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Discogs scalpers are hugely inflating the cost of rare records, DJ Mag investigates

There’s a growing culture in dance music, known as 'flipping', where unscrupulous Discogs sellers inflate the cost of rare records to extortionate amounts. We investigate this rising trend, and ask why people are prepared to spend £1,300 on a test pressing...

In September 2018, hardcore archivist label Ninety Two Retro released a double-12” comprising six tracks and versions from 1992 by Mystery Man and 1st Prodject. It was limited to 300 copies and was sold directly by the label for £20 a pop. Within days of release, sellers were asking for as much as four times the price on Discogs, pricing it at a cool £80. “Takes the piss a bit, doesn’t it?” sighs the label owner Dave Birch, a DJ, artist and passionate hardcore preservationist known as Elusive.

His frustration is understandable; Ninety Two Retro has existed since 2006 on the simple premise of bringing old hardcore records that regularly go for £50+ back to life with a remaster, repress and affordable price. “This music is meant to be heard and played! I didn’t want people to spend £50 on a record, I wanted them to spend a tenner. But then people start coming along and buying 10 copies, and they instantly hike the value.” 

As a result, almost all good quality condition second-hand copies of Ninety Two Retro have trebled or quadrupled over the years. They’re not alone; this happens every week in every genre. Take ‘Bandulu Gang’; a recent release on Kahn & Neek’s much coveted vinyl-only label Bandulu, it was sold for £10 at record stores, but some sellers began asking £50 for it within days of release. The same can be said for jungle compilation ‘Point Of Origin’ on DJ Stretch’s AKO Beatz, when some sellers decided to double the price from £35 to £70 before the release was shipped.

Meanwhile back in the realms of hardcore, another multi-vinyl hardcore reissue had a similar price hike last July when the Music Preservation Society released the test presses of the long sought-after ‘Energizer’ series by legendary hardcore producer Dave Charlesworth (known best as After Dark). One seller bumped it up from £70 to £150 overnight.  

Welcome to the dark art of record flipping. It’s definitely not new — it’s why you often find records limited to one-per customer, and it doesn’t just occur within vinyl collecting. Tickets, trainers, consoles, even bricks (thanks Supreme) have all been flipped for turbo-charged price tags. Anything that’s sold as limited-edition is fair game for flippers. Or let’s call them by their real title: scalpers. But perhaps we should talk about this situation in its real title, too; supply and demand.

“You can’t expect to sell something at a tenner and for it to stay at that value, that’s commerce for you,” says a man we’ll simply call S. He often buys copies of limited-edition records to purposefully flip. “If you’re a label who has an issue with people buying records and hiking the price, simply make more. The record will only sell for the price people are prepared to buy something for. No one is forcing anyone to do anything.” It should be recognised that out of the many contacted sellers who habitually ask the highest price for records on Discogs, S was the only one who agreed to talk. Most likely because he’s not a ruthless scalper. Certainly not in comparison to serial flippers, such as an ex-Discogs seller called Tanmushimushi.

One of the most notorious record scalpers in recent times, in 2015 Tanmushimushi was eventually banned from selling on Discogs after years of notoriously high price-hikes. When Tanmushimushi was selling on Discogs, they were asking figures such as £495 for Mala’s ‘Changes’ and over £800 for Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ (records that usually go for more along the lines of £100). It was Tanmushimushi’s brazen £10 to £50 flip of a Four Tet white label in 2013 that led to the artist taking to Twitter and asking fans not to buy releases on his label Text from Discogs full stop.

While S does flip records, he’s nowhere near this brutal, and has his own reasons for doing it. “If I buy something and sell it for a high price, then happy days,” he says. “If it doesn’t sell, so be it. I don’t sell them for profit. I sell them to buy more records. And I regularly spend in excess of £100 on a record because it’s something I want. It’s not a business, I’m a collector, that’s what I do.”

By re-investing any profit he makes back into his record collection, S has justified flipping to himself to the point he doesn’t actually see it as profit, even though it blatantly is. But selling records to buy new ones? That’s one of the old tricks in the collector’s manual. In this way, S is just like many, many other collectors. Even collectors who are artists and labels owners have been known to do the odd cheeky flip here and there.

Label owners such as DJ Shepdog, the well-known London-based selector and collector behind soundsystem primed label Nice Up! “I collect records, I buy records and every now and again I do just buy certain things to flip,” says Shepdog, real name Jon. “Not often. But I have, in the past, got two copies of an album, sold one and got mine for free. Or I’d trade it for something else. I’ve sold things for way more than I bought them for, so I can’t be too preachy about this. But if you’re buying 10 or 20 copies just to flip when the price peaks? That’s the same as ticket touting.” 

Jon explains how he seldom buys doubles to flip or trade now, because they are less likely to increase in value due to the culture becoming so commonplace, and the bandwagon is starting to bulge. He also explains how he’s made a lot more from selling older records that have naturally gone up in value, like his old collection of hip-hop 45s, some of which he’s sold for five or six times the price he paid for them in the early 2000s. “I’d had my fun with the record, and was happy to let them go to someone who will continue to enjoy it, everyone wins,” says Shep. “If they wanted it when I bought it, they’d have paid less, too.”

What Shepdog is talking about here is what vinyl collecting has been about since the gramophone was invented, and has been known throughout the ages as ‘knowing your shit’. Whether it’s your dad poring over old prog rock records or you digging old jungle records: there’s a discipline and serious level of knowledge required to clock a bargain record and know you could sell it for a much higher value.

“These moments happened a lot more before the internet. People can just look things up, but you’d be surprised how many don’t,” says Zaf Chowdhry. A known digger, selector and record seller who founded London’s Love Vinyl record shop, he can recount tales of spotting a record for £25 and being able to sell it for £500 weeks later. He can also recount just as many times when he’s bought something and made no profit at all, or even a loss, but he agrees it’s about being able to identify rare and collectable records and knowing the value of the music.

He also explains how having records and selling them are two very separate things. “People think every single record in their collection will sell for the same price they see on Discogs or Popsike, which lists all record sales, from eBay and auctions,” he continues. “This doesn’t actually reflect the true value or actual demand for that record, it could just be the result of two mad geezers going at it on eBay because they really want the record.”

This is more of a reflection of the deeper, darker end of collecting vinyl, which goes way beyond flipping.

DJ Fryer, whose label Athens Of The North is known for unearthing rare gems and democratising the price, explains how collecting at this level becomes obsessive. “The value and that need to have it becomes much more important than the music,” he says. “They forget the fun stuff, the social stuff, all the cool things that got them into this. They’re just pandering to their greedy monster side. It becomes a mental health thing. Personally I’d rather have a holiday with the kids than have a £2,000 record sitting there on my shelves.” 

Clearly other collectors wouldn’t, however. Let’s take the case of Ron Wells. One of the pioneering producers behind the jungle tekno movement of the early ’90s, best known as Jack Smooth, Discogs sellers ask for staggeringly steep sums for Ron’s old releases.

One of his records, a Fast Floor album that never got past test press stage in 1994, called ‘On A Quest For Intelligence’ has been sitting on Discogs at £1,300 for several years. “It’s excellent publicity when somebody decides your album is worth £1,300,” laughs Ron. “I often say these scalpers make me look cleverer than I am, but I would love (just a little) share of their gains.” After 20 years away from the industry running an IT fi rm, Ron has now returned to the game, and it’s largely down to Music Preservation Society (MPS).

Through their crowdfunded projects, MPS have remastered and reissued hundreds of rare, unreleased and triple-fi gureprice-tagged tracks, and their model convinced Ron to return to production and to relaunch his cult jungle tekno label Sound Entity. This was music to the ears of anyone interested in the roots of UK jungle and drum & bass... but it wasn’t received quite so well by certain collectors.  “I’ve received many angry exchanges from so called ‘record collectors’ who do not want me, or others, to re-release any of our works,” Ron says. “These people, who would gladly have me unable to exploit my back-catalogue, preventing others from (hopefully) enjoying my music, simply cannot be music lovers. They are either traders or mere ‘stamp collectors’. And it is that selfish arrogance in particular that I intensely dislike.”

After 22 years on test press, last year Ron finally released his and Paul Clarke’s Fast Floor album. It sells for around £60, but the original test press copy is still on sale for just shy of £1,300. Ron explains how everything about the reissue is better sonically, and it includes more rare unreleased works of his. The original was unreleased and only got to test press stage for a reason.

“Over the years I’ve become acutely aware that humans obsess over the things they can’t have. This opens up a market to take advantage of”

“I would go as far to say that the original is worthless as a listening experience compared to the re-release,” he says. “Over the years I’ve become acutely aware that humans obsess over the things they can’t have, and quickly become complacent with the things that are readily within their grasp. This opens up a market to take advantage of. The value of this market is ultimately driven by a desire for rare things. It’s no different to selling antiques or artworks.”

Old records can certainly be compared to antiques and artworks, and their price will fluctuate in the same way and can be influenced by context, current cultural reference points and, more importantly, whether a DJ drops it on Boiler Room. Such was the case with Escape From New York’s super sleazy disco oddity from 1984 ‘Fire In My Heart’, which, after a casual drop from DJ Harvey on Boiler Room a few years back, went from peanuts to upwards of £1,000 in months. Since the hype peaked and Isle Of Jura Records reissued it, it’s now settled at around £100.

However, the same antiques analogy for prices and perceived demand can’t be applied to limited-edition runs of new records. While these limited runs are calculated by labels in order to make sure the niche amount of fans who want a copy can buy one and they don’t end up with wads of unsold stock in their office, there is an element of exclusivity that plays on those material desires Ron describes above.

“I don’t actually blame the scalpers,” says ZHA, DJ and producer behind the label and distribution company White Peach. A man who sees the record process from pressing to postage, he regularly spots flippers trying to buy multiple copies of records. “It’s fundamentally a free market, and I believe in the ethics around supply and demand. As a record label, you’re releasing music, so it’s your job to get it out to people who want to hear it, right? By limiting the quantity, you’ve artificially created a demand. Why not press more in the first place?”

Some labels who press limited runs argue that an extra 100 copies will break the bank if not sold. DJ Fryer argues that it wouldn’t, and that it’s the metalworks, mastering and test presses that cost the most in the release process, and that records are only 50p to produce after that initial outlay.

Other models, such as the Music Preservation Society, only press the release once a certain amount of orders have been taken. But even then, as Ron explains, the label is finding more and more of those orders aren’t coming from the fan and collector community they’ve built up, but coming from flippers too.

“This is causing absolute uproar among a few of our members but, personally, I see it as a few extra copies sold, with the added benefit of having those tracks ‘promoted’ via other channels,” says Ron, who remains pragmatic and philosophical about the culture of scalping. “I will always see the positive side of scalping as an artist. No artist wants their work to be valueless in the second-hand market. As much as buyers (and many artists) protest, I suspect most artists are quietly proud of their works commanding high asking prices. At the end of the day however, we have to come down to Earth and realise that these records are (usually) not expensive because they are good, they are expensive because they are rare.”

Whether it’s because they’re rare or that they are good records (or both), one thing is consistent: labels are monitoring Discogs all the time, and most will use information about the value their releases are being flipped at. If a few inflated copies have been sold, then a repress is often on the cards. And if it’s not, then ask yourself... do you really need a record that’s marked up beyond belief? Investment in records should be nothing but emotional. “It loses the fun to save up all that money to have a record just to flex,” agrees Fryer, who’s bought, collected and sold records since the mid ’90s. “Anyone can buy their way into this. But finding things through your own taste and making up your own mind and not letting prices dictate? Now that’s much more of a craft.”

Want to know more? Read about Discogs' new rare releases platform, Exclusives.