Vinyl is once again a multi-million pound industry, but what's it like for the independent record dealers at the bottom of the food chain? We spent a working day with one old geezer who knows.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
Praise the lord, music fans, for all is going to be fine: your beloved format has been rescued from the jaws of oblivion. After decades of decline, over 3.2 million vinyl records were sold in the UK in 2016, lifting consumption up to a 25 year high and marking an unprecedented turnaround. This year, vinyl is on track to become a billion dollar industry in the States. Who would've thought it?
Yet while 3.2 million is a sizeable number in our faltering industry, in terms of vinyl on a grander scale, it's still a drop in the bucket. In 1986 alone, 690 million vinyl were sold globally. Just think: how much of that vinyl is out there? Buried; covered by thick layers of dust at the back of your nan's attic; propping up a damp wall in a garage; at the back of a conservatory, warping in the sun. As demand increases, how do we get to them? How do precious vinyl classics find their way back into people's hands? Whose job is it to unearth these lost gems and put them back into circulation? The answer is: independent record dealers, and I've tracked one down called Joseph at his home in the West Midlands, and I'm going to be stalking him for the day.
For the last 43 years (yes, four decades), Joseph has spent most of his days arguing with old people in charity shops, visiting the houses of strangers and the recently-bereaved or divorced, and searching the crevices of Britain for hidden gems to sell both privately and online—and making a decent living off it. Now at 60 years old, he's made a career off vinyl, and understands the way it works like a language. Curious about how his hunter/gatherer lifestyle functions through the good days and bad, I took a Monday off from shovelling hash browns in my mouth and writing about weekend breaks in favour of hunting for content in rural Worcestershire.
THE MORNING SHIFT
I'm pacing down frosty pavements in the sparse, rural West Midlands, past giant country houses and barn conversions toward a row of redbrick terraced houses. Arriving at the door at 8.58am—two minutes early and smug—I knock, and am met by a barrage of dog barks. A voice yells, utensils clatter and eventually the door splutters open. Joseph grimaces, "Nearly my lunchtime, kid."
He's been up since 6am packing records that he's sold on eBay over the weekend. "Packing," he says, "is the worst part of this job. But when it's done, I feel free."
I'm handed three giant Tesco bags packed full of stuff, and we're off to our first destination.
The Post Office is situated on a T-Junction alongside a doctor's surgery and a pharmacy. Encircled with vultures waiting for one of three car parking spaces, it feels like a petri dish for nervous breakdowns. Joseph, slightly raised voice, tells me to hold back for 5 minutes. "It can get shitty," he adds. He spends nearly 20 minutes up there, leisurely pulling packages out for posting, as everyone in the queue huffs, sighs and kicks their feet like horses, staring bullet holes into the back of his head. After 15 more agonising minutes and a six deep queue, he's done and we leave. He laughs as we get into the car: "Moaning fuckers."
A RECORD CALL
"Record calls," Joseph explains, "are the lifeblood of my business. I need to make £50 a day to survive, and they are the grassroots of buying. Gems here are hard to find but they will cost you a lot less and that keeps the costs down and the margins up." He's been advertising in the local papers for over 40 years. What has he learned about people by doing this? "People will be as deceptive as they can to get you into their houses. And even when I show up and can see they've completely lied about what they've got, they just look blankly. They have no respect." He gets out the car, and disappears into the house.
Five minutes later, he clambers through the door with a wooden singles' box under each arm. He looks pleased, and begins to talk me through the collection: a decent few boxes of Elvis Presley 45s for £250 - a big price, but the stuff is "immaculate" and he expects to make £400 back. Flicking through these 60-year-old singles, acknowledging both sleeve and vinyl, they look pristine. "He must have been a proper collector," he comments, before stopping—he's noticed something. And buried at the back of box, I see it.
Little bit of sickness in the stomach; the fighting back of awkward, inexplicable laughter. I'm probably breaking a law just by looking at them, aren't I? Joseph scrunches his face at the discovery too, but soon shakes it off. Is he surprised? "Yes, because the guy seemed really laidback and pleasant, but not by the material. I've had it in the past where I've picked things up by bands like Screwdriver and Oi!—any of what they call that 'White Noise' genre—in similar fashions."
Is Hitler albums the most fucked up thing he's come across on a call for a while? "Well, it's strange," he pauses. "But a few months back I showed up at a house, and there was a load of dog shit leading up to the door and I thought, 'That's a shame, must be infuriating for the guy, all this dog shit right outside his house.' The guy answers the door, leads me inside, and down the hallway. I noticed the shit trailed into the living room. And the guy ignored it." Joseph stops. "Was in there for five or ten minutes—never saw a dog... Great rock LPs though."
Whether it's human shite or Nazis, Joseph seems desensitised to most things thrown at him. And you can argue it's an old-fashioned lifestyle but in this, the time of think-pieces about how "out-of-touch" we've become with our swamp-dwelling distant relatives in regional England, it's hard to imagine many more careers—beyond being a local politician—which would require you to doorstep and invade the lives of the general public.
SECONDHAND SHOPS IN THE AFTERNOON
As the locals of Stratford-Upon-Avon take their lunch breaks, Joseph and I pack into cramped secondhand shops. Each seem to have the same stack of Neil Diamond, ABBA and Cliff Richard LPs, which I've been told are worth "jack shit." Yet Joseph insists on looking through everything. We turn a corner, and I notice two more. I tell him I'm off to get a coffee around the corner. Twenty minutes pass and he emerges at my table, clutching onto a Children in Need bag and a Co-Op bag, wide-eyed.
"I was in that last place and I thought it was done, then I notice a stack of records stuck underneath a coal bucket." The man is losing his breath, trying to contain his excitement. "I knew they were smart, but I had to stop looking to see if they were originals as he was clocking me, so I just bought them." Joseph handles the contents of his bag like a waiter holding a hot plate of spaghetti.
It's early Classical stereo LPs, and he's making microscopic observations: "Okay, for a Columbia release, if there is a red and black label—bad, but if it's green and silver, we're in business."
"Well there you are." He continues, "And I haven't checked out the Hare Krishna single yet."
"Fuck, it's mint." He pauses, "And with the insert! That's worth £40!" He stops himself for a second and looks at me, "I hate showing emotion, I'm just using this, so it's effective for your story."
"So what did this cost? And what is it worth?"
"I paid £30, and I reckon I'll get £360."
"And how do you feel right now?"
He breaths out, "Cloud nine."
This is a high, no doubt, but what happens in the slower, more difficult months of record collecting? "Bad days? I can't afford to have bad days. I have a back stock of about 1,000 items that's enough to last me around 50 days. So I can't afford to not pick up anything decent for that long." He plonks himself down in one of the coffee shop chairs. "I've seen so many aspiring dealers fall by the wayside. You see them go in with £20,000 from a redundancy or divorce and, a few years later, they have a load of stuff that nobody wants. It's a slow process and you have to be patient—it's all about building blocks."
Joseph speaks about record dealing like it's Minecraft—collecting valuable stock, what he needs to shift, the things he needs in place. But as he names people who have lost at the game, breezing past tales of their businesses falling apart, their wives leaving them and things just not working, it's clear that it's more than just a game.
So what is it that compels people to put everything at risk for something so precarious? "Thirst for knowledge which equates to a potential financial gain. But records do have an artistic beauty and they represent a moment in time and culture." Joseph replies. Could he live without records? "No."
If I'd have made £360 in a day, I'd be retiring to the Asahi-offering, smashed avocado serving wankeries of South East London to celebrate, but this isn't an option for Joseph. It's 4pm and we're trudging on to the charity shops.
But they're a difficult place to find good stuff, he tells me. "You'll struggle to find a charity shop that isn't ravaged by thieves," he says. "People who volunteer and run their businesses by having first access to see what the public is bringing in. Every single charity shop in the country has them." We're just about to leave, when a lady arrives with a giant plastic box of items. Joseph approaches the guy behind the counter. After a short exchange, the box is his.
Are we off to take stock of a good day's work? To sip Carte Noir and look back with pride on a good day? "Not quite, kid." Joseph says. "We've got some sorting to do."
END OF DAYS
As the day draws in, we traverse the brambles and narrow roads of the British countryside. I ask him where we're going, but he's as aloof as ever. Eventually, we pull up to it. The place Joseph ends most days: the fucking tip. He proceeds to sort his stock at pace, the good stuff onto the back seat, the crap back into the boot.
As the very same boxes of CDs and vinyl we've hunted down thunders against the insides of the skips, it just doesn't feel right; like a stoic hunter making a triumphant catch then setting fire to its carcass. Does Joseph feel it too? "No, it's therapeutic and an absolute necessity—what is being thrown is unrecyclable and shit. And watching Sting and Bono shit get crushed is pure heaven. And that other arse, what's his name, James Morrison?"
We continue, swinging Tesco bags filled with LPs like hammers. I ask him how many records he tips per week, as a turntable cascades, crashing and splitting into two. Joseph stops, out of breath: "About 1,000 records." Now that's a sledgehammer to the gut: 52,000 records a year – more than what all your local music stores sell in a year combined, and this is just one dealer.
Faced with the ghosts of a forgotten time, when every house in Britain owned a record collection, this whole era just feels like a fragile anomaly. Piling back into an empty car, I ask Joseph, "As a man with no pension and somebody who—by their own admission is only ever really 50 days from the wheels coming off—don't you ever worry about placing all your faith in vinyl, something that has had such a problematic and uncertain history?"
He taps the steering wheel and scratches his chin. "Not now. I used to, but people have been warning me about this for decades, and people are still selling and buying. Plus, I'm only ever one collection away from being successful. And anyway," he looks at me. "I've had a lot of jobs over the years, and they all meant nothing. So I'll take my chances with records all day long... Fuck the future."
You can follow Oobah on Twitter.