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Obscure Records & The Collectibility Factor

I have noticed a kind of fascinating phenomenon going on among record collectors and in the back of my head it has raised some questions worth exploring and speculating on…

(spoiler alert: there is no single cause nor a right or wrong answer!).

We all have our own favorite musics, I get that. And there are no doubt certain “classics” which have attained a certain stature where they will likely always find a new audience. There are moments when an obscure or forgotten recording suddenly — seemingly, out of nowhere — becomes the flavor du jour…  that “gotta have it” release… the Record Day Special edition people scramble for.… And in some cases, a resurgent #1 hit! 

Tastes change and music is a journey, I get all that. It is one of the reasons I have been such a music geek my entire life! 

But, when I see newbie collectors snapping up certain obscurities while overlooking important basic building blocks of pop, rock, blues and jazz, I often take a moment to pause. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve overheard wonky conversations between young collectors while digging through the racks at Amoeba Music. I’ve periodically even offered to help confused looking young collectors in stores — and even at flea market crate digging expeditions — on choices to make… 

I relish the joy of exploring new sounds, so I would never be one to discourage anyone for trying music they are interested in. Thinking about all this over time, the notion of desire came to mind, acknowledging the passion spikes and the influencers driving them. These movements can ultimately push up prices of certain records dramatically. Meanwhile, there are other albums with equally stellar casts and performances which many sadly overlook.

And while its related, I’m not talking here about the whole Tik-Tok phenomenon. That is a separate thing unto itself, whereby a snippet of music blows up and a whole new generation is suddenly turned onto this music. For an easy example, you might remember the Fleetwood Mac tune used several years ago by the cranberry juice-drinking skateboarder guy on his way to work which became an international viral hit.  And because of that 30 second clip, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Dreams” re-entered the charts (don’t believe me? click here to read NPR’s report on it). Not surprisingly, vinyl pressings — originals and reissues — which were already escalating in price due, went up further (at least from what I’ve seen out in the wilds). 

Back to the original discussion however, I’m talking here about the drivers behind reissues of obscure soul-jazz, folk, psychedelia, hard rock and proto-metal. So its the notion of a hot reissue of a once longtime discontinued album — such as the RSD reissue of Dust some years back — while hugely popular and influential albums by the likes of Mountain, The James Gang and Savoy Brown are overlooked. It is those conversations I’ve had with several different metal heads who are deeply and seriously into Billy Joel’s pre-fame attempt at hard psychedelic rock as the heavy duo named Attilla

As great as Nick Drake is, if it wasn’t for an internet ad, would as many people know about him these days? According to the Wiki:  “In 1999, “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial, boosting Drake’s US album sales from about 6,000 copies in 1999 to 74,000 in 2000.”  

And if these 74,000 then new fans liked Nick’s music, did they then seek out his contemporaries like Sandy Denny and The Strawbs as well as Fairport Convention?  Have they listened to or even heard of Duncan Browne?  And for those hep to Sandy’s music, have they heard Judy Collins who was the first to record Sandy’s classic tune “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?”  (note: Judy’s fantastic 1968 album of the same name is commonly available in bargain bins and thrift shops everywhere, featuring a stellar backing band and gorgeous production — highly highly recommended!).  

While I’ve been encouraged to see people rediscovering folk-leaning artists like Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot and James Taylor — probably as part of the whole “yacht rock” trend — but I wonder if they even know who Richie Havens, Peter Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs and Melanie were? Carole King seems to be getting popular again — and a new generation is exploring Joni Mitchell’s music, which is great!  But have they even heard of Laura Nyro?

Here are some probably incomplete loose pieces of the puzzle as to why this kind of thing occurs:

Scarcity — This is the most obvious reason certain albums are expensive and sometimes collectible, but it is worth formally stating for those new to the universe of collecting vinyl records. Some records were produced in such small quantities back in the day that they have been desirable and in demand for a long time, especially if they didn’t sell particularly well (that is part of why they are rare!). Also because of the limitations of playback equipment back in The 1950s and 60s many of the surviving copies that exist are not in great condition, so when a very clean — or even simply decent — version shows up it is highly desired and sought after.  

Status —  Certain artists have gained such legendary stature over the years that generations of collectors continue to seek them out: Led Zeppelin, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Coltrane, Brubeck… I get it. However, I have noticed many jumping on old obscurities before they even explore the basic backbones of the music universe, so they are listening — effectively — without context.  This is a two-edged sword. I mean, all music is good so I’m glad they are exploring! But, I suspect people might appreciate what they are hearing more fully if they had some reference points…  hold on to that thought a bit…

Certain cultural tastemakers may be helping to spur this on such as a noted DJ spinning and sampling the track. It is curious how some of artists languished, relatively obscure for decades, but then sudden everyone seems to be more interested them than much bigger and important names. 

I’m not dismissing their talents by any stretch of the imagination, but I do find it fascinating to see really young collectors snapping up groovy — and sometimes costly — reissues by relatively obscure artists like Tina Brooks or Andrew Hill. I am guessing here but I suspect they are doing this before they have heard core influential releases by Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans and Duke Ellington as well as deeper albums by Miles Davis and Coltrane apart from their biggest hits (ie. Kind Of Blue, Giant Steps, Love Supreme). I could go on, but I think you get where I’m going on this… 

Certain styles of jazz, particularly soul- and groove-leaning artists have gained stature as essential DJ spins (again, resulting in new reissues and such). So, a newer collector might be interested in seeking out some obscure groove that was sampled by a DJ before they even listen to important and influential sounds that helped shape that track.   

Which leads to…

Samples — Nothing particularly new here but its worth bringing up how in these days of DJs and remixes there is a deep subculture of remixers who are constantly looking for a killer groove and a monster drum break to sample and re-purpose in some new hit-to-be. 

If you visit the brilliant website called “WhoSampled” (.com) you can backwards engineer (if you will) the DNA of some of these more dance oriented recordings to locate the source of the grooves. I did a little bit of quick sleuthing and found some interesting examples. If you are interested, in the following list, click on the artist names to go to the WhoSampled page on where their grooves and beats appear in remixes: Bobby Hutcherson, Lee Morgan, Charles Earland, Idris Muhammad, Ramsey Lewis, Azar Lawrence and Sun Ra. There are many others, but you get the idea. These elements are connected and those fancy reissues of once obscure albums which never gained much traction upon their original release are likely happening for a reason… 

Streaming — Love it or hate it, the streaming world no doubt has its influence on music discovery.  Whether it is a pre-programmed playlist from Spotify or Apple Music or a podcast, streaming is effectively an extension of the underlying original concept of broadcast radio. Where it gets interesting is how streaming is international — with playlists sometimes more diverse and varied than most commercial radio stations — there is actually more opportunity to discover once obscure and forgotten music than ever before. This is a good thing. 

Heck, one of my favorite artists, Kate Bush, has recently experienced a burst of international success after her 1985 hit song “Running Up That Hill” appeared in an episode of the popular Netflix streaming media series Stranger Things. Again, according to the Wiki, “It became the most streamed song on Spotify in the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and globally…. On 17 June, the song reached number one in the UK, making it Bush’s second UK number one.”

Shiny & Sparkly — I have written about the notion of “newness” (if you will) a little bit in the past (click here and here), a curious phenomenon I’ve heard about from numerous record store owners and dealer types. And it is one that has benefited me actually in someways. It seems that young collectors just getting into vinyl in the last 10 years or so will only buy used albums if they are pristine. They would rather buy a new reissue if pushed on making a choice, even if it was not going to sound as good or had compromised cover art. It stands to reason in some ways as most of these folks were raised in the digital audio era (CDs and streams), a time when music was presented in a seemingly pristine manner with hypothetically no scratches or surface noise.  

And while these new collectors do understand the improvement in sound by switching over to vinyl from the crummy MP3s they were consuming in mass quantities, they don’t seem to understand the whole notion that a used album can be imperfect and that it is not a bad thing necessarily.

Now the notion of condition has always impacted the value of a record but in recent years it’s gotten quite extreme to the point where I find it quite laughable, discovering perfectly wonderful and quite rare records showing up in bargain bins simply because of a relatively minor imperfection of some sort (some of you reading this may have seen my periodic “bargain bin therapy” social media posts on this topic).  I’m not complaining about this — and this is really more of a heads up to collectors who may be on a budget to keep their eyes open! — but it is yet another curious piece to this puzzle-of-a-sort I’m discussing here… 

Case in point: a year or so back I was at a flea market, waiting for my turn at a crate of albums from a vendor. There were two other collectors in front of me and at least one aggressive eBay flipper dude who was first in line and who grabbed most of the low hanging — mostly Blue Note — fruit. By the time I got to the box “all” that was left for me was a pretty lovely copy of Charles Mingus’ 1959 classic LP Ah Um on the original six eye stereo Columbia Records label.  I got it for five dollars. 

Yes the cover had a little stain on it which cleaned off very easily and I had to wash the album the album (something I do sometimes even with new releases), but it plays beautifully. And, yes, it has a little visual scuff on it that doesn’t impact the sound. In this kind of playable condition it’s easily a $100 album if I wanted to “flip” it (but I don’t as it is a prized record in my collection now!). Yet, consider how two collectors and an aggressive dealer before me overlooked this album because it wasn’t a Blue Note or it wasn’t “perfect.” Or perhaps they just didn’t know what they were doing! Either way, I walked away excited and happy!

Again, it is a curious thing, all this… I think. 

Anyhow, this topic has been brewing in the back of my mind for some time so I figured I’d put it all down inall its rambling sprawling — and perhaps not as focused as it might be — glory, to share with you, Dear Readers, as food for thought.

Hoping you find all the albums of your dreams while you are out in the wilds looking for lost treasures. Happy hunting!

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