What’s that record really worth?

There are thrift shops in town with signs up, seeking to buy Michael Jackson LPs and other “related material.”

They do this because people have been coming in since the “King of Pop’s” untimely demise, asking to BUY Michael Jackson stuff. I understand.

But are Michael Jackson LPs a good investment? Unless they’re signed and you have some reason to believe the autograph is legitimate, no.

Legitimate autographed material goes up when a celebrity dies, because the supply is now “closed-ended,” and will always be far rarer than the non-autographed stuff. How much more? Depends on who it was, and how much they signed. Jimmy Carter is a signin’ fool; for an ex-president, his autograph is not particularly pricey.

George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), on the other hand, died six months after the publication of “1984.” Not many signed copies of that one out there. Wolfman Jack (Robert Weston Smith) died in 1995 immediately upon arriving home from the brief book tour for his autobiography “Have Mercy!” A copy of that book signed to B.B. King is probably unique; I wouldn’t let it go for the price of a Happy Meal.

Otherwise, LPs by an artist as popular as Mr. Jackson got pressed out by the hundreds of thousands. There were a couple of Jackson Five singles (45s) released on the “Steel Town” label in 1968 that are worth a bit, as are the 1981 “Ben” soundtrack with Michael on the top half of the cover and the rats on the bottom, and the Spanish language 12-inch single version of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” But “Thriller” and Bad” basically catalog at $8 in “near mint,” which means a typical “very good” copy with some light surface scratching and a little wear to the cardboard belongs in the dollar rack. And always will.

If you want to go out and find a piece of Michaelobilia to remember the moonwalker by, fine. Just don’t be paying lots of money, figuring “This rare collectible will surely increase in value.”

As many of you know, The brunette sells vintage clothes at the Charleston Antique Mall. There’s also a room-and-a-half of older books and LP records, where I’m happy to lend a hand. In the vinyl we focus on pre-1970 jazz and rock, no “Easy Listening” — though in this town it’s hard to keep the “W” bin from filling up with Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, and Tammy Wynette. We were cleaned out of anything filed under “Jackson” within a few days.

I suppose we could have jacked up the prices on the LPs, but I decided it was smarter to stick by the original business model, which is to rescue objects of value in unusually fine condition that are otherwise bound from the thrift shop or yard sale to the nearest landfill, and try to find them appreciative new homes by offering them at anywhere from one-third to two-thirds the price you’d pay Online, or (in the case of a ’50s dress or purse or Hawaiian shirt) less than a third of what you’d pay at some vintage shop in Hollywood or Georgetown.

It keeps folks coming back.

Yes, for the record, there’s a reason to collect LPs. Professionals say when a lot of that music was transferred to CDs it was “compressed.” That reduced noise, but also limited the highs and lows. The sound just isn’t as rich. I also believe the day will come when more folks will collect old album covers as art. As with haiku, there was even the discipline of an arbitrary restraint: everything had to be square.

I mentioned catalog values, which are vital but still the bane of the business. The “catalog” for vinyl, if you want something made of dead trees, is usually the “Goldmine” Catalog of American Records, by Tim Neely or more recently Martin Popoff. (Pricing books gets more complicated. That’s another column … or three.) But be aware that even my 2009 edition of such a price guide was likely compiled two years earlier than that, using auction data that may have then dated back a decade. And such guides carefully stipulate that they price for “near mint” condition.

The word has gotten around — late, as usual — that Elvis records, for example, are “worth a fortune.” Even some local thrift stores have taken to stacking the Elvi behind the counter, charging up to $10 apiece. Is this a good buy?

Only if you know what you’re looking for, and if you’re allowed to (carefully, please — oily thumbprints on the playing surface are very impolite) pull out the disc and examine the label.

Let’s take just one early Elvis LP: RCA’s 1957 “Loving You,” catalog LPM-1515. Original pressings read “Long Play” at the bottom of the black label. This record catalogs at $300 in “near mint.” But what if the copy in hand is only “very good” — it’ll play, because the scratches aren’t deep, but there are some shallow tone-arm skid marks, and some wear to the cardboard jacket. Catalog value immediately drops to $75.

Now consider, again, that your catalog is partially based on 10-year-old auction data. Most of the first generation of Elvis fans are in their 60s or 70s, some are dead. These people aren’t buying; their collections are being dumped on the market by grandchildren who might not be able to figure out how to make a turntable work if they had one. More supply at a time when the collector base is dwindling could explain why some collectors tell me fancy Elvis boxed sets that “catalog” at $5,000 have gone for as little as $500, of late.

The very best and rarest Elvis material may hold its value, as Sinatra material has. Time will tell.

Today, I might start an Elvis LP that “catalogs” $75 at $30 to $40 retail, eventually marking it down to $20 or even lower if it doesn’t move within a few months.

But wait. What if your copy of “Loving You” says “Mono” at the bottom of the label, instead of “Long Play”? That one was released in 1963 (no need to invent the term “mono” till someone invented “stereo); its catalog value is $100.

What if it says “Monaural”? Those came along in 1964; catalog value $50 … in “near mint.”

The first version of this LP “Stereo Electronically Reprocessed” with the new catalog number LSP-1515(e) came out in 1962 and catalogs at $150. By 1964 the words “RCA Victor” on the label had changed from silver to white and your catalog value has dropped to $50. Stereo versions were released as late as 1976, with catalog values of $12. The tell-tale label changes are too numerous to list here. And all this is for ONE LP, all of whose versions can look pretty much the same at first glance.

Even in “near mint,” an Elvis LP with a “catalog value” of $12 might merit a $6 or $7 retail price, today. If well-worn, it’s a black Frisbee.

A catalog is highly useful for determining RELATIVE values. If you can only afford one, do you buy the Beach Boys’ ”Good Vibrations,” or the Surfers’ “Christmas from Hawaii,” with the odd cover of four Hawaiian lads paddling around with a little pink Christmas tree on the prow of their outrigger canoe?

The Beach Boys album catalogs at $20. The Surfers: $200.

More up-to-date prices can often be found Online at the “Musicstack” Web site … assuming the individual sellers are grading their discs reliably.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative. There are treasures out there, as long as you don’t think the record shop is going to pay you anything near “full catalog.” I’ve found early Beatles and Ronettes albums (again, look for mono) that really are worth tidy sums — though I suspect even those values will drop, as hoarded Baby Boomer collections come back on the market. Signed albums can be very cool, somewhat more valuable, and are more likely to be authentic if found in a thrift shop or garage sale. I can’t keep Troggs albums or Beatles or Led Zeppelin or Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills” on the shelf.

Stop and look at these things.

There are some Hawaiian music LPs featuring distinctly Anglo-appearing women in skimpy Hawaiian dresses who look like they’re about to have an orgasm in a pile of melons. You stop and wonder, “What must that photo session have been like?” I’ve even found recordings of generic “Latin Rhythms” from the mid-1950s where they hired a little-known brunette to swirl around in ruffles and a flower in her hair for the cover photo — and it’s Mary Tyler Moore.

On the other hand, it doesn’t matter what the catalog says your old Harry Belafontes and Jim Reeves and Perry Comos are worth, if no one’s buying.

Though there IS an early Belafonte album which has some value as Bob Dylan’s first appearance on vinyl; he plays harmonica on “The Midnight Special.” Now, who knew THAT?

One Comment to “What’s that record really worth?”

  1. Anton Sherwood Says:

    The bit about the melons reminds me of this site.