THIS ARTICLE is about my first price guide, the 1985-86 edition of the Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide. I discuss some of the reasoning that I used and the results that had an immediate and profoundly unsettling impact on the hobby and business of selling and buying records. It makes public the reasoning that went behind the decisions that sticker-shocked (shocked I say!) tens of thousands of collectors.
This was written as an explanatory page (on WordPress, a page is different from a post) on my Elvis – A Touch Of Gold site. I am republishing it here as a post (the search engines supposedly see them differently) as it addresses issues common to all record collecting and I want it to be better seen by Google and company. This article will be published simultaneously with another, “a few faverave albums of the cut-out era,” which expands on the paragraphs about cut-outs below. There will be an overlapping of text.
Something was not right with the record collectors price guides and everyone knew it.
The 1985-86 Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide was published by O’Sullivan Woodside (OW) in 1985. It was the sixth edition in a series originally titled Record Albums Price Guide (RAPG); the first five editions were by different authors.
My book was often referred to as “the Umphred album price guide” or “the Umphred book,” as it was the only book by me—and it was so very different from every other record collectors price guide ever published! 1
But before I address those differences, I need to give a brief background on another topic that was important at the time of the first five editions of RAPG in the 1970s and early ’80s.
The cover photo for this book is my favorite cover of any of my fourteen books. It is a staged garage sale set up at the O’Sullivan house; publisher John O’Sullivan is the customer buying a copy of Elvis’ Christmas Album. The concept was mine, as were the records used as props.
The era of the cut-out
After the American record industry stopped manufacturing albums in both mono and stereo in 1968, they had tens of millions of deleted records taking up valuable space. These were dumped into stores across the country for a fraction of their normal price—wholesaling for as little as 10¢ instead of the standard $1.35. As these units had already been written off of the companies’ taxes as a loss, anything they received for them was gravy. 2
These albums were factory-sealed and therefore in unplayed mint condition and damn near ubiquitous: you could not be a record collector and not be aware of their presence on the market.
Yet each of these was listed in the early editions of RAPG as being worth between $8 and $15 in near mint condition! How could records on the collectors market in NM condition—meaning that they were used (played) records—be worth several times their brand new (unplayed) counterparts on the retail market? 3
Something was not right with the guides and everyone knew it.
Then came me …
When I took over the authorship of the O’Sullivan Woodside titles, Herman’s Hermits’ albums were listed in the previous price guides at $10 to $15 each. Many if not most Hermits’ albums (such as the HOLD ON! soundtrack album) were readily available for a dollar as factory-sealed cut-outs twenty years after being released.
In 1985, the previous editor of the O’Sullivan Woodside price guide had abandoned ship, unexpectedly leaving the company over a variety of issues. This left OW (the publishing branch of COL Press, a printing firm that handled the printing needs of several local businesses) with several titles and no author. These also included a 45 guide, a soundtrack guide, and a country 45 guide.
During my lengthy interview for the position, I made it known that I thought the OW books were almost useless as actual guides for sellers and buyers. A argued that the books were so inaccurate that they were doing a disservice to the hobby and business of collecting records.
I made it abundantly clear that I would be boldly going where no price guide editor had gone before, making sweeping changes in the directions the books would take, although I was willing to work with their existing format to keep the look of the books familiar to longtime readers.
If I was hired.
I was hired by John O’Sullivan and Don Woodside to take over their line of record collectors price guides. 4
When I took over the authorship of the O’Sullivan Woodside titles in 1985, several albums by Paul Revere & the Raiders from the late ’60s were listed in the previous price guides at $10 to $15. At the time, still-sealed copies of titles such as HARD ‘N’ HEAVY WITH MARSHMALLOW could be found brand-new in cut-out bins around the country.
The first problem was the discographies
Don Woodside was so desperate for product that he instructed me to take the previous (fifth) edition of the LP book, change a few prices and pictures and write a new introduction and give him something to sell as soon as possible. I had to convince him that such a decision might sink the whole enterprise. And convince him I did!
So my first project was the album book: five previous editions had been published and each sold well. But the previous editor planned on expanding the line of titles, intending to publish separate album books for country & western (C&W), rhythm & blues (R&B), and pop & personality artists (P&P).
Unfortunately, those plans were years in the making and never realized. Due to this, over the previous editions of Record Albums Price Guide, many collectable artists had been pulled from the book and set on the shelves for inclusion in one of the planned new titles. In their place, thousands of listings of ’70s artists were substituted—artists with no collectable value at the time!
My discographical problem, in a nutshell, was this: Hundreds of then-contemporary artists of little interest to collectors were taking up space that should have been devoted to older artists of great interest to collectors.
My goal with this sixth edition was to turn it into a book devoted exclusively to rock and roll and related genres, including soul and pop-rock. So I took three important steps to improve the discographical aspect:
1. I deleted thousands of listings of ’70s records with little collector’s interest and no collectors’ value.
2. I returned the discographies of collectable artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino (previously pulled from RAPG for inclusion in the R&B book), Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (previously pulled from RAPG for inclusion in the C&W book), and Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond (previously and inexplicably pulled from RAPG for inclusion in the P&P book).
3. I added thousands of new listings of records from the ’50s and ’60s, including hundreds of privately pressed garage, psych, prog, and Christian rock albums from the late 1960s and early ‘70s. These records were highly collectable and very valuable but had never appeared in a price guide before.
With these three changes, I had a radically different price guide than the previous editions. I had a book that actually addressed many of the records that collectors wanted from dealers! As I proofed the first set galleys, I pondered how I would tackle the other problem.
When I took over the authorship of the O’Sullivan Woodside titles in 1985, the PAPAS & MAMAS album with the tricky gatefold jacket was listed in the previous price guides at $10 to $15. At the time, it was available for $2 as a factory-sealed album in cut-out bins around the country.
The second problem was the prices
There was a pithy saying among sellers and buyers of used records about the Record Albums Price Guide books: to establish a fair market value with one of the books, “You take the book value, cut it in half, and then work down from there.” Why? Because thousands of listings in RAPG had absurdly inflated values assigned to them—perhaps as much as half the records listed in those books sold for less than half the “prices” listed! 5
There was a reason for that because no one buys a price guide to read that their collection of records, stamps, coins, comic books, baseball cards, Beanie babies, etc., is worth less than they paid for it! People buy price guides to read how smart they are—that the records that they bought ten years before were good buys that turned out to be good investments.
In the guides, common used records were overvalued while rather rare records were undervalued.
Consequently, people bought the books and looked up artists like Paul Revere & The Raiders, the Turtles, Herman’s Hermits, the Mamas & Papas, Peter & Gordon, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Grommett knows how many other worthy names and found their records uniformly listed at $8 to $15 each—despite the obvious fact that many of these albums were readily available brand new as cut-outs for $1.99 each!
At the same time as this was occurring, thousand of other records—genuinely rare and valuable records that were hardly ever made available for sale—were valued at considerably less than half of their real market value.
Inexperienced collectors trying to sell their records that relied on the RAPG book’s values were regularly selling their genuinely desirable records for a fraction of their worth while wondering why the bulk of their records never sold at all.
My ‘pricing’ problem, in a nutshell, was this: Common records were ludicrously over-valued in all of the previous editions of Record Albums Price Guide, while rare records were dramatically under-valued!
I knew that the 1985-86 Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide was going to cause sticker shock in the market, freaking out a lot of people who relied on the book for a degree of accuracy. Despite removing thousands of ’70s records with little value beyond that of a normal used record, there were still thousands of ’60s records that were in the same category.
So, I compromised: I lowered the values of approximately one-quarter (25%) of the records by one-half (50%) the previously listed value! And I only reduced the values by half, despite the fact that I knew that the lowered value of many of these records was still too high!
I figured it was better to see two dollar records listed at $4-6 than $8-12, and it would cushion the blow to the inexperienced collectors in seeing the value of their collections plummet.
I lowered the values of approximately 1/4 of the records by 1/2 the previously listed value and no one seemed to notice!
When that was completed, I went about raising the values of approximately one-quarter (25%) of the records by a factor of no less than two (100%) but no more than four (400%). This despite the fact that I knew that the raised value of many of these records was still too low! But better to see hundred-dollar records listed at $60-80 than $15-30.
• The 1985-86 Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide lowered the values of ¼ of the listings from the previous edition; few people who bought the book seemed to notice.
• The 1985-86 Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide maintained the same values of ½ of the listings from the previous edition; few people who bought the book seemed to notice.
• The 1985-86 Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide raised the values of ¼ of the listings from the previous edition and everybody who bought the book and their friends noticed.
So it was that the 1985-86 Rock & Roll Record Albums Price Guide was known as “the Umphred album guide” and Umphred was known as “the guy who raised all the f*cking prices!”
I confess that my major regret with that book was that I didn’t lower and raise the values enough … 6
FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page was taken at the record collectors swap meet/convention in 2019 put on by KUSF, the radio station of the Univerity of California at San Francisco. The dealer’s table behind the two buyers have on display the two most influential albums in the history of rock & roll: Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album from 1956 and the Beatles’ American debut album MEET THE BEATLES from 1963.
1 Aside from the lackluster O’Sullivan Woodside books, there was also an annual price guide from House of Collectibles. These books were so bad they gave the OW books an opportunity to shine in comparison. The HoC books were assigned a bogus house name, so we collectors never learned who was responsible for these travesties.
2 The figures are approximation: wholesale was approximately one-third (⅓) of the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, which was $3.99 by the end of the ’60s.
3 None of the albums above have achieved status as a valuable collectable. These records—like most of the other ubiquitous titles of the Cut-Out Era—can be purchased today in NM condition for less than $20.
4 As I was already working a decent job as a trophy engraver, I did the interview with a cocky determination: I would have my way or they could get someone else. My arrogance almost lost me the position, but Don Woodside and I discovered a mutual passion that turned the conversation around …
5 I placed “prices” in quotation marks because the figures in price guides are not prices—they are approximate values reflecting a spectrum of prices paid for an item. Such books should be called value guides, not price guides.
6 As the Internet has shown over and over, common records—even those from the ’60s—were far more common than the price guide values implied. Conversely, rare records are far rarer than those same books let on.