Have We Hit Peak Vinyl?

A social media buddy of mine recently proposed that we’ve reached peak vinyl, that purchasing records is now synonymous with investing in baseball cards circa 1991.

For those of you who are too young to make much of that analogy, once upon a time the world of baseball cards was the exclusive domain of children. As a grade schooler I bought my share of Topps wax packs, though back then we called them neither “Topps” nor “wax packs.” They were just baseball cards and Topps was the only game in town–no Donruss, no Upper Deck, just Topps with their stick of bright pink gum that shattered into lethal shards when bitten. A pack was conveniently priced around what the average eight year-old earned weekly in allowance, which was unlikely a coincidence. The folks at Topps knew who their customers were.

Baseball cards were a social experience, meant to be flipped, traded, or flung at each other if that seemed fun at the moment. Some kids memorized the player statistics on the back of each card, but inevitably that was social, too. The whole purpose of rote memorization was to impress your friends with Kurt Bevacqua trivia–“Who is Kurt Bevacqua,” for example. Each day after school I made the rounds of my friends’ houses, my shoebox filled with doubles under my arm like a traveling salesman: “Is Brian in? We’re offering a great deal today on Rick Monday and Claudell Washington.” Trading cards always led to something else–spinning records, watching a Godzilla movie, playing Hot Wheels. Baseball cards were social currency.

That began to change in the ’80s, when baby boomers in their thirties were old enough to finally make some decent money but hellbent on never growing up. What once was a social hobby for children became an investment vehicle for adults reliving their childhoods. Vintage cards were professionally graded and encapsulated in clear plastic holders, Mickey Mantle forever trapped in amber like a prehistoric beetle. New companies rushed their own baseball cards to market and introduced gimmicky “chase cards”–signed cards, foil cards, cards featuring pieces of players’ jerseys.

Things got really out of hand, both in terms of the glut of product and the wild speculation from investors. In 1991, I worked for a 50-something year-old boss who squirreled away over one million cards in every nook and cranny of his house. “They’re my retirement fund,” he told me. I’ve often wondered what happened to him. He’s in his eighties now, if he’s still alive, and his baseball card collection is worth a fraction of what he invested in the ’80s and ’90s because eventually the baseball card market crashed.

All collectible markets eventually crash. Ask your aunt with the Beanie Baby room in her house. Ask your granddad with the stamp collection. Ask your buddy with the closet full of comics, Hot Wheels, or Pogs. (Remember Pogs?) In each of those examples some items have held their value, some continue to appreciate, and most have lost any investment value. Comic shops commonly offer $25-$40 for a “long box” filled with 300 comics, while the price guide might suggest $1,500 in value for that same collection. The original “redline” Hot Wheels, manufactured between 1968 and 1977, remain very collectible, but the rest are pretty much what they always were–sandbox toys for kids. Philatelists consider stamps printed after 1940 or so nothing more than postage. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some incredibly valuable stamps out there, but rather that those Elvis stamps your mom hoarded are only good for mailing Christmas cards.

One good indicator that a collectible market has peaked is the appearance of advertised “collector’s items.” What made baseball cards, stamps, comic books, etc., collectible was their ephemeral nature. They were meant to be used and then discarded, not encased in plastic and hoarded. The examples that survived in mint condition were anomalies, and that’s what made them rare and valuable. But there are very few examples of these, and their original manufacturer isn’t making any money each time they change hands. A Mickey Mantle rookie card recently sold on eBay for $93,000, but Topps may have made a penny on its original sale in 1952. So how do baseball card manufacturers cash in when the speculators push kids out and nudge values higher? By introducing limited edition collector’s items into the market, thereby extracting the cash from speculator wallets. The problem is that those “collector’s items” will never sell for $93,000 on eBay because they aren’t meant to be used and discarded, and thus will never be rare.

All of this holds true for vinyl. Records originally existed for the sole purpose of making a mechanical reproduction of a performance portable and thus marketable. One didn’t have to invite Caruso over for tea to hear a little opera; one just had to stick a Caruso record on the Victrola, wind it up, and drop the needle. Those needles were sharp, too: You didn’t get too many plays out of those early shellac records before they were used up. While both turntables and records improved in quality over the decades, that fundamental purpose–play your records to enjoy the music–never changed. My childhood KISS albums, for example, are every bit as used and abused as my childhood baseball cards.

I’m not alone. Dig through enough record crates and you learn quickly what records kids listened to. It’s rare to find a Disney record in mint condition, for example. Rock and soul albums through the ’80s show varying degrees of wear, sometimes worse than Disney records, sometimes super clean. Jazz and classical albums have a better chance of being in good condition, given that those records were likely handled by grown-ups from the moment that their shrink wrap was slit open. Newer albums–meaning from the ’90s onward–tend to be in better shape regardless of the genre, likely because as vinyl’s original purpose diminished (i.e., “play music”) records were treated more like collectibles than ephemeral objects.

As with other collectibles condition matters, but so do scarcity and desirability. Disney records aren’t particularly desirable to record collectors, so even mint copies don’t trade for much. However, something like a sealed, first state Beatles butcher cover hits the trifecta of condition, scarcity, and desirability, and thus commands astronomical prices. An example recently sold on eBay for $30,000 but again, just like with the Mickey Mantle example, neither the Beatles nor Capitol Records earned a dime off of that sale. The value of a butcher cover stirs speculator interest, but for the band and the label to convert that interest into sales they have to churn out new “collector’s item” product. Enter the new generation of vinyl: the 180 gram reissues, the limited editions, the deluxe reissues on colored vinyl, on and on.

This week, a 50th anniversary edition of Abbey Road hit the racks. This triple record deluxe edition will run you in the $75-$100 range while an original Abbey Road in good condition might cost you ten bucks. Granted, you won’t get the new 2019 mix or the two albums of demos, but if all you want to do is spin the record as it originally appeared there’s no need to spring for the 50th anniversary edition. Besides, if you want to listen to the Beatles you aren’t the target market for the anniversary edition anyway. Capitol is after speculators and Beatles completists, both of whom have snatched up enough copies of the reissued Abbey Road to send the album back into the charts.

The Beatles aren’t the best example of peak vinyl, however. The band has remained collectible for over 50 years, after all, and every time their albums are reissued they sell well. No, for peak vinyl we need to look at Record Store Day exclusives, where we find Ariana Grande albums and Across the Universe soundtracks fetching $350, where Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz goes for $200 or more; where a Lana Del Rey picture disc might cost you a hundred bucks. These are your Hot Wheels with “collector’s edition” stamped on the packaging, your baseball chase cards with hunks of jersey glued to them, your limited edition Beanie Babies. Assuming both are kept sealed, a decade from now that Abbey Road deluxe edition will still sell for at least its current retail price; on the other hand, that Lana Del Rey picture disc is going to fetch ten cents on the dollar. At best.

So yeah, I guess I agree with my buddy in this regard: If you’re buying new vinyl as an investment, you’re probably looking at a future similar to that of my old baseball card investing boss. However, if you’re buying vintage vinyl that meets the holy triumvirate of condition, desirability, and scarcity, you’re going to be just fine. There’s only so many Mickey Mantle rookie cards, and there’s only so many butcher covers.

But here’s an even better idea: Rather than buying albums as investments, focus instead on enjoying them. Records were meant to be played, so buy what you want to listen to and play it. You’ll be glad you did.


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