The day came for us to finally resolve the question. Is it cheaper to buy vinyl online or in record shops and fairs?
We had a couple of minor rules – we would try to buy a) Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic albums up to 1972, b) copies should be in VG+ condition or better, and c) we should try to pay less than £10 per LP.
To set you the picture, we met in a cafe, sat facing each other at a table, with a pile of LPs in front of us.
It was like the scene in Heat with De Niro and Al Pacino, only really rubbish, and with a stack of LPs cluttering up the table. I bet De Niro didn’t have to be careful there wasn’t any ketchup or coffee stains on his table. We asked the waitress to affect a Brooklyn accent, but, correctly, she just looked at us blankly.
We had begun this quest more than six months ago, to see who had picked up the most albums, and for the least cost. The atmosphere was electric.
Mainly due to one of those ultraviolet fly catcher things in the corner of the cafe.
A mortally wounded fly landed on the table, legs kicking, adding to the tension.
We had already established Chris had paid £8.50 for “I Never Loved…” albeit his was a modern copy, whereas I had paid £10 for a UK 1967 original. Chris claimed victory, but because my copy was a near-fifty year old original we called it a draw…
We moved on to Aretha’s next release: Aretha Arrives.
I picked my copy up for £10, again from Spitalfields record fair. Nice Atlantic label in plum. It was in great condition. I thought this good, until I saw the Discogs average was £4.50.
I asked Chris how much he paid, expecting the worst.
I was right.
“£4.70 plus 1.80 postage on eBay. £6.50 in total”.
He laughed a little too loudly when he heard I had paid a tenner. I felt better when I saw his copy wasn’t quite as pristine as mine.
Nevertheless, one point to buying online.
“Aretha Now” was next.
I had paid £10 at the same time I found “Aretha Arrives” (and from the same stall) at Spitalfields. I had also found a copy of Jimmy Reed’s “Live at Carnegie Hall” for £10. It had been a good day’s shopping, that one.
“I couldn’t find this one online for less than £10, if you include postage” confessed Chris. “I got very close a couple of times, and missed a couple that did go for around £10. There are a lot of copies in not very good condition too, if Discogs is anything is go by. I didn’t end up buying a copy.”
This was a fail on Chris’ part, and a win for buying in record shops, but I wasn’t getting too excited just yet. Scores: one for Chris, one for me and a half point for the tie. One and a half points each.
On “Lady Soul” I had paid £10 again. It was the same stall, but a different day, and again it was a lovely original Atlantic plum coloured label UK pressing.
I asked Chris how he had fared. I was feeling better about this. The Discogs average was £13.50 (plus postage).
“Ah, this was a good one. I found a US copy for just £6 and… at the same time I found a copy of “Aretha In Paris” from the same seller for £7-ish. He lived in Denmark, but with the two albums together, postage was only £7. The exact amount was £19.89 for the two albums, so unless you picked up “Aretha In Paris” for less than a tenner, I think I win both. By a whisker.”
I smiled. I had indeed picked up Aretha In Paris for less than a tenner. In fact, I found a copy for £6 at Southend Record Fair.
He looked suitably gutted.
I worked out he had paid less than I had for “Lady Soul” – but only by 11p – and for a US copy at that – and had paid more for the live album. I charitably agreed Lady Soul was a draw, so the score was now 3-2 to record shops and fairs versus online.
I saw a copy of “Soul ’69” next on the pile.
“How much was that one?” I asked.
“This seemed to be the most expensive – I couldn’t find it under £10” confessed Chris, “so I had a look at Discogs and got creative.”
He showed me the reverse. It was written in Spanish.
My inner Miss Marple deduced this was a copy from Spain. It’s difficult to get these little details past me.
“It was €19.50, including postage from a seller in Holland. You can save money going for foreign copies. At least you could until the pound crashed… I bought a Kinks LP at the same time, which brought the cost down and at the time the euro rate was okay, so it was just over £14.”
I brought out my copy of Soul ’69.
UK Atlantic plum label, of course.
However, I had another confession.
“I paid £14 for this one, so slightly cheaper than yours – and for a UK copy.”
“Oh, okay. Where did you get it?”
I shifted uneasily in my seat.
“I bought it in person in Rayleigh”.
Chris looked at me suspiciously. He knows me too well. He raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“In person?” he repeated. “I didn’t know there was a record shop in Rayleigh?”
“Er, well, there isn’t, technically,” I squirmed, “I sort of found it online. I say online… It was on, um, well, eBay.”
Chris gave me a look I had previously only observed in a taxi driver after I tried to pay for a £7 cab journey with a Scottish fifty pound note.
“I wouldn’t have bothered but the guy selling it was just down the road, so when I won the auction I drove to his house and picked it up in person, saving on the £4 postage. It kind of counts as I picked it up in person, right?”
In truth, I hadn’t seen this album for sale at all in shops or record fairs. I thought £14, whilst above our general limit, was a decent price. For this album, eBay and Discogs had been the only way to get the LP.
One back to online. The score was now 3-3.
“What about “Don’t Play That Song”?” I asked. “I paid £13 for mine”.
“I actually found one for £10 plus postage, and managed to get a “Best Offer” accepted on eBay to get a copy for £10 including postage” Chris said, but he didn’t sound quite as happy as I thought he should.
“Why aren’t you crowing about it?” I asked suspiciously.
“It came through – but when I played it I saw it was scratched. It was clicking – I couldn’t fix it – and I had to send it back. I haven’t found a better priced copy since, so I’m empty handed on that one. And it cost me £3 for the return postage.”
I found my copy again at Spitalfields record fair – a different stall this time. It was a UK original priced at £18, but managed to haggle it down to £13. I think the stall owner left with grudging respect for my persistence / tight-fistedness.
On this occasion, buying from a record fair paid off.
“This Girls’s In Love With You” was next. Chris laid his cards on the table. “I paid £6.99 plus postage – so £10.99 in total.”
“Well”, I countered. “I paid £7.90 for mine. So I win.”
Chris looked suspicious.
“That’s an odd amount. Why £7.90?”
I was rumbled.
“Oh, okay. I may have found it on eBay…”
“What?! Again?! You’re supposed to be buying in record shops!”
It was true. But I couldn’t find this one anywhere. And £7.90 (including postage) was too good to pass up for a genuine original UK pressing. It was in great condition too.
I looked shamefully towards the floor…
There were three albums left. “Live at Fillmore West”, “Young, Gifted and Black” and a Greatest Hits collection.
“Okay, I’m pleased with this one, announced Chris. “Live at Fillmore West” cost me £9.04, and it comes with a story.”
I pretended to look interested.
“Imagine you’re a US serviceman in Taiwan in the late sixties. You’re stationed over there, but all you have to listen to is the bloke out of “Good Morning Vietnam” who has now been posted in Taiwan and plays Polkas on the radio all day. You need some music. And in Taiwan, there’s a record factory that makes bootleg pressings of all the latest albums. Well, this is one of those albums. And it sounds surprisingly good.”
“You have a Taiwanese bootleg?”
I was half appalled and half interested. It was wrapped in a paper bag-type sleeve.
“Try finding that in a record shop! Proof that online shopping can come up with a more diverse collection.” Chris had started to wax lyrical. “You might have UK stuff, but my collection has copies from Spain, Taiwan, America. New and old. It’s a bit more interesting.”
“All highly fascinating Chris. But you overpaid. I picked my copy up for £7 at Carmel Records in Southend.”
5-4 to the record shops.
“Young, Gifted and Black” was next – a cracking LP, but one I just hadn’t been able to find. Chris simply needed to produce his copy and it would be 5-all…
“This was a funny one” confessed Chris. “I just couldn’t get one at the right price, and when it did sell for a good price, I was never in, or was busy, or beaten by a sniper. So I never pinned it down.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“But now I know you haven’t got a copy…”
My chest tightened.
Chris pulled out his phone with exaggerated deliberation. He opened his eBay app. And as (bad) luck would have it, there was a copy of “Young, Gifted and Black” in what looked like immaculate condition on a “Buy It Now” offer of £9.99 plus £3.50 postage.
He clicked the button with inner glee.
“Five-all” he said with a smile.
It had all come down to the “Best of” collections.
I had found the Greatest Hits for just a fiver or so, but didn’t buy it. In the end I plumped for a more interesting collection, an LP called “I Say A Little Prayer” on Atlantic’s budget 99 Series.
I paid £8 at Carmel Records. Despite the “budget” label, it is a lovely heavyweight piece of vinyl and a plum label.
Chris has gone for the traditional Greatest Hits. He paid £5, plus £3.50 postage.
For the sake of 50p we called it a draw. Five and a half to each side. Eight studio albums, two live and a Hits package.
I had all the UK originals. Chris had the exotic variants. Overall, it was much of a muchness price-wise.
I’m afraid the whole thing hasn’t been much help. Sometimes it is cheaper on eBay. Sometimes it is cheaper in record shops and fairs.
But what Chris didn’t have was about a dozen other albums that I had found whilst searching in record shops and fairs for those Aretha Franklin albums. I had an Otis Redding collection called “Remembering” on the 99 budget label found at the same time as the Aretha collection. I had a “Muddy Waters Folk Singer” album on Chess that I bought for £10 at Spitalfields the same day as the Fillmore album. I had a Kinks album, and a B.B. King “Completely Well” LP from the early seventies which is great.
I had been recommended an excellent album by Gloria Lynne by Paul at Carmel Records. He’d also found a collection called “Soul From The City vol 1”, a lovely black label “This Is Chess” compilation with tracks by Maurice and Mack, Sugar Pie Desanto and Koko Taylor which I heard playing through the oversized speakers in his tiny shop one day, and a “This Is Loma Volume 6” compilation of soul artists, none of whom I knew, on Warner Brothers’ soul label Loma.
Buying online might be better for finding records you know you want…
…but if this exercise showed me anything it is that buying at record shops and fairs is much better for discovering music you never knew existed…
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