Collecting 101: Grading Your Records - Goldmine Magazine: Record Collector & Music Memorabilia

Collecting 101: Grading Your Records

Nothing is more important in determining the value of your records than their condition! However, I've found that most people with collections or accumulations have an inflated sense of the condition of their discs. So, what's the scoop behind the ratings and prices?
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By Tim Neely

Nothing is more important in determining the value of your records than their condition! Yes, their relative rarity and demand is important, but a collector or dealer will pay much more for a record inNear Mint (NM) condition than on in Very Good Minus (VG-) condition.


However, I’ve found that most people with collections or accumulations have an inflated sense of the condition of their discs. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people who think they know what they are talking about tell me, “My records are all Mint!” sure, and I’ve got some oceanfront property in Arizona to sell you.



THE TRUTH BEHIND THE GRADES
The truth is that most records, especially from before the 1970s, are not in anything close to Mint or Near Mint condition. That is why a collector will pay a premium for such a disc if he or she has to have it.

For most collectors, Very Good is the lowest grade for which they will pay more than bargain-bin prices. And some won’t even do that. Lower-grade records are only good as placeholders until a better copy comes along, or as examples of truly rare records that are difficult to find in any condition.

Most of the time, LPs are sold with two grades — one for the record and one for the cover. We list only one grade, however, because with some exceptions, albums without covers are worthless, and covers without the accompanying record are worthless. If an album is graded VG for the cover and VG+ for the record, add the two values together and divide by 2 to get a rough estimate of the value of a “mixed-grade” LP.

Most records are graded visually. This is because most record dealers have lot of records — hundreds of thousands in some cases — and they don’t have the time to play their entire stock. That said, some defects are easy to see, such as scratches and warps. Others are subtle, such as groove wear from using a cheap or poorly aligned tone arm. It has been our experience that older LPs (1950s to about 1971) tend to play better than they look, and newer LPs (at least until 1989) tend to play worse than they look.
When grading your records, do so under a strong light. Look at everything carefully, and then assign a grade based on your overall observations.

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Some records will be worthy of a higher grade except for defects such as writing, tape or minor seam splits. Always mention these when selling a record! For some collectors, they will be irrelevant, but for others, they will be a deal-breaker. Regardless, they are important to know.

Also, some LPS were made for promotional purposes only. Again, always mention if a record is a promo copy when advertising it for sale!

One of the obstacles to the further growth of record collecting is poor grading and a lack of consensus as to what constitutes a “Very Good Plus” or “Near Mint” record or cover.

Over the years, the Goldmine grading guide has tried to standardize this. It is now the most widely used guide for the buying and selling of vinyl albums; many eBay auctions and stand-alone Web sites swear by it.

But we recognize that there are many variables to grading a record. As a seller, you are better off grading conservatively and surprising the buyer with a better record than was expected than by grading based on wishful thinking and loosing a customer.

That said, here are the standard grades for record albums, from best to worst.

MINT (M)

These are absolutely perfect in every way. Often rumored but rarely seen, Mint should never be used as a grade unless more than one person agrees that the record or sleeve truly is in this condition.

There is no set percentage of the Near Mint value these can bring; it is best negotiated between buyer and seller.

NEAR MINT (NM OR M-)

A good description of a NM record is “it looks like it just came from a retail store and it was opened for the first time.” In other words, it’s nearly perfect.

Many dealers won’t use a grade higher than this, implying (perhaps correctly) that no record or sleeve is ever truly perfect.

Near mint records are shiny and free of visible defects. No writing, stickers, other markings or spindle marks appear on the label. No major factory defects are present; a record and label obviously pressed off center is not Near Mint.

If played, an NM record will do so without surface noise. Near Mint records don’t have to be “never played”; a record used on an excellent turntable can remain NM after many plays if the disc is properly cared for.

NM covers have no creases, ring wear or seam splits of any kind.

These are high standards, and they are not on a sliding scale. A record or sleeve from the 1950s must meet the same standards as one from the 1990s or 2000s to be Near Mint!

It is estimated that no more than 2 to 4 percent of all records remaining from the 1950s and 1960s are truly Near Mint. This is why they fetch such high prices, even for more common items. They must meet these standards to qualify.

VERY GOOD PLUS (VG+) OR EXCELLENT (E)

A good description of a VG+ Record is “except for a couple of minor things, this would be Near Mint.”

Most collectors, especially those who want to play their records, will be happy with a VG+ record, especially if it is toward the high end of the grade, (sometimes called VG++ or E+).

VG+ records may show some slight signs of wear, including light scuffs or very light scratches that do not affect the listening experience. Slight warps that don’t affect the sound are OK. Minor signs of handling are OK, too, such as telltale marks around the center hole, so long as repeated playing has not misshapen the hole. There may be some very light ring wear or discoloration, but it should be barely noticeable.

VG+ Covers should have only minor wear. A VG+ cover might have some very minor seam wear or a split (less than one inch long) at the bottom, the most vulnerable locataion. Also, a VG+ cover may have some defacing, such as a cut-out marking. Covers with cut-out markings can never be considered Near Mint.

VERY GOOD (VG)

Many of the imperfections found on a VG+ Record are more obvious on a VG record. That said, VG records — which usually sell for no more than 25 percent of a an NM record — are among the biggest bargains in record collecting, because moost of the “big money” goes for more perfect copies. For many listeners, a VG record or sleeve will be worth the money.

VG records have more obvious flaws than their counterparts in better shape. They lack most of the original gloss found on factory-fresh records. Groove wear is evident on sight, as are light scratches deep enough to feel with a fingernail.

When played, a VG record has surface noise, and some scratches may be audible, especially in soft passages and during a song’s intro and ending. But the noise won’t overpower the music otherwise. Minor writing, tape or a sticker can detract from the label. Many collectors who have jukeboxes will use VG records in them and not think twice. They remain a fine listening experience, just not the same as if it were in better shape.

VG covers will have many signs on human handling. Ring wear in the middle or along the edges of the cover, where the edge of a record would reside, is obvious; it may appear on all three sides, thought it won’t be obvious upon looking. Someone might have written on it or stamped a price tag on it, too.

GOOD (G), GOOD PLUS (G+) OR VERY GOOD MINUS (VG-)

Lower-grade records go for 10 to 15 percent of the Near Mint value, if you are lucky.

Good does not mean bad! The record still plays through without skipping, so it can serve as filler until something better comes along. But it has significant surface noicse and groove wear. The label is worn and exhibits significant ring wear, heavy writing or obvious damage caused by tring to remove tape or stickers and failing miserably.

A Good to VG- cover has ring wear to the point of distraction, has seam splits obvious on sight and may have even heavier writing, such as huge radio station letters written across the front to deter theft.

If the item is common, it’s probably better to pass it up. But if you’ve been seeking it for a long time, get it cheap and look to upgrade.

POOR (P) AND FAIR (F)

Poor and Fair records go for 0 to 5 percent of the Near Mint value, if they go at all.

More likely, they end up going in the trash. Records are cracked, impossibly warped or skip and/or repate when an attempt is made to play them. Covers are so heavily damaged that you almost want to cry.

Only the most outrageously rare items ever sell for more than a few cents in this condition — again, if they sell at all.

SEALED ALBUMS

Still-sealed albums can — and do — bring even higher prices than those in our listings. However, you must be careful when paying a premium for sealed LPs of any kind for several reasons:
1. They may have been re-sealed.
2. The records may not be in Near Mint condition.
3. The record inside may not be the original or most-desirable pressing.
4. Most bizarre of all, the wrong record my be inside. (I’ve had this happen to me; I opened a sealed album by on MCA artist only to find a record by a different MCA artist inside! Fortunately, I didn’t pay a lot of or that sealed LP. I would have been quite upset if I had!)

Learn more about record grading, market trends, label timelines at a glance, plus current prices with Goldmine.

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