Tips for Attending Your First Record Show
Friendly advice for better experiences while adding titles to your collection at record shows.
Thanks for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. This week, I’ve just got the newsletter for you. No podcast. No video interview. I’m nearing the end of a busy period of transition for one of my other endeavors, but I have started scheduling more interviews and will be talking with more people who make great music very soon.
This past weekend I attended the Orlando Record and CD Show — a regular ritual I’ve been enjoying for the past couple of years. I find record shows to be a great way to fill in gaps in my collections (both records and CDs) and to find a lot of really nice bargains. They can be a bit overwhelming to someone who has never been to one, so I thought I’d share some of the kinds of tips that no one ever gave me when I started attending them.
I highly recommend the experience of a record show, even if it’s just for people watching. I was flipping through the bins of one table the other day when I witnessed the joy of a girl who must have been somewhere between 18 and 23 years old as she found a good deal on a used copy of Led Zeppelin IV. It was amazing to see her making the discovery, chatting with the vendor about it, and gleefully handing over her money to claim her new treasure — a classic rock record more than twice her age.
OK, let’s get into this week’s story.
Record shows are a good way to build your collection by finding good deals or filling in holes in an artist’s catalog with those hard-to-find titles. They can also provide the means to get a cheap introduction to a band you’ve been meaning to check out.
A first record show experience can be intimidating, but there’s no need for anxiety. Record shows are fun, and it’s easier just to think of them as a specific kind of flea market or garage sale. Even seasoned veterans can find them a bit overwhelming, with all of that audio goodness spread across a big area just calling your name.
Once you’ve been to a few of them in your area, you’ll start to notice familiar faces behind some of the tables and remember which ones tend to give you good deals, as well as the others, who price their vinyl too high or who rate their records a bit more leniently than you would. That can save you time at future shows, so it’s good to try to go regularly to the shows in your area when starting out.
If you’re a relative newbie to record shows or if you’ve never been to one before, it’s good to go in with a plan. Although some spontaneity can make for a fun and unpredictable day, there are some things you can think about ahead of time that can make the experience better.
Here are some of my recommendations.
Set Your Budget in Advance, Stick To It
It’s easy to get carried away in a room full of records you’d love to add to your collection. You can even lose track of how much you’ve spent while on site if you’re not careful. A good plan is to consider how much you can spend on records that day and what your absolute maximum should be. After all, if you blow past your max budget, it can have a domino effect. If you’re still paying down your credit card when the next show rolls around, that’s not good. Or maybe Record Store Day is coming up and you will have to sacrifice a few titles on your wish list. If you go hard enough at the show, it could even bleed into your essential expenses and that’s not something anyone wants or needs. Stick to your budget and track your spending as you go. When you’ve reached your limit, leave the show. You really don’t want to see the deals you could have gotten or the finds you would have made if the buget was bigger. Just save yourself from that and walk out with your new records.
Bring a (Short) List
When I attend each record show, I like to keep a handful of titles in mind that I specifically want to find that day. I do the same thing when I walk into a record store. These are my top wish-list items — my must-haves. I try to keep this list manageable, numbering somewhere between five and 10 records, and I look them up on Discogs to see what their reasonable market value is for various pressings so I don’t get gouged on price. There’s no sense paying $80 for a record you can get on Discogs for $25 plus shipping (domestic shipping, anyway).
The records on my shortlist will be my priority when searching through the bins at the show. That doesn’t even mean I’ll end up with any of them. Some may be out of my price range, not be available in good enough shape to pass my minimum quality requirement, or just hard to find. Nevertheless, these are going to be specific records I’m going after. I can typically find at least one or two of my wish list items at a show, but I’ve walked out without any and I’ve also had days when I’ve found almost all of them and made those purchases.
On a side note, it’s also important to bring a list of what you actually already have in your collection. In the heat of the moment, you might not remember you already own that album in your hands that has you so excited. It’s great to upgrade a copy of an album if the one you have isn’t in mint condition (and that replacement might even be on your wish list), but if you’ve already got a great pressing of a record, it’s not much fun to learn you’ve spent part of your record show budget on something already in your collection.
Set Realistic Expectations
Most of us who attend record shows are not going to walk out the door with everything we want. There are thousands of records at these shows and unless you’re a millionaire, chances are you’ll have to choose one album over another at some point when you reach the end of your budget. Knowing this is important. It’s better to remember that you’re going home with a bunch of records you just got than to think of the one or two you couldn’t afford to add — even if those items were on your wish list.
Anxiety can set in early when you’re debating whether or not you want to pay the price listed for an item you want. It can pressure you into making a purchase you’re not comfortable with. For example, at the last show I attended, I debated whether or not to make a purchase of a particular album at the first table I visited or to move on and find a cheaper copy later. I found the same title for $10 less and in the same, or better, condition later in the show, so it worked out better for me that I moved on. That doesn’t always happen, but it often does.
It may seem worthwhile to spend a few extra dollars just to avoid having to remember where you saw a particular album, but there’s no need to commit it to memory. Take notes either with your phone or the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, and you can easily find those records again if you feel comfortable passing them up the first time (assuming no one else buys them).
Unless it’s rare, there will probably be another copy of the record somewhere at the show for a similar price, if not cheaper, as it was for me recently. In the end, go with your gut. There’s probably a reason you’re not comfortable with the purchase. Maybe the price is higher than you think is reasonable. Maybe it’s a band you like, as opposed to one you love. Perhaps the sleeve or the record isn’t in as good of condition as you’d like. Whatever the reason, go with your instincts and leave it. If it’s not still in that bin at the end of the day, you can probably find it another time. It probably wasn’t on your must-have list if you’re feeling this way.
On the flip side, if you buy an album when you first come across it, and you later find it for less money, even if it’s in better shape, don’t get upset. It’s part of the deal. You ensured you got that record when you bought it. That’s worth something. Would it have been nicer to have saved five bucks on that album? Sure, because it might have gotten you another title from some vendor’s bargain bin. But that $5 bought you peace of mind, because you know you got it rather than having to hope you’d find it later. But before you give up, you might consider seeing if the vendor who sold you your copy will let you trade it for another record at the same price. If so, you can pick up both the cheaper copy of the album you’d bought and whatever you trade the first one back in for. Most times, vendors’ policies are that all sales are final, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. You never know.
That logically brings me to the next tip.
Talk to the Vendors
Most vendors I’ve come across at record shows are friendly, chatty folks. You may need to speak first, which can be an issue for introverts, but you’ll almost always be glad you did. Most of these folks will be super nice to you (they’re trying to sell you stuff, after all). And on the off-chance that they’re not, do you want to give your hard-earned money to a jerk? Find out if the vendor is selling their own collection or has a shop somewhere. If the latter, find out if they have a return policy in case something doesn’t play the way you hoped. Ask them how they choose the records they bring to the show, where they get their stock, how they rate their merchandise (if they mark the album’s condition), whether the albums they brought were cleaned (and, if so, how). Check with them to see if they playtest every album they sell (some small stores do!).
Ask if they’re willing to give discounts if you buy multiple records — many are willing to do that but not unless you ask. Find out what kind of music they like and/or specialize in, which might be a clue as to whether you’re likely to successfully find music you like in their bins. Be sure to ask what payment methods they accept. Many vendors are cash only, which can be surprising in today’s digital world. If they do want cash but you don’t have any, ask if they’ve got an app like Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, Zelle, etc. These function almost the same as directly paying with cash, because those transactions are directly tied to their bank accounts and your purchase won’t go through if you don’t have the money in your account. Most of them will be willing to hold the records you want for a reasonable amount of time while you visit the ATM if you must pay cash. And, finally, if the vendor doesn’t have what you’re looking for, if you tell them what that is, they may either know which vendors at the show might have it, or they might have it back at their store, and you can work out a deal to pick it up or have it shipped.
Let the Music Choose You Sometimes
While this flies a little bit in the face of having a plan and bringing a wish list, stay open to new discoveries. Record shows are a lot like the record store experience. Maybe you’ll come across a band you’ve been meaning to check out but never got around to it. Maybe you’ll find yourself intrigued by the cover art of a record. Perhaps there’s a classic album you’ve never owned and you find one in great shape for a good price. Again, trust your gut. That’s part of the fun. This isn’t 100% foolproof. You may buy a clunker. But you still had a good time with the buying experience, and you got to feel that excitement and anticipation.
Buying something you’ve never heard before is exciting. That’s the joy of discovery. I picked up a pair of Linda Ronstadt records at a record show and I love them both. I’d previously only heard a couple of her hits from those records, but most of those songs were complete mysteries to me, and I couldn’t be happier with the decision.
Bargain Bins are Your Friend
Find out if a vendor has some less expensive bins where they’ve stashed a bunch of albums that are going for $5 or less (they usually have a sign but you can always ask). Then, take a chance! Maybe there’s an artist in there from whom you’ve only heard one hit song that you liked (and it might not even be on that bargain album). Pick up a cheap copy of something you always wanted to check out. Buy something that looks cool. It’s like being at a casino. You invest little but you might hit the jackpot. At worst, let’s say the record skips or is noisy. You’re still getting the chance to hear it and see if you like the music. You can always upgrade your copy later if you find that the music is good, but the vinyl isn’t. You could also find a bunch of great stuff for little money and in great shape. I’ve found some of my favorite albums in $5 bins and they play perfectly. Sometimes these are just records that the vendor has too many of and is trying to unload a copy or two, so they’re priced low.
That said, always inspect them to make sure there isn’t something obviously wrong, like a huge gouge or a scratch that seems likely to affect playback. The lower the price, the more likely it is that it won’t be in awesome shape, but there’s also less risk involved, financially.
Expect Something to Go Wrong
This dovetails with setting realistic expectations, but it bears its own section. Something you buy will inevitably let you down most of the time you attend record shows. You might get lucky and buy nothing but clean, quiet vinyl with no skips and no hidden surprises, but that’s uncommon. Record shows primarily deal in used records. As with any used item, there can be issues. You might buy 15 records and four of them might skip. Or one. Or three. Or none. It’s part of the experience. There are ways to reduce the chances of a clunker. Be nice and ask the dealer if you can inspect the record visually. I’ve never had one say no, but if I ever did, I’d assume they were hiding something and would not buy from them. A visual inspection will generally tell you what kind of shape the record is in and whether it’s been cleaned, but it can’t tell you the entire story. If you get one that turns out to have problems, you can give it away to someone you know or to a charitable store like Goodwill.
Be Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With
When leaving the show with your purchases, don’t waste your time agonizing over the three rare albums you really wanted but couldn’t afford. Think of all the hours of great listening that are in your future and the experience you just had discovering the records you ended up buying.
These are just some of the tips off the top of my head. I’m by no means the most experienced record show attendee. But I went to my first two shows by myself and had no idea what I was doing. Having some of the advice above would no doubt have helped alleviate some of my anxiety, saved me some money, and improved my experiences.
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