Snappy Answers to All Your Record-Collecting Questions

How come your colored vinyl sounds like heck?
How come your colored vinyl sounds like heck? Robrt Pela

If you collect records for, say, a half-century or so, people will ask you questions (some of them brilliant; others kind of dumb) about your hobby. And if you’re a record collector who also happens to write a newspaper column about your favorite pastime, you should probably get busy answering those questions from time to time. Therefore, here’s the first in an ongoing series of snappy answers to record-collecting questions.

Why do so many of the used LPs I buy have people’s names written on them?
All those names scrawled on LP sleeves are proof of a brief pop culture fad known as the “record party.” During the early days of long-players, people would gather to listen to music, and guests would bring their own record albums to play. The thinking seemed to be that another guest might be less likely to swipe your record if it had your name written on it. If my record collection is any indication, a lot of people stuck return-address labels on their LPs for the same reason. For collectors who care, these are easy to remove with a little lighter fluid. Handwritten names, of course, are there to stay.

Can shrink wrap cause a record to warp?
Lots of collectors will tell you it can, probably given the idea that shrink wrap, the factory-installed clear plastic used to seal an LP in its sleeve, keeps on shrinking over time. Still others (like me) don’t buy that and prefer to keep the shrink wrap on to protect an album jacket. Most vinyl records are too firm to be warped by tightened plastic, the exception being the shitty, light-weight Dynaflex discs that RCA manufactured for a few years in the early 1970s. If you’re worried about shrink damaging your vinyl and want pristine LP sleeves, you can invest in plastic outer sleeves for your record collection to replace shrink wrap.

How come the guy at the used record store only gave me $8 for a whole box of my old records? A lot of them were million-sellers in their day!
That’s right. Which means that millions of copies of each of them are still floating around out there. And while there were maybe a lot of people who wanted to own Journey’s Departure LP in 1980, there are a lot fewer who want it 41 years later. Also, you played the crap out of your copy, lost the inner sleeve, and your high school girlfriend drew hearts next to Ross Vallory’s face on the back cover. It isn’t worth a dime.

So then how can I determine the value of my vinyls?
I’m not going to answer that because records should never, ever be referred to as “vinyls.” Seriously. Where did you even get that word from?

Do I really need to clean my records before I play them?
Only if you want them to sound good and last longer. I play my better records on a Technics turntable I bought in 1982 and clean each one before I play it using a Discwasher system — basically a velvety brush dampened with an alcohol-based cleanser. Before playing older, less rare records on my Zenith hi-fi, I clean them with an anti-static, anti-bacterial cleaner that I squirt right onto the vinyl and spread with a soft cloth. Cleaning your stylus is important too, but only if you have a stylus brush. Don’t use your finger, which can damage the stylus and leave grease that will clog record grooves.

How does an inner sleeve, made of paper, protect a record any better than the cardboard album cover?
Boy, I wish you hadn’t asked that — because it really doesn’t. Sliding a record in and out of the paper sleeve that traditionally came with a record album to “protect it” (and often to promote other music available from the label) isn’t less hard on a vinyl recording than that LP jacket. Although I like to keep the vintage, preprinted inner sleeves that come with an album, I typically protect my higher-end records with plastic inner sleeves I buy in bulk. These keep the dust off and prevent the vinyl from rubbing on porous paper sleeves and album jackets.

What’s a runout groove?
It’s the space between the end of the last song on the album and the paper label in its center. If you look closely, you’ll see the matrix numbers etched into the vinyl — a kind of secret code used to identify album masters that I’ll discuss another time.

How come my vintage colored vinyl LPs sound like crap?
Record albums are typically made of PVC, a colorless compound made stronger by adding black carbon. To make, say, a hot pink record, less-sturdy colored dyes were substituted for the black carbon. This resulted in a record with softer, more pliable grooves that wear down more quickly, resulting in more pops and snaps and generally flatter sound. Picture discs are worse. They’re made of three layers, with the image sandwiched between two thin slices of vinyl that also isn’t as durable as regular PVC. That said, today’s higher pressing plant standards are making for better-quality colored vinyl releases; I’m mostly referring to the crummy sound of colored vinyl manufactured in its 1980s heyday.

How come so many “greatest hits” collections contain random album tracks instead of being comprehensive and including all the artist’s hits?
There are plenty of reasons for this, the saddest being that the artist in question may not have had more than one or two hits to begin with. Or it could be that the artist has recorded for more than one label, and the label issuing the compilation didn’t pay to license the hits from the other guys. Occasionally, songs that charted or are well-loved will be left off of a best-of collection because the label is planning a second collection, and in still other cases the person doing the compiling will choose fan favorites to fill out a compilation record, even though they’re technically not “hits.”

So what does “hit song” mean, anyway?
Nothing, anymore. It used to mean a song released as a single from an artist’s album, one that charted anywhere in the Top 40 on Billboard magazine’s weekly tallies or on radio station play lists. The phrase “hit album” was used to describe an LP that sold well and charted high. But then people started referring to album tracks they liked as “hits,” and now, like so much else in the world, the word “hit” doesn’t mean anything anymore.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela