop in Berlin called Space Hall. Prices for the Record Store Day release by the Belgian band Whispering Sons ‘On Image a live session’ limited to 500 copies go up to 36,90 euro, while the original price was around 20 euro. Dutch webstore Variaworld even has seven mint copies for sale (five for 36,90 and two for 49,90 euro), while Antwerp record shop Coffee & Vinyl sells at 200% of the original price (read Coffee & Vinyl's reaction to this article here).

The s-word

What’s going on here? Vinyl records created for an international event to celebrate the culture of independent record shops, are being sold following the principles of an open marketplace. Discogs is, contrary to physical record shops, an online marketplace where everyone in the world can sell to anyone in the world to any price the market is willing to pay. Don’t be misled: even old school record shops use both Discogs and other online tools to reach a wider audience. Some don’t and keep it simple. It’s just a matter of scale and business structure. For many shops the internet has been a lifeline, for others it has meant the end.

There is a feeling of commercial disgust attached to online vinyl records pricing, but looking from a theoretical point of view it’s a very simple, old and widely used economical logic. The market of vinyl records where the Record Store Day releases have entered is, like any other free market in the western world, controlled by offer and demand. When a record is being sold, the global stock lowers. When the demand for this record remains stable (or increases), the price will go up. But there’s another economical principle that comes into play here and that causes most of the tumult: speculation. Before explaining the idea of speculation, let’s talk about what exactly makes a record worth money. 

When a record is aging well, it will become more limited on the one hand and more wanted on the other hand.

First of all it’s about age. The older records get, the more they become wanted. When a record is aging well (meaning: the music is being stamped ‘timeless’), it will become more limited on the one hand and more wanted on the other hand. There are different cases to take into account though. Hit records by big artists were back in the days already pressed in high numbers, so the market will never run out of these. A lost ‘holy grail’ record by an unknown artist that was only originally pressed a couple of hundred copies enters the contemporary market in a completely different position: only a few copies are available and many people are interested, an imbalance that is causing a pumped up price. Most records are somewhere in between these two extremes, with fluctuating prices on a daily basis. Interesting to add: some new records age pretty fast and within a few months become limited, not only the result of a hype but also creating a hype. It’s a constantly changing and very challenging market. 

When a record has aged well and the right holders and masters are available, a repress can be manufactured. This will fill the gap and serve a new audience, but won’t necessarily affect the original records. Especially in the case of older records, original pressings are being valued higher. To understand this, the difference between original pressing and repress is important: every original pressing of a record can be seen as a session, with a unique serial number. Since the first pressing of a record was usually an economical risk, a relatively smaller number was produced, making it more expensive. Many sessions of a record can have happened, some becoming much more valuable than others.  

A repress on the other hand isn’t a new session, but a copy of an older version and therefore less costly. Brussels record shop Seymour Kassel is specialised in rare and original records. In its shop in the city center and on its website, the store promotes record collecting as a smart investment. An expansive explanation on record grading and pricing is available and for every record sold the shop offers its customers a ‘Price Evolution Report’, updated every six months. It’s comparable to the wine business and another rather normal economical out-turn.  

Source: Seymourkassel.com

The revival of vinyl records happening the past decade came with a renewed interest and a bigger market. Pressings plants, distribution chains, record shops, … are being (re)-opened and sales statistics show positive curves. Although numbers of the seventies and the eighties - pre cd and internet era - will never be reached again, the vinyl business is alive and kicking. An economical market booming goes with prosperity and financial success, including higher prices. Many records that were for sale for peanuts during the nineties and early two thousands, are expensive nowadays.

Now let’s look a bit deeper into the s-word. As with every valuable collectible in the world (art, design, wine, …), speculation is part of the vinyl business. Simply put it’s the purchase of a record with the hope that it will become more valuable in the near future. Whatever the reason for this aspiration is - an opinion leader talking about it; an event such as Record Store Day; ... - sellers start speculating by increasing the price. There is no rule against this, it’s the basic principle of our capitalist markets. For some products (eg. certain medicines) the government has installed price limits, but this isn’t of course the case for an entertainment product such as records. 

We need to make a split-up between the economical and the sentimental value of a vinyl record.

Selling a free goodie Record Store Day vinyl for 25 euro feels like a dirty practice, far away from the romantic love for music. That’s why we need to make a split-up between the economical and the sentimental value of a vinyl record. It doesn’t mean a seller can’t be interested in both, just like a wine dealer. Try talking about music at Seymour Kassel and you’ll be amazed. But in the eyes of music lovers, a dealer trying to make the most € from a record, can easily be seen as a shark. Should this necessarily be the case? No, the capitalist market principles have also brought prosperity to our so beloved vinyl culture. Part of the vinyl revival was only possible thanks to people actually making money.

When a record is for sale for a stupidly high price, it’s simply a matter of ignoring this and not buying.

Dj, record collector and holder of a master in economical engineering Nicolas Geysens (aka San Soda) has a firm opinion about the topic. For him the solution lies within the community of record collectors. “I believe buyers should act well informed, this principle goes for any kind of market, not only the vinyl market. Imagine you are buying milk that is announced ‘extremely good milk’ and is priced much higher than any other milk. In this case you should be aware of the reasons why this milk is more expensive. Is it really worth it? Or is the higher pricing a marketing strategy?” Geysens believes that the economical market should stay free and sellers shouldn’t be controlled or limited, but it’s a matter of awareness. “When a record is for sale for a stupidly high price or when a seller is systematically pricing records too high, it’s simply a matter of ignoring this and not buying. After a while the seller will have to lower the price or he’ll remain with a worthless item. I’m happy to see Discogs users comment on overpriced records or share stories about wolfish sellers.” 

Geysens adds another interesting point to the discussion. Part of a higher price of a record on Discogs might be justifiable, he claims. “You should not forget that selling on Discogs also has quite a few costs. You are charged an 8% fee by Discogs, 3 to 4% by Paypal, 21% VAT and income taxes. This can’t legitimize unhealthy speculation, but should be taken into account when analyzing pricing of records on Discogs.” 

It’s a complex story, but in general it’s wise to keep our eyes open for hypes, overpricing and unhealthy speculation. And by doing so also protecting a few key values. We should stay vigilant for example to where profits are going to. It would only be healthy not see the biggest share pour to speculating sellers on the internet, but to the investing cultural and creative actors in the scene. And what to say about buying huge deadstocks of records from uninformed sellers on other continents in the world, shipping them over and creating a hype in the western world? Finders, keepers? Or does this really smell bad? 

Words: Koen Galle

Pictures: Thomas Sweertvaegher

Article written and screenshots taken on Monday April 29th.