I see familiar faces in local record shops each weekend: shrewd and focused individuals sporting facial hair and stained band t-shirts, flipping through the same sections time and time again. These shops typically offer re-presses and original copies of acclaimed recordings from genres both common and obscure—from classic rock, alternative rock, jazz, hip-hop, and soul, but also hardcore punk, film scores, and underground electronic music. However, the majority of the action happens online. Eclectic new releases can easily be purchased from distribution websites like Hardwax, Honest Jons, and Phonica. Rare, coveted, and discontinued records are found on Discogs, the quintessential online music marketplace and discography.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly ready to part with some cash, I order a specific record that’s been stuck in my head for weeks from Discogs. However, the value of some records are so inflated that I have absolutely no chance of ever obtaining them. Nevertheless, Discogs perfectly crystallizes an ironic intersection: the love of physical artefacts and the convenience of the World Wide Web.
Discogs is an open-source entity that was devised and built in 2000 by Kevin Lewandowski. The heart of the website is a user-built database of music, where more than 311,000 people have contributed some extract of knowledge, culminating in a catalogue of more than 7.7 million recordings by 4.7 million artists. Users may easily read up on the rarest of releases, find other albums by an artist produced under different pseudonyms, or discover something related that they may like.
While Discogs’ database is its bones, the website’s marketplace is its meat. An invaluable tool for DJs, journalists, and music fans alike, Discogs allows individuals to purchase records at a price determined by the seller. More than 23 million items are available from thousands of vendors, and because the marketplace stands on top of the Discogs database, sale items are rigorously categorized so that buyers are able to specify the exact versions of records that they want to purchase. Once ordered and paid for, the vinyl is shipped to the door of the purchaser–a seamless process well-known in today’s world of online shopping.
In crude terms, Discogs’ marketplace is a free market structure where the price of physical music is determined exclusively by supply and demand. Sellers must be competitive with their prices in order to compete and secure sales, which means that records that were produced in excessive quantities call for astoundingly low prices. Nevertheless, such records can still be fabulous. For example, Charles Wright and The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s 7” of “Do Your Thing”–a stirring, slow-burning, late 60’s funk track memorable for its placement in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film “Boogie Nights”– sells for $1.30 CAD on Discogs. Plainly listed, 256 people have it, and 148 people want it, and those that want it can get it for a handful of change.
On the flip side, rare items are able to capture extraordinarily high prices. Mistafide’s 12” of “Equity Funk” from 1980 is presently listed at $3,605.72, and at one time, it sold for more than $5000.
I tend to stick to more affordable represses of cult classics; my latest purchase from Discogs was a $15 release of Martin Dumas Jr’s “Attitude, Belief & Determination” from 2015. The original pressing last sold for $2,163.43.
Such an underground market has tangible effects on physical shops, which, despite the return of vinyl, has the potential to undercut in-store sales. Why make the effort to actually go into brick and mortar shops when you don’t have to leave the comfort of your living room? Why spend time digging through disorganized crate upon disorganized crate when you can find exactly what you want with just a few keystrokes? In an interview with Resident Advisor, Discogs creator Lewandowski expressed empathy for his site’s effect on stores: “I’m not sure, but I’d assume their sales would be down just because the internet gives buyers a huge selection. But I’d like to work with physical stores somehow, if for example we could create a Discogs application that could help them.”
Whatever the case, I’m confident that the shops will survive. Many vinyl-heads would agree that the definitive feeling of digging for records cannot be replaced or properly explained, and that the simplicity of buying through Discogs pales in comparison to the ‘authentic’ experience.
Moreover, record shops are indeed adapting. The world-famous Record Loft in Berlin prices their products solely using the Discogs rate. Speaking to Electronic Beats, Record Loft founder Christian Panneborg remarks on the commonality of this practice in the industry: “Nobody speaks about [using] Discogs as a price guide, but all do it. It’s easy to use and when you’re pricing tons of records, you need to be fast. In our case, I wanted to put this process into public—maybe it kills some of the mysticism [around the process]. I wanted to be transparent. I wanted to give the customer the downright baseline so that he knows he [or she] can’t get it cheaper than here.” This way, the shopper gets pure market-driven prices married with the bona fide digging experience; in other words, everyone wins!
But hold on, $5000 for just a flimsy piece of wax? It’s commonplace for record-shoppers to bemoan the inflated rates produced by the invisible laws of the marketplace. These high prices are typically caused by a hyper-short supply of a given record (both old and new); however, when demand surges, record labels seize the opportunity and capitalize. Such labels (generally) obtain the proper licenses in order to press the record again, increasing the supply and therefore getting the music in to the hands of hungry vinyl junkies.
Whatever effects it may have on vinyl heads and record stores, Discogs is here to stay. The website is not only the world’s premier virtual music database, but also an (almost) purely competitive marketplace that has tangible effects on the music industry at large.
So, the next time you stumble upon your parents’ old record collection, look for the extra worn sleeves tucked away in the corner of the very top shelf. You may choose to put the record on the disc of your family turntable, start the rotor, and carefully drop the needle onto the grooved black surface. You may listen for the warm fuzzy muffle of the notes resonating through the beloved stereo system. Alternatively, type the name of the record into the Discogs search bar. You might just be sitting on a gold mine.