|"Excellent condition" Beatles LP|
I'm rarely happier than when the tips of my fingers resemble those of a 30-a-day smoker. If you are in the habit of digging through crates of filthy vinyl, you'll know what I'm talking about - that nicotine-like, digit-coating grime that turns the act of eating a bag of Doritos into a life-threatening experience. You'd think I'd be grateful for the internet and the opportunities that it affords me to sit in the comfort and comparatively squalor-free surroundings of my own home, scrolling through a seemingly endless menu of vinyl tasties that are just a wine-fuelled, caution-to-the-wind bid away from being mine. And yes, I doff my hat to the online auction houses for their ability to liberate me from my cash, but, to my mind, the hands-on experience of rooting through a box of real records is not only more fun, but less likely to result in disappointment.
I won't pretend that, on occasion, I haven't failed to spot a game-changing edge warp or a stylus-wrecking pothole in my hurry to hand over the readies for a used LP, but on the whole, if I take my time to thoroughly inspect a piece of vinyl, then a record shop or a car boot sale - the REAL PHYSICAL WORLD - is the way to go.
On eBay, sellers seem to fall into one of three main categories:
1) THE CHANCERS.
At the bottom of the heap, and best avoided, are those who have most likely fished a bunch of records out of a skip and are selling them alongside commemorative chinaware, super-sized women's clothing and the front, nearside wing of a Mk II Ford Escort. Buying from these vendors is as risky as having Stevie Wonder set you up with a blind date. They usually provide, at best, one blurry photo of the sleeve and a single line description that inevitably employs the meaningless phrase "good condition for age". Diminishing condition is not an inevitable consequence of age. If a record has been cared for it makes no difference whether it was pressed in 1969 or 2014. The methods for assessing its condition are the same: look at it and listen to it. Sniff it if you must. On the odd, rare occasion, you, the buyer, might get lucky and get a pristine rarity for peanuts, but chances are that you'll receive a record that looks like that same Mk II Escort has been performing doughnuts on it. Even if, by some fluke, the record was in decent condition at the time of being listed, by the time you receive it wrapped in a wafer thin sheet of brown paper on which the vendor has carved your address in green biro (exerting enough pressure to permanently etch the details of your residence into the LP's sleeve and possibly the surface of the vinyl too), you will wonder what ever possessed you to buy from a seller with the eBay ID 'pitbull-luvver69' in the first place.
2) THE PROFESSIONAL DEALERS.
They have a feedback score of 24,538 and a 99.9% positive rating. Impressive ! Well, not especially, as the flipside of those stats is that 245 people have been sufficiently pissed off to leave them negative feedback. However reputable a dealer is, they do not have time to listen to the records they sell and, in my experience sometimes barely glance at the vinyl to assess its condition. They know that with their huge volume of sales, your timid neutral feedback and comment that the 'Near Mint' record that you received was covered in greasy fingerprints and sounded like the soundtrack to a chip pan fire, will get buried under the daily avalanche of 'Top seller. A+++++++++++' comments.
My recent experience of purchasing Eric Burdon and The Animals' Winds Of Change album neatly sums up the pitfalls of buying from high-turnover dealers. I bid on and won the first stereo UK pressing of Winds Of Change on the blue and tan MGM label in VG+ condition. What I received was an utterly trashed copy of Burdon's Love Is LP.
After he had accepted his error and agreed to pay my return postage, the LP winged its way back to the vendor who then sent me a mono pressing with yellow MGM labels. If it had played okay, I'd have cut my losses and settled for the mono copy, but it was in really shoddy condition, played with pretty much constant noise, intrusive clicks and heavy crackle.
|That mono Winds Of Change LP|
I did eventually get a stereo copy of Winds Of Change (not the UK pressing that I had won, I should add) and a postage refund, but only after weeks of chasing. Unbelievably, I left positive feedback, probably out of relief that the sorry episode was at an end.
3) THE DOWNSIZERS.
For my money, these are the sellers most likely to provide a satisfying online record-buying experience. They have decided that after years in storage it is time to offer their cherished record collections for sale. The downsizer's listings contain all the pertinent photographs to help identify the pressing and condition. They have done sufficient research to know what to put in their listings to grab a collector's attention, but not so much as to have unrealistic expectations of an item's value. There is usually the caveat in their listings that they no longer own a turntable, but that when put in the loft thirty years ago, the records all played well. A no quibble refund generally adds to the reassuring noises that the risk-averse buyer wants to hear. My purchases from downsizers have, on occasion, been accompanied by emails detailing their memories of when and where they originally bought the record that they have just put in the post to me, with sincere wishes that I enjoy the music as much as they have. This is as close to the experience of buying face-to-face as you will get in the virtual world of online auctions. When the record arrives it is packed so sturdily and with such care that getting into it requires the kind of tools that firefighters use to cut people free from car wrecks.
Some online buying experiences beggar belief. Perhaps I should have known better than to bid on a copy of Miles Davis' Agharta LP which was being sold by a vendor who deals primarily in books and comics. His listing contained two photographs; one of the front cover, the other of one of the record labels. Rather than provide specific details of each record he had for sale, he opted to use the following catch-all description, reproduced here from his listing, typos-and-all:
I TAKE CARE TO LIST AS HONESTLY AS I CAN
AND WILL POINT OUT IF THERE ARE ANY PROBLEMS WITH THE PLAYING OF THE VINYL.
UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED YOU CAN ASSUME THESE TO BE IN GOOD PLAYING ORDER.
THEY MAY HAVE HANDLING MARKS OR LIGHT SURFACE MARKS AS WITH GOES WITH THE AGE OF LP,S.
COVERS WILL BE USED AND SHOW SIGNS OF HANDLING.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Agharta album, it is a double LP. Imagine then how thrilled I was to receive a cigarette paper-thin package containing just one of the two discs. As I pointed out to the vendor, even somebody unfamiliar with Miles Davis' catalogue should have been able to work out that a record with sides 3 and 4 printed on the labels is likely to be part of a two record set. As for taking care to point out any problems with playback, my photo below would suggest that there was a fault that was immediately apparent without the need to test-play the record.
To add to the joyful experience of receiving half an album, the gatefold sleeve opened with a gentle ripping sound as a result of a sticky deposit smeared therein. Needless to say, I procured a full refund. Don't ever let a seller's policy of not refunding the cost of postage put you off. I see no reason why a buyer should be out of pocket because of vendors who, through laziness, stupidity or dishonesty, fail to accurately describe the items they have for sale. I have always found that an email beginning "I am not in the habit of leaving negative feedback, but...." works wonders.