Track­ing sales of phys­i­cal mu­sic

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE -

Vir­tual mu­si­cal mar­ket­place and data­base Discogs.com is one of the only places on Earth where Kate Bush out­sells Tay­lor Swift.

De­voted to good taste (mostly) and the van­ish­ing plea­sures of phys­i­cal mu­sic, Discogs, which launched in 2000, was built by and for mu­sic nerds. It’s an awe­somely com­pre­hen­sive and ad­dic­tively ap­peal­ing rab­bit hole of com­pletist geek­ery. “With­out sound­ing snobby, we’re more that con­nois­seur-level col­lec­tor,” said Ron Rich, Discogs’s di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing.

Discogs of­fers a user­driven data­base, metic­u­lously kept, which seeks to cat­a­logue disco­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion for ev­ery record ever made (there are more than 8.2 mil­lion en­tries). It’s also a global, eBay-like mar­ket­place where those records are bought and sold, com­plete with user groups and fo­rums, and an app.

Discogs’s newly re­leased 2016 sales re­port, pro­vided ex­clu­sively to The Washington Post, serves as a mu­si­cal State of the State ad­dress for the site. It clocks trends in phys­i­cal mu­sic sales and de­tails the cur­rent ob­ses­sions of record col­lec­tors, who are strange crea­tures will­ing to spend $4,329 on a 1971 LP from Bri­tish rock band Leaf Hound but also ra­tional ac­tors who ap­pre­ci­ate reg­u­lar peo­ple things, like “Thriller” and Pink Floyd.

Things we learned on a deep dive (all fig­ures are Discogs’s own):

A promo copy of Prince’s “Black Al­bum” be­came the most ex­pen­sive ti­tle ever sold on the site. A dou­ble 12-inch ver­sion of the al­bum, which Prince or­dered re­called a week be­fore it was to be re­leased in 1987, fetched $15,000 shortly after his death last April. “The Black Al­bum” has long been a holy grail for col­lec­tors. Most copies of the al­bum had been de­stroyed; this one, ap­par­ently in­tended for a DJ, eluded cap­ture. In sec­ond place: a first press­ing of “David Bowie” (later reis­sued as “Space Odd­ity”) sold for $6,826.

The artists on Discogs’s “Most Col­lected” chart are mostly white, male and dead. “Most Col­lected” is Discogs’s ver­sion of Bill­board’s cat­a­logue al­bums chart, and it’s weighted to­ward the usual clas­sic rock sus­pects: the Bea­tles, the Eagles, Led Zep­pelin. One-tenth of the chart be­longs to Pink Floyd, in­clud­ing the top two slots (“The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here,” re­spec­tively). The only con­tem­po­rary act in the top 50 was Ra­dio­head (at No. 19 with “A Moon Shaped Pool”); the only women are the distaff half of Fleet­wood Mac.

Discogs’s col­lec­tors love brass and mil­i­tary mu­sic. Re­ally, un­ac­count­ably love it. Discogs does its core busi­ness in elec­tronic and rock, but mil­i­tary mu­sic is a rapidly grow­ing genre on the site, with col­lec­tions up 55.83 per­cent in the past year alone. One pos­si­ble rea­son: Mil­i­tary mu­sic afi­ciona­dos, starved of on­line op­tions, set up base camp at Discogs, fill­ing in data­base in­for­ma­tion and sell­ing and col­lect­ing mu­sic, and serv­ing as a bea­con to other, like-minded col­lec­tors.

For ev­ery pre­dictable boomer fa­vorite on the Discogs charts, there is an­other artist of baf­fling ran­dom­ness. A hard-tofind vinyl edi­tion of ob­scure psych-rock band Phafner’s 1971 re­lease “Over­drive” sold for $5,500 last year. It was 2016’s most ex­pen­sive re­lease un­re­lated to Bowie or Prince. The prici­est seller of 2015 was a rare copy of the 1989 hard­core re­lease “Chung King Can Suck It,” by Judge, which sur­prised ev­ery­one by sell­ing for $6,048. Judge was an NYC straight edge band; Chung King was the record­ing stu­dio with which it was feud­ing, for rea­sons too com­pli­cated to go into here. Very few copies of the al­bum were made.

Discogs is pow­ered by rar­ity and ran­dom­ness. Nos­tal­gia-driven record col­lec­tors are a huge sec­tion of the mar­ket, but their buy­ing pat­terns are un­pre­dictable, be­cause ev­ery­one is nos­tal­gic for dif­fer­ent things. Other se­ri­ous col­lec­tors are eas­ier to fig­ure, be­cause they are re­li­ably drawn to mishaps and scarcity – the DJ copy with Scotch tape cov­er­ing a mis­printed la­bel, the elu­sive first press­ing. With­out artists mis­spelling their own al­bum ti­tles, dy­ing un­ex­pect­edly, or re­leas­ing lim­ited-press­ing 7-inches on whim­si­cally col­ored vinyl, record col­lec­tors would have a lot less to col­lect.

Col­lec­tors still love cas­settes. Mar­ket­place cas­sette sales grew al­most 40 per­cent this year, though they’re still far out­stripped by sales of vinyl, which ac­count for 6,691,144 of the site’s 8,311,646 to­tal sales. In Au­gust, “The Ver­sace Ex­pe­ri­ence – Pre­lude 2 Gold,” a Prince promo tape dis­trib­uted only at a 1995 Ver­sace fash­ion show, sold for $4,087, the high­est cas­sette sale price the site has ever recorded.

Once a col­lectible is sold, it’s any­body’s guess what hap­pens to it. Will any­one ever ac­tu­ally play “The Ver­sace Ex­pe­ri­ence”? Or will it wind up in a tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled vault some­where, await­ing re­sale dur­ing the 2036 Prince re­vival? Cas­settes can de­te­ri­o­rate if played too of­ten or im­prop­erly stored, po­ten­tially lim­it­ing their value as an in­vest­ment. Vinyl can also de­grade with too much wear, but, as mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Rich notes, many vinyl con­nois­seurs don’t even have turnta­bles. They view vinyl as a tac­tile ex­pe­ri­ence; liner notes are to be pored over, LP cov­ers dis­played.

A promo copy of Prince’s “Black Al­bum” be­came the most ex­pen­sive ti­tle ever sold on discogs.com.

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