Don’t let us put you off, but vinyl isn’t the easiest thing in the world to collect. Not if you want to listen to it, anyway, rather than just littering the dozens of vinyl collection hashtags on Instagram.
It’s generally quite expensive, takes up a fair bit of room, needs constant care and attention, degrades a little with every play and requires a fair bit of technology to get it spinning.
But the pay-off can be immense. We’re all pretty much agreed now that streaming and downloads, while up to exceptional sonic standards, have left a gap for many who want to hold their music. Even cassette tapes are experiencing a renaissance of sorts, but there’s nothing better than the black disc to provide the album as an experience.
Then there’s the hours you can pass crate digging, in the vain hope you will be the next to bag a flea-market bargain or pick a future cult classic purely from the bizarre appearance of its cover.
And, while we stop short of celebrating the hiss and crackles of an unclean record, many will tell you that vinyl – with its purely analogue signal chain and lack of compression – when treated right, simply sounds better.
But then you’re probably already sold on vinyl’s virtues – that’s why you’re here – so let us impart on you a little of our wisdom from decades of collecting and listening. Just be warned: it could take over your life.
Start with your turntable
Boring, we know, but if you don’t start with a good source component then not only will your records sound awful, they’re also liable to become damaged. You don’t have to spend loads of money to get something safe – take a look at our best buy page for cheap record players, for example – but some of those briefcase-style decks you see in lifestyle ads can dig up more than the music from your vinyl’s grooves.
If there’s one number you focus on when buying or setting up a turntable, it should be the tracking weight of the cartridge. This is easy to find on any spec sheet, and should usually be between 1.5g and 2.5g – maybe a bit either side. We have seen some going up to double figures, though, which is the equivalent of giving a toddler a sewing needle and letting it go to town on your record – not ideal if you’re about to spend hundreds on a collection.
Other than that, though, the turntable market is now so diverse that there is barely a situation left it cannot accommodate. So don’t be put off by the photos you see of stacks of components and big dusty stereo speakers; if all you want is to turn your Sonos system into a vinyl-playing smart machine then you can do so and still get great sound.
Take a look at our articles on how to choose the right record player and how to add a turntable to your existing music system for more in-depth guidance.
Like any music collection, your vinyl haul will grow over time, but it can be nice to have more than a couple of records to begin with. Having a big box of miscellaneous records can also give you an immediate taste of the joy that comes from crate digging and musical discovery.
If you’ve ever had to share the aux cable at a party or on a long car journey, you’ll know not everyone shares your taste in music. That’s why family and friends can be a good place to start.
No matter how prized someone’s collection, there will probably be a few things they’ve gone off or played to death; much better to offer them a few quid now than they have to list everything for sale separately. After all, that’s how Grandmaster Flash told us his collection started.
Otherwise you’re looking everywhere you might think of when you have something to flog for yourself: charity shops, auctions, car boots and yard sales and websites such as eBay, Gumtree and Etsy. Some record shops and labels also offer bundles of overstock, so if you’re particularly into a certain genre it’s worth seeing what deals they have on their sites.
Just be prepared for disappointment if you’re hoping to find something valuable in there to retire on. Gone are the days when people didn’t check a box of records before donating them; the vinyl revival has made everyone savvy to what might be worth a buck.
But that isn’t to say you won’t find some unexpected gems of the musical kind. And that, as far as we’re concerned, is far more valuable.
Buying second hand
Vinyl can be a little like cars, in that you only realise how little you actually know when it comes to buying second hand. While it’d be unfair to assume everyone is out there to rip you off, it is easy to get less than you expected when finally you place a record on the platter.
We’ve put together a list of 10 tips for buying second-hand vinyl, which will arm you with everything you need except experience, but a lot of work can be avoided if you ask to play the record before you buy it.
That of course only works if you’re in a record shop, though, so there’s lots more in there to help with charity shop and internet purchases as well. On that note, Discogs is always a great resource for new and old vinyl alike, as eBay can be too.
Vinyl Factory, an essential bookmark for any record enthusiast, has also put together this useful list of other online record shops for second-hand vinyl.
Buying vinyl brand new is not without its pitfalls as well, though certainly there are fewer. One such being that with pressing plants being so overworked, not every press of a record is sonically adequate. It’s worth reading reviews of the vinyl press in particular, just to make sure its quality matches that of the music.
You’ll also get conflicting reports on whether aspects such as weight matter much to a record press and how it sounds. You can feel like you’re getting more for your money – and as we’ve said, touch is a huge part of what makes vinyl so special – but there are plenty of great-sounding discs not much thicker than a sheet of A4. We would, however, urge you to check out half-speed masters as something that can make an audible difference.
Otherwise, our main guidance on buying records new in person would be to visit your local record shop. A good shop can be as useful as any radio station in introducing you to new music, so strike up a conversation with the people who work there and ask for a few recommendations. Just don’t then go straight to Amazon to see if you can buy a record 50p cheaper; you’re getting more than just a black disc when you buy local.
You can also support artists directly by buying from their websites, at gigs or from sites such as Bandcamp. Over the course of the pandemic, Bandcamp has waived all of its fees on the first Friday of each month – sending more money directly to the artist – and it is planning to continue until at least May 2021.
If you’re still stuck for inspiration, however, we have plenty of lists that can help you find what you’re looking for. We’ve covered loads of topics, from the best albums of the 1990s to the ambient records that’ll help you get to sleep. We’ve posted a few more at the bottom of this article for you to dig into, too.
Looking after your records
Sorry to be the bearers of bad news once more, but vinyl is not like CD when it comes to storing and looking after your collection. You can’t leave them strewn around your speakers, or simply wipe them with a sponge if they get mucky; not if you want them to keep sounding good, anyway.
Keeping them upright and away from radiators or other heat sources will help keep your records from warping – think about how they’re kept at a record shop – and it’s well worth investing in some protective inner sleeves, especially if your vinyl is currently sitting bare against the cardboard.
You’ll hear all sorts of stories about how to and how not to clean your records, but at very least you should invest in some anti-static cleaning brushes. If you want to do a really good job, companies such as Pro-Ject make great vinyl cleaning machines (above) – we’ve used them on our own collections – that will get your discs looking and sounding as close to new as can be.
It’s well worth consulting our page rounding up the best vinyl accessories when it comes to caring for your collection. It might be annoying to keep up such housekeeping, but having invested in your records it would be silly not to treat them with respect.
We’re pretty sure though that soon enough even cleaning will become a pleasant part of this merry dance that is record collecting. Just don’t lose sight of the reason you started the collection in the first place: the music is what matters.