Maybe you’re sick of the sterile ones ‘n zeroes feel of downloads. Maybe you think vinyl is just—cool. Whatever your reason, record collecting is a great way to enjoy and discover music and—despite how things appear at first glance—an affordable hobby to get into.
The Current Vinyl Record Scene
Vinyl records are enjoying a huge renaissance. In the UK, The Guardian reports sales of records are up 69% in a year, while players have enjoyed a full 240% increase. In the U.S., 9.2 million vinyl records were sold last year, the highest since SoundScan began keeping track of vinyl in 1991. Almost any album that gets anything near a wide release these days is available on vinyl.
For vinyl fans, experienced or new to the format, the popularity is a mixed blessing. The benefits include a wider selection of new records to buy, including both contemporary music and rereleases of classic albums from legendary artists of the last century like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. The downside is one often seen in collectables markets—sharp and fast increases in price on used vinyl, and speculators looking to exploit the rising demand.
First, you’ll need something to listen to your records on. When you’re just getting started, there’s not much reason to drop hundreds or thousands of dollars on anything fancy—although that doesn’t mean you don’t have choices.
If you want something all-in-one and easy to purchase that you can take out of the box and just start listening to records, a player like the Jensen JTA-230 might be for you. I don’t have experience with it specifically, but it’s the top seller on Amazon and in the range of $55 it’s probably not a bad deal. This model has speakers built in, but also RCA line-out if you want to connect it to a receiver or whatever audio setup you have.
I like having a real, standalone, automatic turntable. I find this is the best way to listen to my albums. There are plenty of options that fit the bill, and I offer the Audio Technica AT-LP60 as an example of one I think is reasonably priced at around $100. An automatic turntable like this allows you to put a record on, push a button, and the needle will drop itself and do the rest, and reset itself when a side is done playing. To use a turntable like this you’ll need to connect it to a receiver/amplifier with speakers, although if you have a TV you can run your sound through its speakers by connecting it the same way you would a DVD player or other device.
You can also go the route of buying a used turntable. Your area’s Craigslist is always worth having a look at, but you might also get lucky trying a thrift store. Some record stores offer used or refurbished hardware at reasonable prices. Whatever option you select, it’s always worth looking into as many of these possibilities as you can so that you know the market and what’s a reasonable price to pay. Also, always (always!) test a used record player before you buy it—you can save yourself a some real headaches by doing so.
Remember: occasionally replacing the needle is necessary on any turntable. A needle should last you for about 500 hours of music. When a record in perfectly good condition seems to be giving you distortion or otherwise wrong sound, it’s time for a new needle. My personal view is: if you’re wondering if it’s time for a new needle, it’s time for a new needle.
The short answer to this question is—anywhere that sells records. What that means in practice is knowing your area and where best will fit your specific goals. Since we’re thinking with our wallet here, we’ll start with perhaps the cheapest option.
This includes places like the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Savers/Value Village, and a host of local places in most areas. Not all stores like these have a record selection, and the selection and quantity can be night and day from one store to another. But if you’re willing to shop around and put a little work in on a regular basis, you will occasionally find things that are amazing. Unfortunately, most of what thrift stores have tend to be records few people want, often with scratches. But at a market price of $1-$3 each, it’s very worth digging through these to find records you have even a vague interest in. Part of the fun in collecting vinyl is discovering new music, and this is a great price to do it at. After a few weeks of thrifting, you’ll see your shelves begin to fill with records and you’ll also learn (again, without risking a huge investment) the finer points of a record’s condition, such as the difference between light wear with little effect on playback and the kind of scratching that make something not worth buying, even for just a dollar. Experience is the only reliable teacher for this.
Record stores, like most small businesses, come in all different varieties. There’s no real generalizing about them other than to say that they vary, and it’s worth exploring all the ones you can find in your area. Some record stores are full of reasonably priced discs and may even have deals better than you’ll find online, and many have discount sections with prices comparable to those in the thrift stores. Others sell their products for seemingly double what the market value appears to be. There’s also the questions of selection, atmosphere, friendliness, etc. A good starting point in learning your area is Yelp, but I recommend seeing each store for yourself rather than just going by the reviews there. I have found that someone else’s impression of a place isn’t always the same as my own. Different people want different things from businesses like these, but when you find your favorite record store, you’ll know it.
TIP: If you have a smartphone, The Vinyl District makes a great app for finding stores in your area, though always double check on Yelp or Google to make sure the store hasn’t closed, as the information is sometimes slow to update.
Shopping for Records Online
Here, all the same rules about comparing prices apply, with the added consideration of shipping costs. For brand new vinyl, Amazon tends to underprice its competitors and offer attractive shipping deals, and also often offers Autorip, a service where buying the physical record automatically grants you access to the same album as a download. For used records, eBay and Discogs are usually your best bets. Buying used online can be tricky because grading quality for scratches and the like is so subjective, so it’s a must to verify what you’re getting before you buy it. Buying from sellers with strong feedback ratings is highly recommended.
The best reason to start a record collection is for your own enjoyment. Records may be very popular and command high prices today, but as with all collectable markets that become suddenly hot, there will come a day where demand fades and prices fall. This was true for comic books, baseball cards, and Beanie Babies, and vinyl records won’t be an exception. The only way secure the value of your collection against disappointment is to make that value a personal one—buy albums you want to own, for prices you believe they’re worth. In the long term, this is the only kind of value that can be counted on to last.