Money up your sleeves

Alternative investments: most vinyl is now worthless, but scarce items can fetch thousands

THOSE embarrassing record purchases of the 1980s, the Wham and Dire Straits singles and albums that are no longer played, can be consigned to the dustbin. They are as good as worthless - no one else wants them and there were too many pressed and sold.

"Speaking as someone who has been in the trade for 15 years, I can tell you that very few records have any value now," says Mark Hayward, proprietor of Vinyl Experience, an upmarket second-hand record shop just off London's Oxford Street. "Singles are dead - they went the same way as 78s. Dire Straits can go to the trash can, and so can any middle-of-the-road-vinyl."

Compact discs are the killers. Mr Hayward says that the bottom has dropped out of the second-hand record market over the last two years - so fast that this year's definitive guide to old records, the Rare Record Price guide (edited by John Reed, published by Record Collector), is already out of date. Records that were listed as selling for pounds 2 to pounds 5 may now sell for a few pence. Adrian Neervoort, the manager of England's largest second-hand record shop, Beano's Records in Croydon, which has records from 10p to pounds 10,000 in stock, makes a similar point. But he stresses that the right records will attract an ever-increasing price: "The rarities are getting more valuable, and the more common records are getting more difficult to sell." In other words, while rare records represent a strong collectors' market, the ordinary music listener is now a convert to CDs.

Mr Neervoort says: "A lot of material I sell is going abroad. It is under- appreciated by the British public. It goes to Japan, Scandinavia, America. People not born when the Beatles came out want the original item. I used to see a lot of these [in-demand] records, week in, week out. Now I don't see them more than once a year. Some records are becoming a dramatically good investment."

As with any collected item there are three elements to a record's value - condition, quantity and demand. There are some records that are in great demand, classics such as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. To sell for a decent price, they must be in mint condition, hardly played, with sleeve as new, and all the inserts, such as photos, posters and lyric sheets, still in place. And it is the early records of each artist, few copies pressed before they became famous, that attract the real money.

Good condition Beatles albums always sell:

q Let It Be boxed set, with book, in excellent condition, would sell for pounds 150 a couple of years ago but now attracts pounds 400.

q Please Please Me LP, stereo version on the black-and-gold design on the Parlophone label, can sell for pounds 1,300, but the slightly later black- and-yellow label may go for just pounds 50.

Details like these about label design matter because most record collectors are "anoraks" - people who spot and buy the unusual. Slight variations may not sound important but they represent all the difference between selling a record for a small fortune, and having to give it away. They must be first pressings, not later copies - a distinction that is only obvious to the real expert.

Collectors specialise, not necessarily on artists, but on types of music, or on record labels. Motown and other black recording labels have retained their value against the market trend. More recent records may also sell well. The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen single on A&M label is in demand (not the reprint on the Virgin label, which is almost worthless) and Beano's has just turned down an offer of pounds 2,000 for a copy.

But the large money goes on more original material - while records sold for hundreds of pounds at Sotheby's auction last month, a Paul McCartney handwritten lyrics sheet for Getting Better sold for pounds 161,000.

Bonham's annual Rare Re- cord Auction takes place on 2 December at the Wembley Arena, and while there are many rock, soul, jazz, country and cajun record collections with guide prices in the thousands, it is the demo tapes, acetates (the raw recording before it is pressed) and the test recordings that the serious collectors want.

Records with signed covers are another big-ticket item, though authentication of handwriting is always a problem. So many pop stars spent the 1970s in a drugged state that even they might be hard-pressed to recognise their own scribbles.

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