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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

An insider's look at the record fair

An insider's look at the record fair

I'll start by pricing a record at 10 euro, for example. If they're not gone after a few fairs, they end up in the discount crate.

Interview Diederik Decroix (translated by Charline Stoelzaed)
Photographs Simon Leloup

During autumn and winter, the weekly day of the Lord equals fun times for many vinyl enthusiasts. Why? Because scattered around the country, one can find hundreds of different record fairs. Some vinyl fanatics travel all around the country, hitting fair after fair. You can find them waiting impatiently for the doors to open, eager to start digging the crates. Striking detail: most of them already know what will be up for offer and merely want to get a look at what has been added since the last fair. The less fanatic collectors, the modest music lovers, and the curious, come to try their luck too, taking it all only a teensy bit less seriously. Everyone has got their eye on the same target though: returning home with a new batch of black gold. Welcome y'all, to 'Digging for advanced'!

Thanks to the lovely people behind KDX Fairs, we were granted the opportunity to get behind the screens of the Ghent-based record fair. Here’s little 101 for first-timers:

  1. Record fairs are mainly held in large exhibition halls or parish hall, filled with rows and rows of tables.

  2. You usually pay an entrance fee.

  3. Exhibitors buy their right to be present by the meter. Prices vary considerably and go from six euro up to a hundred (like in Utrecht). A large scale international one (again, like Utrecht) draws over 400 booth holders from all over the world. Besides Japanese, you'll spot Mexicans, Danes and Brazilians. The visiting public comes from equally international provenance.

  4. Your average booth measures about four meters and boasts about twenty cases of vinyl. This quickly adds up to around 300 kilos of vinyl or 2000 records.

  5. Many exhibitors have their very own DIY wall of fame acting as a display window of sorts, showcasing their most expensive or cherished records. Most of them have one of several discount crates with records that could be yours for only a couple of euro.

  6. Negotiating — read: hustling — is an inseparable part of the whole mating dance between seller and buyer. Paying by card or mobile phone isn't yet part of the record fair reality, so make sure to carry some hard cash with you.

  7. Rookies to the game buy records without checking them thoroughly for scratches, while in fact, you are allowed to remove records from their plastic cover to view both sleeve and record. Be careful doing so, though.

  8. The lighting at some fairs reveals scratches better than at others. Visiting the fair at the ICC in Ghent last week, I noticed that the lighting there made the record look in way better shape than it actually was. Other times, it's the other way around.

  9. First pressings are often sold for quite a lot of dinero. You can easily find the same record dating from a more recent year at an affordable price.

  10. In addition to the second-hand offer, you can find vintage records in mint condition. Those are described as 'still sealed'.

  11. Make sure to bring a few tote bags or record cases to accommodate your pickings. Visitors carrying trolleys or travel cases are certainly no exception to the rule.

  12. Those who consider preparation to be key keep their analogue (many times a printed Excel file) or digital (what else than a Discogs log?) wish list at close hand.

  13. You'd better get fit and fast if you want to make it digging crates. 

On the road with Vinyl61

In order to fully understand the goings-on at the fair, we followed in the footsteps of Frederik Nuytten from Vinyl61. The Ghent fair is open to the public from Saturday evening onwards, so the set-up happens during the afternoon. This implies that Frederik doesn't have to get up bright and early, as is the case with many other fairs. In his warehouse, Frederik has fifty-something crates of vinyl neatly piled up, each containing records sorted by genre or price. Depending on the fair he's hitting, he brings along different crates as an exhibitor who knows his game is aware that every fair draws its specific audience.

Back in the warehouse, we find racks full of records that serve to replenish the stock. A large collection of singles fills another wall. Frederik stores his records in a plastic protective cover and labels them with their prices. These depend on the state of the sleeve, that of the record and its market price. “I'll start by pricing a record at 10 euro, for example. If they're not gone after a few fairs, they end up in the discount crate. Some records just go straight in there because I just know that I won't be able to sell them at a higher price”, Frederik tells us.

Records that don't even manage to lure in anyone from their spot in the discount crate end up in a rather peculiar follow-up circuit: one part winds up in a separate stock, where they await that one buyer looking for a large-quantity batch. Another part is sold in banana boxes at a fixed price to booth holders who mainly attend flea markets. The records that remain after that finish up in thrift stores.

Selling means buying

Frederik's crates all have lids. Not only to protect his records from possible rain showers, but equally to avoid the public from ruffling in them all too soon. As odd as it may seem, exhibitors mainly buy from each other in the hours prior to the actual opening — especially when word is on the street that someone is bringing a lot of neat, new goodies. “I know these Russian and Italian guys who always attend the Utrecht fair to buy records for their shops back home”, Frederik enlightens us. Some fairs offer VIP tickets too, allowing you to enter an hour or so earlier or, like in Ghent, the evening before. That way you're one of the happy few how get to go through the crates first. 

So where does all the stuff come from?

At the fair, I have chat with Antoine Dhoey, the man behind Record Collector and Stefaan Henrix from Fonorama. Being 69 years old, Antoine is a veteran of the trade. Everyone knows him by name and you can bet your life he knows yours. Antoine managed the Antwerp monument Record Collector for over thirty years. When in 2013, he passed the torch to its successor Rocking Bull, Antoine decided to focus on the record fair circuit. He’s lived through the epic golden age prior to CDs, back when vinyl was the only medium around. Over the years, he’s gathered up a stock containing over 150.000 records. Up to this day, Antoine still expands his collection. On Saturday evening, his booth remains sealed shut while the man himself is completely dedicated to bargain-hunting through his fellow exhibitor's supplies.

Stefaan points out that it has become more and more difficult to get your hands on a fresh batch of records. “The competition has grown significantly. A lot of records wind up on the market as a result of an inheritance or someone passing away. Often these new owners want to get rid of the collection ASAP and then it's a question of acting fast. Due to the vinyl revival though, people tend to believe they're sitting on a pot of gold. And those who do, want to sell this volume of thousands of records at a couple of euro a piece in a take-it-or-leave-it kind of deal. Problematic, to say the very least, as only ten or twenty of those records are even remotely interesting.” Frederik confirms: “Only recently I let a batch of 500 records slip out of my hands because it was too expensive. Even if it indeed contained a couple of big shots. I just wouldn't have been able to sell the rest of the lot, not even in the discount crates.”

Frederik, Antoine and Stefaan spend all of their weekdays and nights in search of undiscovered black gold and find that rather exciting. As connoisseurs on the matter, they don't always have to know the music. They often screen a record based on its sleeve or the label that released it. And of course, the state it's in. “I never buy damaged records. Not even when they're collector's items that could go for big bucks when in mint condition”, says Stefaan. Frederik doesn't even play every record he buys. With help of the lighting in his warehouse, his trained eye can distinguish a good record from a damaged one easily. Only in case of doubt, the record is placed on the pick-up. The really filthy ones go through the record washing machine.

Best sellers

However it may be, some records tend to always do well. Thanks to all of those people who got rid of their vinyl collection after the rise of the CD and are now looking to re-buy all of those records. “Dark Side of the Moon is a textbook classic”, Frederik explains. “If I bring along four copies of that one, they'll all be gone before the day is over. Same goes for Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or Thriller by Michael Jackson.” For Antoine, The Police and Blondie are best sellers too. “Although that may be the case, it doesn't mean a lot of dough changes hands while selling them. These classics were pressed so often, they sell really cheap.” Stefaan concludes: “The heavier stuff like rock, metal or punk records are doing well for themselves. But jazz, soul and funk actually do too. And instead of ending up in thrift stores along with accordion stuff, operetta and German schlagers, Neil Diamond and Boney M. have reclaimed their positions in music enthusiasts' vinyl collection.”

Want to go digging yourself? Click here for an overview of all upcoming fairs.