Can the record fair survive in the age of downloads? A new generation of buyers and sellers is dealing in ultra-rare collectables
It is a Saturday afternoon in west London, and five pounds has purchased entry into the Olympia record fair. The untrained eye sees perhaps as many as 200 stalls, each groaning under the weight of an awful lot of old vinyl and CDs, and in front of which gather men (and they are mostly men) in winter coats on the prowl for a stone-cold, ultra-rare collectable. When they fail in locating one – and they mostly do, stone-cold, ultra-rare collectables being hard to come by – they invariably settle for an obscure bargain in the hope that one day it too shall attain collectable status.
The atmosphere here is palpably different to the kind you'd find in HMV. Where HMV's vacuumed aisles thrum with relaxed browsers, this dusty hall is alive with antennas twitching, a blokey community, certainly, but a competitive one, too, each hoping to outfox the other, with every stallholder not just grateful, but desperate, for the custom.
Their touching patronage aside, the record fair is nevertheless a shadow of its former self this far into the 21st century. One stallholder tells me of the golden age of the 1980s, "when queues snaked around the block to get in". Today, there is no queue, and that's because we live in curiously emancipated times: why pay for music when we can either stream it or download it onto our computers for free?
"This isn't the death of record fairs," insists another trader, Mark Foster, "it's just that it's changed somewhat. We deal with a different customer base now, and collecting has become more marginalised, more specialist. But there will always be people out there wanting to collect music, and always collectors wanting to sell."
Foster has been a weekend trader at such events for over 20 years now. In the 1990s, the bulk of his trade was promo CDs purchased from perpetually cash-strapped music journalists, which the trader would then sell on at the kind of discounted prices the likes of Virgin and Our Price never could compete with.
"But everything is massively discounted now, especially online, and so we've had to adapt accordingly," Foster sighs. "I sell more vinyl now than I do CDs." It is with a smile of relief that he adds, "Vinyl's cool again."
Record fairs are the new antique fairs. That's what every stallholder here at Olympia, and those up and down the country, will tell you. They may deal to an increasingly marginalised clientele, and they may not benefit from a Sunday teatime-slot show on the BBC, but they are populated by increasingly anachronistic diehards who still want to own music in a physical format. Record Collector is their monthly magazine of choice, and its Rare Record Price Guide editor Ian Shirley, a man who spends his life writing about and visiting them (he has just returned from one in Utrecht), suggests it would be wrong to sound their death knell just yet.
"They continue to thrive because they exist primarily for the specialist," he says, "those who want old reggae, old ska, obscure Sixties psychedelia. And, of course, there will always be collectable bands, like Hawkwind, Led Zeppelin, U2, Nirvana and White Stripes."
And even as the nation returns into the grip of recession, a collector will continue to fork out as much money as necessary to feed their habit. They have surprisingly deep pockets. While there will always be Fab Four fanatics happy to part with several thousand pounds for a particular deleted edition of "Please Please Me", collectors perpetually crave all manner of mint-condition rarities. For example, a 1978 four-track Joy Division EP called An Ideal for Living can go for £1,000, while an original 1977 edition of Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", complete with promotional cardboard box, last month fetched £11,100 – not at a fair, but online.
The internet has in many ways changed the face of fairs. Where once traders would proudly display their most prized items out front, they are now more likely to sell to the highest bidder on eBay instead. They nevertheless remain a fertile ground for bargains, and Ian Shirley insists that their appeal is actually broadening.
"OK, so the average customer is still male and in his forties, but a whole new generation is coming through the doors. Take the indie band The Horrors. They are rabid collectors and go to fairs all the time hunting out old psychedelic rock on vinyl." They clearly found it, too: their most recent album, Skying, was directly influenced by music they found at them.
David Hepworth, editorial director at The Word magazine, more accumulator of records than collector, says that he finds himself sharing his own recently revived passion for vinyl with people 40 years his junior.
"The kids of several friends of mine have been getting into old vinyl specifically because they aren't making it anymore. But then," he argues, "vinyl always did have a fetishistic appeal that CDs never quite managed. If a band like Blur put out a record on seven inch now [as they did last year, entitled 'Fool's Day', limited to 1,000 copies], it's 20 quid automatically."
And its price will spiral immediately thereafter, a fact that greatly pleases Mark Foster.
"As traders, we spend most of our time at car boot sales and second-hand shops, or buying private collections, always on the lookout for that next rarity." A recent acquisition is Dirk Bogarde's 1960 album, For Lyric Lovers, accompanied by the Eric Rogers Orchestra. "Could get as much as 15 quid for that," he says, acknowledging that he doesn't always make quite as much profit as he'd like. "But it's the passion that drives us."
And so the antiquated record fair, down but not quite out, will likely cling on for dear life a little longer yet.
"First and foremost, they are social events, a chance to meet fellow collectors and obsessives," says Ian Shirley. "You don't get that online, not properly, and so I don't think fairs will ever fully die out. I certainly hope they won't. Too many things die out these days."
For more information on record fairs nationwide, visit vip-24.com
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