Sound Advice: When are record flaws not really flaws?

By  Tim Neely

Question: As a huge collector/dealer of 45s, through the years, I’ve noticed on some copies what resembles a hairline crack in the vinyl.

I’ve opened cases of the same record and found the same thing in the same place on each one. I know these are factory flaws and do not affect play. I’ve flexed them at the flaw line to the near breaking point and sometimes past, but they never break at the flaw. Also, the flaws match up to each other on both sides.

I’ve found the flaw in mainly Columbia labels of the 1970s, although I’ve found them on other labels, too. It presents a problem to the buyer and myself, as I have to go into explaining that it’s not a crack before selling the record. What would cause this? I’m guessing the mark is on the master press plates. How does this get by the inspectors? Have you guys out there noticed this?

— Doug, via e-mail

Answer: As one who has lots of 45s from the 1970s and into the 1980s, I know exactly what you mean.

I saw this when I bought records new in the stores back then, and I was often concerned. But these flaws are merely cosmetic; they cause no audible ticks when the records are played.

First, I commend you for being a conscientious seller trying to explain these visual imperfections to your buyers. There are people who might not do so, or might not even notice them, especially when they are selling a lot of old store stock.

Basically, the reason you see these flaws in Columbia 45s and not in other labels is because of how the vast majority of the label’s singles were manufactured.

Beginning around 1951 and continuing until 1991, almost all of the 45s issued by Columbia and other associated labels were made of polystyrene, or “styrene” for short, rather than the polyvinyl chloride, or “vinyl,” used by other labels. Columbia wasn’t the only label to use styrene for 45s; several significant independent pressing plants also used styrene most of the time, including the two big ones in Los Angeles, Monarch and Allied. Also, those infamous records from the Amy/Mala/Bell family, as well as scattered releases on other labels such as Disneyland, that had their “labels” printed directly onto the wax were pressed on styrene.

The easiest way to tell a styrene from a vinyl record, if you aren’t sure otherwise, is to look at the label area. Generally speaking, a styrene 45 has a raised label; it looks as if you could remove the label if you stuck something (a fingernail, a knife) under it. Labels on vinyl records are flush with the wax.

Styrene records get a bad rap because they don’t tend to stand up to abuse as well as vinyl discs. That said, in near-mint condition, there is no audible difference between a vinyl and a styrene 45.

So why do these “lines,” which look like cracks or scratches but aren’t, form? It’s probably because of the cooling process. Styrene needs to be at a higher temperature than vinyl when the records are pressed. When it cools after manufacture, it shrinks. And because it’s less pliable than vinyl, sometimes these “cracks” form in the records.

As Doug noted, these are inaudible and have no effect on the record’s playback quality. But they sure do look ominous.

Why do they start showing up in the 1970s and rarely before that? I have a theory, but that’s all it is. If you’ve ever handled Columbia-related 45s starting in the mid-1970s, you’ll notice that the styrene is different than it was earlier, especially if you hold the record to a light. Though they appear to be black, these styrene records are actually a very dark, translucent red. Perhaps this different formulation is more susceptible to these visible flaws than the pure black stuff of earlier years.
Why do they get through quality control? Because, most of the time, getting the records made quickly and cheaply is of greater concern than of making sure every one of them is perfect.

Finally, should they play a role in how much a collector pays for one of them? That depends on the collector. Is he or she looking for a record that, first and foremost, plays well, or one that looks perfect? If it’s the former, it should make no difference.

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