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Five Things You Need to Know About Record Collecting

Outside of my professional interests/scholarly pursuits, I am a Record Collector. I have been collecting records since 2007 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 recordings 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 or 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 1888.

1899 "Brown Wax" cylinder recording of the Civil war song "Meeting of the Blue & the Grey"(From authors personal collection).
ca. 1899 “Brown Wax” cylinder recording of the Civil War song “Meeting of the Blue & the Grey”(From author’s collection).

The first ever pre-recorded wax cylinders of songs, instrumental music, and humorous monologues were introduced by Edison Records (then known as the North American Phonograph Co.) in May of 1889, and by Columbia Records several months later. 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 30 years of commercial recordings included:

  • Isslers’ Orchestra (an orchestra that featured artists such as  Charles Lowe, A. T. Van Winkle, William Tuson, David B. Dana, George Schweinfest, and Edward Issler)
  • Duffy & Imgrunds Fifth Regiment Band 
  • Voss’ First Regiment Band
  • Gilmore’s Band (Led by the famed bandmaster Patrick Gilmore)
  • The US Marine Band (led by John Phillip Sousa)
  • George J. Gaskin (Irish tenor known for early 1890s hits such as “After the Ball,” “The Picture Turned Towards The Wall,” and “Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill“)
  • George W. Johnson (first African-American recording artist)
  • Len Spencer (The son of a handwriting expert, who specialized in vaudeville sketches and comic songs interspersed with shouts, humorous asides, and touching sayings according to the temper of the verse)
  • Edward M. Favor (Vaudeville comedian, singer, and musical theatre performer, who was one of the most popular stars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries)
  • Dan W. Quinn (A specialist in musical comedy hits)
  • Will F. Denny (A tenor of pure tone and much pathos who recorded popular songs of the day)
  • John York AtLee (Artistic Whistler)
  • Russell Hunting (Known for his “Michael Casey” series of humorous recitations)
  • Dan Kelly (Known for his ‘Pat Brady’ series of humorous recitations)
  • Cal Stewart (Best remembered for his comic monologues in which he played “Uncle Josh” Weathersby, a resident of a mythical New England farming town called “Punkin Center”)
  • Al Reeves (Vaudeville and minstrel show entertainer, vocalist, and banjo player)
  • Will Lyle (Banjoist)
  • Vess Ossman (Banjoist)
  • Collins and Harlan (the team of American singers Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan, formed a popular comic duo between 1903 and 1926).
  • Billy Murray (Known in his heyday as “The Denver Nightingale,” was one of America’s best-selling recording artists who entertained millions through his records during the phonograph era. He recorded for almost every major record company, and was one of the most prolific and versatile singers who could adjust to various styles such as jazz, ragtime, comic songs, vaudeville sketches, patriotic tunes, Broadway hits, love songs, and popular trends).
  • Ada Jones (The most popular female singer of the entire pre-1920 era, Ada Jones was born in 1873 in Lancashire, England, and began recording for Edison in 1893. With her strong contralto voice, Jones showed early versatility in singing vaudeville sketches, sentimental ballads, rags, and Irish songs. However, it was her talent for comic songs that would later contribute to her longevity).
  • Bert Williams (A Bahamian-born American entertainer, one of the pre-eminent entertainers of the vaudeville era, and one of the most popular comedians and recording artists for all audiences of his time).
  • Nat Wills (A popular American stage star, vaudeville entertainer, and recording artist at the beginning of the 20th century. He is best known for his “tramp” persona and for performing humorous or satirical musical numbers, including parodies of popular songs of the day).
  • and many others since lost to time.

Perhaps the earliest #1 hit recording was “Jingle Bells,” which was recorded by Will Lyle in October of 1889. Unfortunately, very few of these early recordings survive because 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 jukeboxes installed in arcades and taverns because 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 mid-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 1929.

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

78RPM records (the record format I specialize in) 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 US-based record label (aptly known as “E. Berliner’s Gramophone”) and issued his first recordings in mid-1892.

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 exclusive sales rights in the US, but after disagreements, Seaman began selling his 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 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. Within a few years became the leading record label in the US.

Within the 78 RPM format, there were two different recording processes, lateral and vertical cut recordings. A lateral cut record stores the audio information as a side-to-side deviation of the groove. Most 78 RPM records have been recorded using the lateral cut process.

A vertical cut record saves the sound as an up-and-down deviation, resulting in a narrowing and widening of the groove. The most famous producer of these was Thomas Edison, originally in cylinders and later in his Diamond Disc series of disc records made from 1912 to 1929, recognizable by their quarter-inch thickness.

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 one of the last known 78 RPM records 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, as well as the introduction of magnetic audio recording formats for home use in the mid-1940s, 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 (around the time the first stereo recordings were introduced in early 1958). The first countries to completely stop producing 78 RPM records were West Germany and Iran in late 1957. In the US, most record labels dropped the 78 RPM format between 1957 and 1961 (with a major exodus of 78 RPM record manufacturers in 1958), though some smaller labels continued to produce 78 RPM records in the US until the later part of the 1960s. Canada, Czechoslovakia, and Great Britain continued to produce 78 RPM records a bit longer and phased out the format between 1961 and 1963. India produced 78 RPM records until well into the 1970s, Colombia produced 78 RPM records until at least 1969, and some countries such as Kenya, South Africa, Australia, 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 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. These records known, as “electrical transcriptions” were commonplace until the early 1970s and used by both radio stations for pre-recorded programming and to preserve the audio of early television programming (for copyright deposition purposes) before the introduction of the kinescope television recording process in 1947.

the consumer sphere, RCA Victor introduced an early version of a long-playing record in September 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 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 1948 and was soon adopted by all the major record labels. Despite the development of tape-based, and later digital 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 introduced in December 1948. 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 books and background music recordings between the 1950s and 1980s. 16 2/3 RPM records typically played for about 60 minutes per side, whereas 8 RPM records held almost an hour and a half of audio per side.+

3. History of Record Collecting & Current Well-Known Record Collectors
Perhaps the earliest known person to write about record collecting as a hobby was Ulysses “Jim” Walsh, a journalist and reporter employed by Roanoke World News. Born in Southern Virginia in 1903, Jim Walsh began collecting 78 RPM records at the age of three when his family purchased their first “Victrola.” Over the ensuing decades, his collection grew exponentially and he soon began to seek out pioneering artists who recorded between 1889 and 1925 (the year in which electrical recording was introduced). His first published works discussing vintage recording appeared in the June 1928 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review. Eventually, Walsh became a regular contributor to Hobbies Magazine in 1935 and began contributing to a monthly column in early 1942 dedicated to documenting early recording artists and giving collectors tips on the hobby of record collecting. Walsh’s column on record collecting ultimately lasted 43 years and inspired countless people to enter into the hobby. Other well-known pioneering record collectors in the hobby include Dick Carty, Frank O. Moon, and John Doulou. Some of the main record collectors active in the field today include Joe Bussard, Kurt Nauck, John Tefteller, Joe Lauro, and Russell Shor.

Additionally, organizations such as the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), The New England Society for the Preservation of Recorded Sound (NESPRS), and the Antique Phonograph Society (APS) are important resources for record collectors and link the record-collecting community with recorded sound institutions at nearly all levels.

In addition to collector organizations, several 78 RPM record shows are held throughout the year in the US. Arguably the largest 78 RPM record show is the Mechanical Music Extravaganza, which has been held in several different locations in the New Jersey and New York area since the Spring of 1955 (except missing two years due to COVID), its most current incarnation beginning in the fall of 1998. The Mechanical Music Extravaganza is held in Wayne, NJ at the PAL Center and is a two-day event, with the first day being an outdoor show and the second day indoors.

In addition to the Mechanical Music Extravaganza, the Jazz Record Collectors Bash is another large 78 RPM record show in the New Jersey area. Held in the Middlesex County, NJ area since 1975 (except missing three years due to COVID), the Jazz Record Collectors Bash is a three-day event that typically takes place on the fourth week of June over a three-day period (Thursday to Saturday). In addition to the usual 78 PRM record sales, the Jazz Record Collectors Bash is a unique record show in that films and presentations related to different jazz musicians take place throughout the event.

In addition to the Mechanical Music Extravaganza and the Jazz Record Collectors Bash, several other 78 RPM record shows take place in the US. Other well-know. 78 RPM record shows that take place yearly in the US include the Hoosier Antique Phonograph Society Record Bash in Indianapolis, IN, the Carolina Antique Music and Phonograph Show in Charlotte, NC, the Antique Phonograph Society Midwest Expo in Schaumburg Ill, and the Antique Phonograph & Record Expo in Buena Park, CA. These events are an invaluable resource to the record collector community.

4. 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. The most common 78 RPM recordings are 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, 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 1980s, Northern Soul, early Punk Rock/Alternative Rock, early Rap Music, some Disco and dance music from the 1970s and 1980s, and R&B from the 1960s to 1980s.

5. Recommended Record Players/Audio Accessories

A good mid-level 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 playback 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 ceramic phono cartridge and small speaker size, it is a cost-effective unit (~$50) that plays the three main 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 good quality turntable for advanced collectors is the Rek-O-Kut Rondine 3, which, before its discontinuation in 2019, sold 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 was 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 of 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.

Matthew Rosehttp://ourpolitics.net
Matt studies and analyzes politics at all levels. He is the creator of OurPolitics.net, a scholarly resource exploring political trends, political theory, political economy, philosophy, and more. He hopes that his articles can encourage more people to gain knowledge about politics and understand the impact that public policy decisions have on their lives. Matt is also involved in the preservation of recorded sound through IASA International Bibliography of Discographies, and is an avid record collector.

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