Record Collecting: An Overview

Outside of my professional interests/scholarly pursuits, I am a Record Collector. I have been collecting records a little over 10 years and have amassed thousands of records in all formats. Additionally, my interest in record collection ties in with my interests in media law/media policy. Here is a series of pointers regarding the hobby and how to get the most out of your collection.

1. What is Record Collecting?

Record collecting is the hobby of collecting sound recordings, most typically musical recording or spoken word recordings. Although the typical focus is on vinyl records, all formats of recorded music can be collected. Many record collectors focus on all of some of the following subcategories such as musical genres, recording artists, record labels, musical eras, different record formats, and many other categories too numerous to mention.

2. What Are the Different Recorded Sound Formats and Where Did They Come From?

Within the hobby of record collecting, there exist several different recorded sound formats. The earliest sound recording format was cylinder record, which was made of either tin-foil, wax (1889-1923), or celluloid (1900-1929).

The tin-foil cylinder record was originally developed by Thomas Edison in December of 1877. Despite its initial popularity, tin-foil was not a practical recording medium and the crude hand-cranked phonographs were only marketed as a novelty, to little or no profit. Following four years of research and experimentation at their Volta Laboratory, Charles Sumner Tainter, Alexander Graham Bell, and Chichester Bell introduced wax as a recording medium in 1885. After this system was demonstrated to his representatives, Thomas Edison quickly resumed work on the phonograph and developed the perfected phonograph in July of 1888.

1899 "Brown Wax" cylinder recording of the Civil war song "Meeting of the Blue & the Grey"(From authors personal collection).

1899 “Brown Wax” cylinder recording of the Civil War song “Meeting of the Blue & the Grey”(From authors personal collection).

The first ever pre-recorded wax cylinders of songs, instrumental music, and humorous monologues were introduced by Edison Records in May of 1889, and by Columbia Records in the Fall of 1889.The first artist to make commercial recordings was Frank Goede, an obscure flutist who made 14 recordings for Edison records on May 24, 1889. Other artists who recorded prolifically during the first few years of commercial recordings include George W. Johnson (first African-American recording artist), Len Spencer, John York AtLee (Artistic Whistler), Duffy & Imgrunds Fifth Regiment Band, The US Marine Band (led by John Phillip Sousa), The Issler Parlor Orchestra, Will Lyle (Banjo), A. T. Van Winkle (Violin & Xylophone), George Schweinfest (Flute), and many others since lost to time. Perhaps the earliest hit recording was “Jingle Bells,” which was recorded by Will Lyle in October of 1889. Unfortunately, very few of these early recordings survive due to the fact that the recording medium of the era (brown wax cylinders) was very fragile and could only be played a handful of times before serious wear became apparent.

The Edison Class M was the first commercially available cylinder phonograph and was manufactured from 1888-1894.

The Edison Class M was the first commercially available cylinder phonograph and was manufactured in relatively small numbers from 1889-1895.

At first, the main customers for recorded music were proprietors of early juke boxes installed in arcades and taverns due to the fact that early phonographs such as the Edison Class M were expensive (they sold for $225 at a time when the average salary was $40 a month) and required electric power to operate at a time when less than 1% of the population was wired for electricity. By the late 1890s, inexpensive spring-motor phonographs such as the Columbia Type N and the Edison Standard Phonograph created a large home-entertainment market eager for music on cylinders. Until 1912, cylinder records remained the dominant segment of the recorded sound market and continued to be manufactured by Edison Records until June of 1929.

1897 Berliner Record by Cal Stewart, later known for his "Uncle Josh" series of humorous recordings.

1897 Berliner Record by Cal Stewart, later known for his “Uncle Josh” series of humorous recordings, which were recorded between 1898 and 1919.

78RPM records (my personal favorite format) were the first ever disc records available for the consumer. Emile Berliner, a German American physicist and audio engineer, invented the first ever flat disc record in 1886 and began marketing the new technology in countries such as Great Britain and Germany in 1889. Berliner eventually started his own US-based label (aptly known as “Berliner Records”) and issued his first recordings in the Fall of 1894. The earliest Berliner records were 7 inches in diameter and played between 60-75 RPM (the 78 RPM speed was not standardized until the early 1930s) on crude, hand-driven phonographs. The difficulty in using early hand-driven Gramophones was getting the turntable to rotate at a steady speed while playing a disc. Eldridge Johnson, the owner of a small machine shop in New Jersey, assisted Berliner in developing a suitable low-cost wind-up spring motor for the Gramophone and became Berliner’s manufacturer by 1896. Berliner gave Frank Seaman the exclusive sales rights in the US, but after disagreements, Seaman began selling his own version of the Gramophone, as well as unauthorized copies of Berliner’s records (on the “Zonophone” label), and Berliner was legally barred from selling his own products. The Berliner Gramophone Company shut down in mid-1900 and Berliner moved to Canada. Following various legal maneuvers, the Victor Talking Machine Company was officially founded by Eldridge Johnson in March of 1901 under the remnants of the Berliner Gramophone Company and within a few years became the leading record label in the US.

Joe Bataan's 1968 hit "Gypsey Woman" is the last known 78 RPM record issued in the US.

Joe Bataan’s 1967 hit “Gypsy Woman” is the last known 78 RPM record issued in the US.

Over the next few decades, the 78 RPM record became the leading musical format and thousands of record labels were in business worldwide by the 1950s  Despite the emergence of new formats such as the 33 1/3 RPM LP and 45 RPM single, 78 RPM records remained the dominant format in terms of sales in the US until 1955. Due to the continued decline in sales and the growth of new recorded sound formats, 78 RPM records began to be phased out as the 1950s came to a close. The first countries to completely stop producing 78 RPM records were West Germany and Iran in 1958. In the US, most record labels dropped the 78 RPM format between 1957 and 1960, though some smaller labels continued to produce 78 RPM records as late as 1967. Canada, Czechoslovakia, and Great Britain continued to produce 78 RPM records until early 1962. India produced 78 RPM records until at least 1970 and some countries such as Kenya, China, and parts of Latin America may have manufactured 78 RPM records until 1980.

The 33 1/3 RPM Vinyl record is the most popular record format and has a particularly strong following among Millennials.

The 33 1/3 RPM Vinyl record is the most popular record format and has a particularly strong following among Millennials.

The 12 inch 33 1/3 RPM LP record (“Vinyl Record”) is currently the most popular record format and has seen a remarkable comeback in popularity over the past 15 years. The prototype of the LP was the soundtrack disc used by the Vitaphone motion picture sound system, developed by Western Electric and introduced in 1926. The sound had to play continuously for at least 11 minutes, long enough to accompany a reel of film. The disc diameter was increased to 16 inches and the speed was reduced to 33 1/3 RPM. Unlike their smaller LP descendants, they were made with the same large 3 mil groove size used by 78s. Radio stations began using 16 inch, 33 1/3 RPM records for pre-recorded programming in 1928 and RCA Victor introduced an early version of a long-playing record in September of 1931. These “Program Transcription” discs played at 33 1/3 RPM and used a somewhat finer and more closely spaced groove than typical 78s and were played with a special “Chromium Orange” chrome-plated steel needle. Unfortunately, these early long-playing records were introduced during the depths of the Great Depression and were thus discontinued by 1941.

Columbia Records picked up from where RCA Victor left off and began to develop a long-playing record after it was purchased by CBS in 1939. Headed by Peter Goldmark and Edward Wallerstein, research into the development of the modern LP record began in 1941 and resumed after the end of World War II in 1945. Their final product was a record that had a 1 mil sized “microgroove” and played for about 20 minutes per side. The LP record was officially unveiled in June of 1948 and was soon adopted by all the major record labels. Despite the development of tape-based, and later disc-based sound formats, the LP record remained dominant in sales until the 1990s and has seen a comeback in recent years due to its perceived superiority when compared to digital formats such as MP3s.

The 7 inch 45 RPM Single was developed by RCA Victor as a replacement for the old 78 RPM format and was officially unveiled in March of 1949. Much like the LP record, 45 RPM records were microgroove and could play for about 10 minutes per side. The 45 RPM record eventually became the predominant format used for issuing singles and the LP record was relegated for album-length recordings. Sales of 45 RPM records peaked by the 1960s, but newer audio formats such as the cassette and CD soon cut into the overall popularity of the format. 45 RPM records are still produced today by many record labels, though they are not as popular as the LP record. More obscure formats include the 16 2/3 RPM and the 8 RPM record, primarily used for talking book and background music recordings between the 1950s and 1980s. 16 2/3 RPM records typically played for about 40 minutes per side, whereas 8 RPM records held almost an hour and a half of audio per side.

3. What Are Old Records Worth?

 Generally speaking, the value of records is subjective and is dependent on current trends. Typically, cylinder recordings sell for about $5-10 each depending on their condition, though some of the earlier brown wax cylinders from the 1880s and 1890s and some of the Edison Blue Amberol cylinders from the late 1920s can sell for $500 and up.

Black Patti is the rarest of the pre-war Blues 78 RPM labels and many of its records have sold for as much as $50,000

Black Patti is the rarest of the pre-war Blues 78 RPM labels and many of its records have sold for as much as $50,000

78 RPM records are presently the most commonly-found format and the values for them vary. Probably the most common 78 RPM recordings are by classical artists, big bands, and pop music from the late 1910s and early 1920s. Generally speaking, these records have little to no value and are a tough sell at any price. On the other hand, early Rock and Roll and R&B, pre-war Blues, some early Jazz, certain foreign recordings, early country/hillbilly, and early recordings from before 1910 are extremely valuable and typically command high prices. In particular, pre-war Blues 78 RPM records are highly valuable due to their rarity (some of the recordings had only a handful of copies pressed) and the obscure nature of the artists who made the recordings. Some pre-war Blues 78 RPM records have sold as high as $50,000 in recent years. Here is a link listing some of the rare 78 RPM record labels.

The LP and 45 RPM market is a bit different when compared to 78 RPM records. Collectors in both formats usually seek out certain Rock and Roll recordings made between the 1950s and 1970s, Northern Soul, early Punk Rock/Alternative Rock, and R&B from the 1960s and 1970s.

4. Recommended Record Players/Audio Accessories

A good starter record player that I would recommend is the Audio Technica ATLP-120. Typically selling for about $300, the ATLP-120 plays all three of the main record formats and has a variable speed control for records with unusual play back speeds. The ATLP-120 also includes a USB cable and Mac and PC-compatible Audacity software to allow the user to transfer recordings to their computer and a built-in phono pre-amp that permits it to be hooked up to any existing sound system. The only weakness with the ATLP-120 is that its built-in pre-amp is designed for records made after 1955, so records made before 1955 may play back with excessive noise and not sound as good as they did originally. 

For introductory record playing, I would recommend the Crosley Cruiser. Even though more advanced collectors do not recommend it due to its low-quality cartridge and small speaker size, it is a cost-effective unit (~$50) that plays all three record speeds with decent fidelity.

The Rek-O-Kut Rondine 3 is one of the best turntables currently available and  is highly recommended for even the most discerning collector.

The Rek-O-Kut Rondine 3 is one of the best turntables currently available and is highly recommended for even the most discerning collector.

Another turntable recommended for advanced collectors is the Rek-O-Kut Rondine 3, which sells for around $1,600. The Rondine 3 supports all known playback speeds and is large enough to play back 16-inch records. Additionally, the Rondine 3 is a very well-built turntable and is considered in the industry to be among the best turntables available. The Rondine 3 is the turntable that I currently use. I purchased it in early 2014 and use it several times a day. In addition, to the Rondine 3, I own the Packburn 325 Audio Noise Reducer/Equalizer ($2,500). The Packbrun 325 is a great addition to any audio system and drastically improves the sound quality to even the most worn-out records. Additionally, the Packburn 325 includes several adjustable recording curves that allow the user to play back historic recordings correctly and get the most out of them. The Packburn 325 is used by nearly all of the major record sound archives and memory institutions worldwide and has proven itself time and time again since its introduction in the early 1980s.

the author

Matt is a graduate of Monmouth University. Matt has been studying and analyzing politics at all levels since the 2004 Presidential Election. He writes about political trends and demographics, the role of the media in politics, comparative politics, political theory, and the domestic and international political economy. Matt is also interested in history, philosophy, comparative religion, and record collecting.

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