Note: Due to COVID-19-related supply issues, particularly in the United States, we’re currently buying more records from our Japanese suppliers than usual. It puts our inventory a bit out of balance, but then again, we’re turning up some pretty amazing Japanese records at the moment.
You may have noticed that we have a lot of Japanese records in stock here at RareRecords.net. If you are unfamiliar with Japan LPs, you might wonder why we have so many Japanese records for sale and not, say, a comparable number of French or German records.
That’s a reasonable question, so we will explain why, as a collector, you may find it worth your while to add some Japanese records to your collection.
There was a time when the phrase, “made in Japan” was synonymous with poor quality, and most Japanese products were scorned as being cheap or poorly made.
Shortly after World War II, Japan’s manufacturing industry was trying to recover quickly from the war and to do so, they became primarily concerned with making inexpensive, low-quality merchandise that they could produce quickly.
That changed by the early 1960s, when the country began to try to change their image, much as South Korea and China have been doing in the past two decades. By the mid-1960s, Japan was known for producing high-quality cameras and stereo equipment, among other things.
With the increase in quality of stereo equipment, Japanese records also improved in quality, with record companies using better materials for their covers and high-quality, dead-quiet virgin vinyl for the records themselves.
In addition, record companies also paid strong attention to the mastering and pressing processes, trying to produce the best-sounding records possible.
By the early 1980s, Japanese records were being exported all over the world to be sold to quality-conscious audiophiles, who liked the high-quality covers and the quiet playing surfaces.
This was a time when American record companies were often making records from noisy, recycled vinyl, and using stampers until they wore out, which resulted in a poor sounding domestic product. Many sound-conscious buyers began buying Japanese records instead.
Read on to see why so many record collectors are interested in buying Japanese records.
Besides good sound, a quiet playing surface, and quality cover printing, Japanese records also offered some other things of interest to the collector.
There are several things that make Japanese records appealing to both record collectors and audiophiles:
Toshiba, one of the primary record manufacturing companies in Japan, pressed many of their records on red, “Everclean” vinyl from 1958 through 1974.
The Everclean vinyl was designed to be less prone to collecting static electricity and dust than the more common black vinyl.
This “Everclean” formula was proprietary to Toshiba, so only the record labels that contracted with Toshiba to manufacture their records issued albums on red vinyl.
While not intended to be collectors’ items at the time of manufacture, these red vinyl pressings are more sought out by collectors today than their black vinyl counterparts, as colored vinyl records are far less common than black vinyl ones, and collectors like the unusual.
The labels that issued albums on red vinyl included Odeon, Liberty, Capitol, Stateside, Warner Brothers (through 1970), and World Pacific, which meant that collectors might find albums by such artists as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, Frank Sinatra, and Julie London, among others, pressed on red vinyl.
The decision regarding which Japanese records would be pressed on red vinyl was seemingly random; there was no way of knowing if a particular title by a given artist would come out on black vinyl, red vinyl, or both.
Among collectors, if an album was pressed on both black and red vinyl, the red vinyl pressing will command a significantly higher price, even if the red vinyl pressings are more common than the black ones.
In a few cases, such as with Ummagumma by Pink Floyd, and Empty Sky by Elton John, the red vinyl was limited only to promotional copies, and all copies sold in record stores were black vinyl. In the case of Live Album by Grand Funk Railroad, not only were the red vinyl pressings limited to promotional copies, but only one record of the two record set was pressed on red vinyl!
Different covers. Often, particularly in the 1960s, Japanese records were released with different covers than their U.S. counterparts. This was often a temporary measure, and these alternate covers rarely stayed in print for long.
One example would the the 1969 release of Smash Hits, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The original Japanese pressing featured a colorful photo of the entire band, taken through a fish eye lens.
U.S. pressings (and later Japanese issues) featured multiple images of Hendrix alone. The original cover is quite rare today.
Other Japanese LPs that had covers that were significantly different covers from their UK or U.S. counterparts were:
Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night
Canned Heat – Boogie With Canned Heat
Jimi Hendrix – Axis: Bold as Love
Julie London – Swing Me an Old Song and About the Blues
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon (record club issue)
The Who – The Who Sell Out and My Generation
Relative rarity. Most Japanese records contain music by Japanese artists that are sung in Japanese; English-language albums have been, especially in the 1960s, a relatively small part of the overall industry.
As a result, most Japanese records of English-language music were pressed in small runs; sometimes as small as a few hundred copies. Rather than keeping titles in print, the records would be repressed if demand warranted it.
Depending on sales, reissues might come a few months later, or several years later.
Often, these repressings would have a different cover, catalog number, and obi from the earlier issue. It isn’t unusual to find that some popular Japanese records have been released at least a half a dozen times, with each pressing being different in some way from all of the ones that preceded it.
Good sound quality. There are many factors that determine how a record will sound, including the quality of the master tapes used, how the record was mastered, and what kind of vinyl was used to press the records. Japanese records are often revered for their high quality sound.
American record companies that pressed records in the millions in the 1970s and early 1980s often used inexpensive or recycled vinyl to press their records, resulting in poor sound or excessive surface noise.
They would also press a high number of records from a single stamper, with each record pressed sounding worse than the one made just before it.
Most Japanese records were pressed using high quality “virgin” vinyl that was manufactured exclusively for pressing records. These records are often extraordinarily quiet and have little or no surface noise, allowing the listener a better listening experience.
In addition, English-language music titles were usually pressed in fairly small quantities in Japan, meaning all of the discs were likely pressed while the stampers were still fairly new.
For many years, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, an American company known for their high-quality audiophile pressings, contracted the pressing of their records to JVC in Japan, as JVC had invented an exceptionally durable and quiet vinyl compound known as “Super Vinyl” that was unavailable anywhere else.
The obi. While most Japanese records feature local music, a lot of music fans there like foreign music, as well. The language barrier in Japan presented a problem – should foreign album covers be changed for Japanese records,with artist names, album titles and song titles printed in Japanese?
The solution was the obi, which means “belt” or “sash”. The obi is a strip of paper, usually about two inches wide, that wraps vertically around the album cover, containing information about the artist and album in Japanese.
As these strips of paper were fragile and easily torn, they are often missing when older albums are found today, especially since consumers in the 1950s and 1960s attached little significance to them and often threw then away shortly after purchase.
Finding Japanese records made prior to 1970 that still have the obi intact can be quite difficult, and for some albums, nearly impossible. The inclusion of the obi can dramatically affect the price of some Japanese records, sometimes increasing the price by a factor of ten or more.
While usually found in a wraparound strip, there are other versions of the obi that have occasionally been used. In 1963, a short-lived hankake obi, or “half obi” was used. These were small strips of paper that simply folded over the top of the cover. These were problematic for retailers, as they tended to easily fall off of the record.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a few record companies, most notably RCA and CBS, used a larger, foldover obi that ran across the top of the cover. These are generally known as a “cap” obi, and are often missing, as the only thing that held them to the cover was the album’s original shrink wrap.
Some labels used a sticker instead of an obi in the 1970s and 1980s. These stickers were attached to the shrinkwrap itself and are often missing when these albums turn up for sale today.
Some collectors revere Japanese records for their high manufacturing quality and sound, and couldn’t care less about whether the obi is present or not.
Other collectors attach a great deal of significance to the obi, regarding it as an essential part of the album.
That’s a matter of personal preference, though a copy of an album with an obi will always command a higher price than a copy of the same album without one.
Japanese Records Summary
Japanese records offer great sound, visual interest, and general interest as something unusual in record collecting. No matter what artist you collect, chances are there are some Japanese records by that artist that you will find to be a welcome addition to your record collection.
When anything becomes both valuable and collectible, it’s inevitable that sooner or later, someone will attempt to reproduce it in order to profit from presenting and selling the reproduction as if it were the real thing. It happens with money, paintings and stamps, and unfortunately, rare records.
While many counterfeit records were easily identified and sold as such when they were new and plentiful, over time, people forget about them or forget how to distinguish them from original pressings.
Often, buyers will pay top dollar for records that aren’t authentic. Just as often, the sellers of those records aren’t even aware that the item they’re selling is a counterfeit, rather than an original pressing.
Counterfeit records, pirate pressings and bootlegs have been sold to unwitting collectors for decades, though the practice of making counterfeit records seems to have peaked in the late 1970s. In this article, we’ll cover the history of counterfeit records, show a few examples of some frequently seen titles, and offer some general advice as to how to avoid inadvertently paying a lot of money for a record that may be a forgery.
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Counterfeit Records and Pirate Pressing Terminology
Before going into detail about these questionable pressings, it’s important to understand the terminology and the differences between the three kinds of unauthorized records that are usually encountered in the market.
Counterfeit records – Counterfeit records are unauthorized releases of any record that are intended to duplicate the original, authorized pressing in order to fool the buyer into thinking that they are buying the genuine item.
These records often look quite a lot like original pressings and can easily fool the untrained eye or inexperienced buyers. Most counterfeit records are singles or albums by major artists and are usually reproductions of items that are long out of print or titles which were only issued for promotional or radio station use.
Pirate pressings – Pirate records are pressings which contain recorded music which has been previously and legitimately released, but are packaged in such a way as to not fool the buyer into believing they are buying the original item.
Pirate pressings may contain the exact same songs as a well-known album, but may have a different cover, a different title, a different label and record company mentioned on the product, and often may feature all of those things.
Unlike counterfeit records, which are made to fool buyers into paying money for a rare collectible, pirate pressings were often sold at the same price as regular albums, and were simply manufactured to make money from buyers who might otherwise buy the legitimate album.
Bootlegs – Bootleg albums are records which contain previously unreleased material, usually by a well-known artist. Bootlegs represent an entirely new product, and are not intended to fool the buyer into believing that they’re buying a legitimate release from a major record company. While there are some exceptions, most bootleg records do not represent legitimate releases and usually contain previously unreleased studio or live recordings.
The term “bootleg” is often used interchangeably in casual conversation with “counterfeit” or “pirate” to refer to any record that was not authorized by a record company and/or recording artist.
Despite this, one will often hear even experienced record sellers refer to a counterfeit record as “a boot,” as in, “This record isn’t original; it’s a boot.” One rarely encounters the term “pirate” among collectors, but that may have a lot to do with the fact that pirate pressings, while once quite common in the 8 track tape format, have always been relatively rare in the record market.
Counterfeit Records History and Motivation
Counterfeit records have been sold to collectors for decades; the earliest examples likely date to the age when records were still shaped like cylinders. Many rare blues 78 RPM singles have been counterfeited, as well.
All five of the Elvis Presley singles issued on the Sun label have been counterfeited in both 45 and 78 RPM formats, as these became collectible rather early in Elvis’ career.
As collectors started to seek out records that were no longer available for general sale, unscrupulous individuals decided to fill the need in the marketplace by making reproductions.
Early attempts were often of questionable quality, but as technology improved in the graphics industry, so did the quality of the counterfeit records produced by these individuals.
While some counterfeit records were produced to be sold to collectors at the market price for the reproduced item, many titles were simply sold in quantity to record wholesalers, often at rock-bottom prices.
The album generally regarded as the most-widely counterfeited album ever, Introducing the Beatles, was often found in the 1970s in stores selling them at discounted prices that rarely topped $4.
Few buyers likely thought they were buying a rarity at those prices, especially when the discount bins were often full sealed copies at that price.
Of course, over the decades, many of these records have changed hands multiple times and their origins have long been forgotten. Today, people find the now-40-year-old-copies of that Beatles album and assume that they must be original because they’re old, or because their parents bought them as children.
In fact, they’re just forty year old counterfeit records.
While some titles, such as Introducing the Beatles, often appeared in bargain bins, other counterfeit records were made to fool buyers purchasing brand new releases. In the late 1970s, counterfeit copies of new titles by major artists often found their way into the distribution chain.
At that time, it was sometimes possible to buy counterfeit pressings of a new album the very week it was released. These were sold by stores that may have had no idea that the records they were selling were fraudulent in origin.
Perhaps the most famous example of this was the soundtrack to the film, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring the Bee Gees. This album was pressed in large quantities in anticipation of it becoming a big seller.
Unfortunately, the movie was a flop and the record sold poorly, leading many retailers to return them to distributors. The record company reportedly had more copies of this particular album returned to them from distributors who couldn’t sell them than they had pressed in the first place.
Regardless of whether the records being reproduced were older collectibles, rare promotional items, or new releases, the motivation for those who made them was the same – to produce them as cheaply as possible and to sell them at a profit.
Most often, counterfeit records are rare titles by major artists, though there are also plenty of examples of relatively obscure titles by artists that are unknown outside the collecting community. The latter is particularly true of albums in the garage rock and psychedelic rock genres.
Examples of Counterfeit Records
To list all known examples of counterfeit records, even in the rock and roll category, would be a thankless task best suited to encyclopedists. Still, there are a number of well-known examples that most collectors are likely to encounter sooner or later, and that would include, not surprisingly, counterfeit records by the Beatles.
Introducing the Beatles – Introducing the Beatles is the granddaddy of all counterfeit albums; no other record has ever come close. It’s quite likely that the counterfeit copies of this album outnumber originals by two or three times, despite the fact that the original album sold quite well.
Introducing the Beatles was released on the small Vee Jay label in January, 1964 and due to legal action, was out of print by October of that year. After that, it became a highly sought after collector’s item, and the counterfeiters took over to fill that demand.
Early counterfeit issues were clumsily produced, with fuzzy covers and poor color. Later pressings were much more convincing.
With original pressings of the album, mono copies outnumber stereo copies by a ratio of roughly 50:1, making stereo copies quite rare. Naturally, about 95% of the counterfeit copies have covers that say that they are stereo.
What they don’t have are records that say they are stereo, and every fake copy of this album we’ve ever seen with a stereo cover had a record that played mono and lacked the word “stereo” on the label.
Original pressings were made with surprisingly thick vinyl with stamped numbers in the trailoff or “dead wax” area near the label. Most counterfeit copies are pressed with thinner, more flexible vinyl and have handwritten numbers in the dead wax.
Counterfeit copies of the album that feature a color band around the label are usually missing the color green in the band.
The easiest way to determine whether a copy of Introducing the Beatles is genuine or not is to look at the hole on the label. Do both the title of the album and the name of the group appear above the label? If so, the record is likely genuine. If the name of the album and the name of the group are separated by the play hole, then the record is a counterfeit.
Any copy with a brown border around the front cover is a fake.
Many original pressings of Introducing the Beatles included a custom Vee Jay paper inner sleeve. These are missing on all counterfeit copies.
Other counterfeit Beatles albums on Vee Jay:
Songs, Pictures and Stories of the Fabulous Beatles – The counterfeits of this album omit the word “stories” from the title and lack the original album’s gatefold cover.
The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage – Originals have the title of the album written on the spine of the cover; counterfeit copies do not.
Jolly What! The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage – Originals have the title of the album written on the spine of the cover; counterfeit copies do not
Other counterfeit Beatles and Beatles-related albums of note:
Yesterday and Today – Many of the counterfeit copies of the Beatles famous “Butcher Cover” have front covers that feel slick to the touch, while originals had a rough feel to them. Many of the fakes have colored vinyl records; the originals were all black. The colored vinyl pressings are technically pirate issues.
Let It Be – Believe it or not, this album was out of print for several years in the late 1970s, so some wily individuals made copies of it. Originals have a red label with sharp printing; the fakes that we’ve seen have pinkish labels with somewhat blurry printing.
The Savage Young Beatles – (see image above) Original pressings feature the catalog number on the front cover printed in black; the counterfeit copies show the number in red.
The Beatles Christmas Album – This one can be tricky, as many counterfeit copies of this record are quite convincing. The original album had a cardboard cover with a paper slick glued on; most of the fakes have the cover art printed directly on posterboard. On original pressings, look at the second photo on the lower left of the front cover. The words “theater royal” are legible on original pressings.
Note: the presence of the stamped words “Bell Sound” in the vinyl are not necessarily an indication of an original pressing, as many of the fakes have this.
John Lennon/Yoko Ono – Two Virgins – Original U.S. pressings included a brown paper outer cover that was sealed with a round white sticker on the right side. Copies with brown covers that open on other sides, which lack the sticker, or copies where the brown wrapper is not large enough to cover the entire album cover are likely fakes.
Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits – Counterfeit copies of this 1975 mail order album are quite convincing, especially since the original pressings were so poorly made.Original pressings included a custom inner sleeve advertising other albums on the label, and had the title of the album printed on the spine.On original covers, the text on the other albums shown on the back cover is legible, and on original discs, the catalog number is faintly etched on the label itself.
Ed Rudy – American Tour With Ed Rudy #2 – an album of Beatles interviews. Original pressings had thick, ultra-heavy vinyl; the counterfeit pressings used thin, flexible vinyl.
Other common or well-known counterfeit albums by major artists:
David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World – Original U.S. pressings of this 1970 album featured a cartoon cover, but were quickly deleted due to poor sales. Counterfeit pressings have handwritten matrix numbers in the dead wax; originals have stamped numbers. The labels on original pressings are smooth in texture, while the fakes tend to be pitted.
Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio – Originals of this album sell for thousands, and were pressed on thick, brittle vinyl and had the title of the album printed on the spine. Fakes have thin, flexible vinyl and no spine printing.
Elvis Costello – Live at the El Mocambo – This late 1970s LP was originally issued only to radio stations in Canada. Most counterfeit copies have flimsy posterboard covers and labels with tears around the spindle hole. Many fakes of this album have completely different labels altogether.
Emmylou Harris – Gliding Bird – This was Emmylou Harris’ first album originally had a color cover and label. Copies that have black and white printing are fakes.
Buddy Holly – That’ll Be the Day – Like the album above, originals of this album sell for thousands, and were pressed on thick, brittle vinyl and had the title of the album printed on the spine. Fakes have thin, flexible vinyl and no spine printing.
Phil Lesh/Ned Lagin – Seastones – Fake copies of this odd electronic album have posterboard covers; the originals used paper slicks glued to a cardboard cover.
Madonna – Erotica – This 12” single picture disc is one of the few picture discs to have been counterfeited. Originally pressed as a legitimate release but withdrawn before being distributed, the original pressings are quite rare and sell for thousands of dollars. Genuine copies have stamped matrix numbers; counterfeit copies do not.
Todd Rundgren – Runt – Todd Rundgren’s 1970 solo album was counterfeited several times in the late 1970s and include versions on both the Ampex and Bearsville labels. On all copies, the words “Queens Litho in U.S.A.” are clearly legible on original covers but not on the fakes.The fake Ampex copies usually have a red printed box on the cover that mentions “We Gotta Get You a Woman.” Originals do not have this, as the “box” was actually a sticker that was attached to the copy used to make the counterfeit pressings. Oddly enough, the rare variation of Runt that includes alternate takes and mixes has not been counterfeited.
The City – Now That Everything’s Been Said – This 1968 LP featuring Carole King originally had a color cover and label; the fakes have black and white covers.
The Yardbirds – Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page – This album by the Yardbirds was released by the band’s former label to take advantage of the success of Jimmy Page’s new band, Led Zeppelin. Page sued and the album was withdrawn from sale but was quickly counterfeited to meet collector demand. Counterfeit copies of this album exist on both the Epic and Columbia Special Products labels. Look for pitted labels and tears around the spindle hole on the fake copies, which may have stamped matrix numbers in the dead wax just like the originals.The most common counterfeit pressing of this album features a black and white cover and a black and white label. You would think that this would immediately suggest to anyone that this album is a counterfeit, as all original pressings had color covers and yellow labels, but we’ve seen a lot of people over the years selling these as “white label promo” copies. There are no legitimate white label promotional copies of this album; even the copies sent to radio stations had yellow labels. Not that it matters, since the white labels on the counterfeit copies do not indicate that they are promotional pressings. All copies of this album that have either black and white covers or white labels are counterfeits.
Other albums we’ve seen over the years as counterfeit pressings include:
The Banana Splits – The Banana Splits – The soundtrack to this 1970s children’s show was once quite collectible, counterfeit copies of a white label promo copy exist.
David Bowie – The Man Who Sold the World (German pressing with the “round” cover)
David Bowie – An Evening With David Bowie – promotional interview album; the counterfeit copies are quite convincing.
Chocolate Watch Band – One Step Beyond – white label promotional copies of this album have been counterfeited
Chocolate Watch Band – The Inner Mystique – Counterfeit copies of this album have white labels; the originals were brown.
Gandalf – Gandalf 1969 psych LP on Capitol.
David Gilmour – David Gilmour (1978) – We inadvertently bought a counterfeit pressing of this album brand new from a major record store chain within a month of the album’s initial release.
The Kinks – Face to Face (U.S. copies on Reprise)
Mad River – both Capitol albums by this late 1960s band have been counterfeited.
The Nice – Ars Longa Vita Brevis (Columbia Special Products pressings)
The Nice – The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (Columbia Special Products pressings)
Small Faces – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (U.S. pressings)
Leslie West – Mountain – Fake copies of the debut LP by Leslie West have poorly printed covers and labels.
The Yardbirds – For Your Love – The counterfeit pressings of this LP are quite good, though the quality of the photos on the front cover is not as good as the original pressings.
The Yardbirds – Little Games
This list is far from complete; there are hundreds of examples of counterfeit albums.
Examples of Pirate Pressings
Pirate pressings are records containing material that is legitimately available elsewhere, but is packaged differently.
The purpose of these pressings, unlike counterfeits, is not to fool the buyer into thinking that they’re buying something rare and valuable, but to simply get the buyer to pay for it.
In the 1970s, pirate 8 track tapes were quite common and were often sold at truck stops and convenience stores. Titles would be identical to those sold in record stores but the labels usually lacked artwork and the names of the companies producing the products were different from legitimate issues.
Pirate records, by comparison, are less common. A company called Melody Recordings issued a number of titles in the early 1970s, all of which had the same cover, depicting two crowns and two scepters.
Artists and titles in this series included:
Cheech and Chong – Cheech and Chong
Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Pictures at an Exhibition
Faces – A Nod Is As Good As a Wink to a Blind Horse
Grand Funk – E Pluribus Funk
George Harrison and Others – The Concert for Bangladesh (custom cover)
Michael Jackson – Got to Be There
Carole King – Music
Carole King – Tapestry
Led Zeppelin – IV
Don McLean – American Pie
Harry Nilsson – Nilsson Schmilsson
Charley Pride – Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs
Santana – Santana (third album)
Paul Simon – Paul Simon
Sonny & Cher – All I Ever Need is You
Traffic – The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
Neil Young – Harvest
There were other labels that released such albums in the early 1970s, but they were largely out of business by 1975, due to increased enforcement of U.S. copyright laws.
In the mid-1980s, a label called Koala popped up that issued a number of albums by well-known artists, all without liner notes or photos of the artists themselves. Little is known about this label, which the covers claimed was based in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
Many of the Koala covers featured generic images or photos and carried this disclaimer:
“Notice – The illustrations are a commercial concept for this album. Therefore we are unable to say that the illustrations represent a completely accurate presentation of the recording artist as he has or does now appear. This album may contain previously released material.”
Paul Anka – She’s a Lady
The Monkees – She Hangs Out
The Fendermen – Poison Ivy
…along with dozens of others.
Modern pirate pressings
Most contemporary pirate pressings fall into a gray area that resides somewhere between pirate pressings and counterfeit records. The most common examples would be records which appear, at first glance, to be official record company issues, but which are pressed as either colored vinyl records or picture discs, even though no official release of those album exists in those formats.
All five Elvis Presley 78 RPM discs on the Sun label have been pressed on colored vinyl, for example. The pressings are thin, flexible vinyl, when the originals were made from rigid shellac, and were, of course, all black.
We have seen numerous albums by such artists as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or Metallica, to name a few, that appear to be genuine record company releases, except for the fact that they’ve been pressed on colored vinyl or as picture discs. These records are often sold as “limited editions” or as “promotional copies.”
On the colored vinyl issues, the covers usually look identical to the original issues. The labels may or may not look the same, and are often older label designs that mimic the designs used on the original issues of the albums, rather than the labels currently in use.
Counterfeit Stickers and Resealed Records
While counterfeit records remain a problem and will likely continue to be one for as long as records are sold, a new problem has popped up in recent years, largely involving records sold on eBay by a relatively small number of sellers.
That problem involves used records that have been resealed in shrink wrap in order to fool buyers into believing that used records are new ones. Often these records have counterfeit stickers applied to the shrink wrap, hyping a song or an included bonus.
These records are sealed examples of albums that are rarely found in sealed condition, and these sealed examples usually have rare and/or previously unseen stickers attached to the shrink wrap.
To be clear, there’s nothing unusual about finding still sealed examples of older or rare records. We have plenty of sealed records for sale in our store. Nor is there anything particularly unusual about finding sealed records for sale that have stickers on the wrap.
Older sealed records are often found with price stickers still attached, and some older albums had “hype” stickers attached that were intended to make potential buyers aware that the album contained a particular song, or that it contained a bonus of some kind, such as a poster.
The problem is that it appears that there are a few sellers on eBay and elsewhere who are finding nice used examples of rare records, re-sealing them in shrink wrap, and then attaching newly-printed stickers to the wrap.
In some cases, the stickers are common ones that were often seen on those titles when they were new. In other cases, the stickers are unusual to the extent that people who have been selling rare records for 30-40 years do not recall ever having seen them before.
Not surprisingly, these records, which are almost always titles by collectible artists, such as the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin or the Velvet Underground, end up selling for large, and sometimes, record-breaking, prices.
With modern graphics programs like Photoshop and affordable laser and inkjet printers, it’s quite easy to scan and print convincing replicas of stickers, especially since many of them consisted only of white text on black paper or black text on white paper.
The problem is that the stickers are fake, the shrink wrap is not original, the “new” record is almost certainly a used one, and most importantly, the seller makes no effort to make any of those things known to potential buyers. The records are presented as rare, sealed examples of original pressings with rare, previously-unknown stickers.
Obviously, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a sticker or shrink wrap is original or not via photographs online.
On the other hand, there are a few things that potential buyers should consider when examining such items.
Look at all of the items the seller has for sale to see if there’s anything suspicious about the group of records as a whole. We’ve noticed that the sellers who offer such records tend to have groups of records for sale at any given time that have a number of things in common:
They only have records by top-tier artists for sale and they’re all valuable items. It’s all Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Velvet Underground, etc.
Every album has one or more stickers on the shrink wrap.
Every album (or nearly all) are still sealed, or are opened copies that still have shrink wrap on the cover.
Look for common stickers. We’ve noticed that a lot of these records tend to have price stickers from either Sears or Kmart. While both stores sold records in the 1960s and 1970s, it’s unusual to see a seller offering 20 records for sale from a broad period of time that all have Sears or Kmart stickers on them.If you see that ten of the albums for sale also have the same price sticker on them, that’s likely a clue that something isn’t what it seems to be.
Look for rare or unusual stickers. Stickers with song titles are common. Check other auction listings to see if other sellers also have albums with similar stickers.Check completed auction listings on eBay and at popsike.com to look for other examples of such stickers to see how common or rare they might be.It would be quite unusual for someone to find a sticker on a cover of an album that is 50 years old that no one has ever seen before.Yet one of these eBay sellers recently had a copy of the Beatles Yesterday and Today album for sale with a sticker that suggested that the album was part of Capitol Records’ archive.The sticker had a typed date and noted that the record was a “second state” Butcher cover. And yes, the cover was still in the shrink wrap.Another oddity from the same seller was a sealed copy of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, complete with a never-before-seen sticker that indicated that the album was a promotional copy.
The sticker looked very professional, and the album sold for thousands of dollars.
Unfortunately, the sticker (and probably the shrink wrap) was a fake, as Capitol designated promotional copies at that time by punching the word “free” or “promo” in the cover, rather than using stickers.
Another Beach Boys oddity turned up not long ago. Their first album, Surfin’ Safari, was originally issued with a cover that indicated that the album was stereo. This was an error; the album was not true stereo. Later pressings corrected this by changing the banner to read “Duophonic”, which was Capitol’s name for their rechanneled stereo process.
This particular copy of Surfin’ Safari featured both a stereo and a Duophonic banner, as well as a never-before-seen sticker touting the alleged “benefits” of Duophonic. That album sold for a lot of money, but the entire thing was almost certainly fabricated by an unscrupulous seller.
Look for stickers that don’t seem quite right. We recently saw a first pressing stereo copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (see image above or click here) that had a hype sticker for the song “Like a Rolling Stone”, a hype sticker for the (very rare) photo that came enclosed in the first few copies pressed and a discount sticker indicating that the record had been reduced in price to only $1.27.That’s a first pressing of what was, in 1965, a brand-new record. While all three stickers may be reproductions, the $1.27 sticker is the one that stands out for being wrong, as that album, especially in stereo, would never have been discounted to such a low price as a brand-new release.
We’ve also seen stereo copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles with similar stickers. While mono copies might have been found in discount bins when Capitol stopped pressing mono records, there would have been no reason to discount the stereo version, which remained in print for decades and which remained a big seller for the entire time it was in print.
Be suspicious of stickers that are nicer than they should be. Most genuine stickers are wrinkled, or may have wear or fading, especially after 30-50 years. Newly-printed stickers, of course, will always appear perfect.
As an example, consider the first album by the Velvet Underground & Nico, which came with a sticker on the cover that looked like a banana. The cover had a tease printed on it – “Peel slowly and see.” Pretty much everyone who bought that album did try to peel it.
Unfortunately, the stickers usually became torn during attempts to peel it, and many people gave up. Most copies seen for sale have a banana that has been completely peeled, one that has been partially peeled, or one where someone tried to peel it, gave up, and then put the now-torn sticker back in place.
What is almost never seen is a copy of that album where the banana is 100% intact. Yet one eBay seller often has 2-3 copies for auction per week, and each of them has a banana sticker that is absolutely perfect. How unusual is that? There is probably one copy of that album in 1000 that has a sticker that no one has ever attempted to peel.
Look for listings that have only sealed records or listings where nearly all of the records are either sealed or are still in the shrink wrap. Shrink wrap machines are fairly inexpensive, but finding perfect copies of 50 year old records to reseal is hard.
Close examination to check for wear under the shrink wrap may be difficult to do online, but we’ve seen records from some of these sellers where the wear on the cover under the shrink wrap was noticeable even in the photos they used in their auction listing. Ring wear on the cover or wear near the mouth of the cover are often giveaways.
How can you protect yourself against resealed records or albums with fake or counterfeit stickers? There is no surefire way to protect yourself, but here are a few suggestions:
Look out for any of the unusual or suspicious things listed above. If everything is rare, perfect, sealed, and has stickers, you’re likely looking at a bunch of fraudulent listings.
Don’t do business with sellers that do not offer refunds if you aren’t satisfied.
Do your research. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to know what you’re buying.
How to Identify Counterfeit Records
It can be difficult to identify any particular record as a counterfeit, especially if you do not have a known original pressing at hand with which to make a comparison, or if you have never seen an original pressing before.
There are certain traits that are often seen on counterfeit records:
Labels that are pitted, off-center, or have tears near the spindle hole.
Vinyl that has streaks, bumps or other marks that may suggest that it’s of poor quality.
Thin vinyl – Records from the 1950s and early 1960s were usually pressed from heavy, relatively rigid vinyl. Counterfeit pressings of those titles are usually pressed on lightweight, flexible vinyl.
Incorrect cover construction – Older album covers were usually printed on paper slicks that were then glued to gray or brown cardboard. Many counterfeit records have covers that are printed directly on white posterboard, making the covers thinner and lighter.
Poor cover detail – Printing and detail on both the album cover and the label may be of poor quality or be somewhat blurry. Make sure that the smallest text on the cover is completely legible.
Incorrectly formatted matrix numbers – Many original pressings from major labels have machine stamped numbers in the dead wax area. Most, but not all, counterfeit records have hand etched numbers. There are exceptions to this, however, and some fakes do have stamped numbers.
Buyers should always be suspicious of any unusually rare record offered for sale in exceptional condition at a price that seems too good to be true.
One thing that almost all counterfeit records have in common is that they’re always in mint condition. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re likely new. Original copies of albums that are 30-50 years old, on the other hand, rarely turn up in new, unplayed condition, so buyers should take that into consideration if you’re unsure.
Counterfeit Records Conclusion
It’s unfortunate that people want to take advantage of record collectors, but if there’s a record that people want to buy and it’s rare, chances are good that someone has reproduced it for profit. Your best advice when considering a purchase is to buy from reputable dealers, or find someone who may be familiar with an original pressing and get their opinion before buying.
While most counterfeit records can be spotted by an experienced eye, a few are exceptionally good copies. Be careful when buying, especially if the condition and the price seem too good to be true.
If you have spent any time around records, either 45 RPM singles or albums, you might have encountered the term “colored vinyl records.” You might think that’s a strange question; after all, all records are colored vinyl records, aren’t they? And aren’t they all black?
Historically, most records are black, probably because black vinyl is relatively inexpensive compared to other colors of vinyl and possibly because the dark colors might help obscure any impurities that might be in the compound.
This isn’t a new thing; since the introduction of the commercial cylinder record in 1889, most records of any kind have been made from materials that were either naturally black or which were colored during the manufacturing process to make them appear black. The reasons for this had to do with both cost and with quality control. When you use different types of materials and different sources, you can make sure that all of your finished product looks the same by adding substances to make them look black.
Despite this, over the years, a few recordings, dating to the cylinder era, have been manufactured as colored vinyl records, with “colored vinyl” generally defined as some color other than black. Colored vinyl records have long been popular with collectors and they usually command a premium price on the collector market. In this article, we’ll cover the history of colored vinyl records and show examples of some of the more interesting ones we’ve seen over the years.
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Free U.S. shipping! A still sealed, Clarity vinyl 2 LP single-sided test pressing of the Classic Records 200 gram issue of Also Sprach Zarathustra, performed by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
The earliest examples of colored vinyl records date to 1908, with the introduction of Blue Amberol cylinders by the Edison company. These cylinders, which were more durable and had longer playing time than the earlier versions, used celluloid that was dyed blue in order to make them stand out in the marketplace.
In about 1920, the then-new Vocalion records pressed colored vinyl records in the form of a reddish-brown, mostly to distinguish their products from others in the marketplace. While the company claimed that their records were more durable than the black ones offered by their competitors, the red color was mostly a marketing ploy.
Most records sold at the time were packaged in simple paper sleeves, rather than in custom covers, as albums are today. If a buyer were to browse through a stack of records and notice that some of them were colored vinyl records, they might be more likely to buy one, simply because it was a bit unusual.
In the 1930s, Columbia Records pressed a number of 78s as colored vinyl records, with most of them being blue.
Far more interesting were the records from Seattle-based Morrison Records, which began pressing colored vinyl records in the 1940s using multicolored vinyl.
Because of the way the vinyl was mixed, no two records, including those pressed consecutively, were alike. Though the tiny label had no artists of note on their roster, their records are moderately collectible today simply because of their unusual appearance.
Record companies rarely pressed colored vinyl records in the early to mid-1940s, probably due to cost concerns and the rationing of materials mandated by World War II. In the late 1940s, when RCA introduced their then-proprietary seven inch 45 RPM records, the company made the decision to press colored vinyl records in eight different colors.
These colors represented different genres of music, with classical records being pressed on red vinyl, for instance, and country records being pressed using green vinyl. They did this only for singles, however; all of their albums were made using black vinyl.
This unique brand of marketing using colored vinyl records didn’t last long, probably due to cost concerns. By 1950 or so, RCA was pressing all of their records, including their singles, using black vinyl, though they did maintain the color distinction for their classical records, which had a red label and a blurb on the cover that said “RCA Red Seal.”
Older Labels That Manufactured Colored Vinyl Records
There were not a lot of colored vinyl records pressed in the 1950s, though a few small labels, such as Aladdin Records and Crown Records, pressed a few titles on red vinyl.
Crown’s decision to make colored vinyl records is a bit odd, since the company was a budget label that mostly issued recordings that had previously been released by other companies.
Though Crown used the more expensive red vinyl, as opposed to the common black, they cut corners in other ways by producing poorly-constructed covers that had no reinforcement at the seams and by selling their albums without paper inner sleeves.
Stereo records were introduced to the market in late 1957, but not all labels immediately began producing them, as the market for them initially was quite small. Most of the labels, including the larger ones, introduced stereo pressings slowly. Liberty Records, then a major label, added stereo pressings to their catalog in 1960.
To celebrate, Liberty pressed a handful of titles as colored vinyl records using both blue and red vinyl. Oddly enough, the fact that these titles were colored vinyl records wasn’t advertised in any way on the cover, but would simply come as a surprise to the buyer. While Liberty issued records on both blue and red vinyl, the red vinyl pressings seem to be more common than the blue ones.
Although most of the titles in this limited series were pressed using either one color or the other, at least three titles, Julie London’s Julie is Her Name, Martin Denny’s Exotic Sounds from the Silver Screen and Spike Jones’s Omnibust, were pressed on both colors of vinyl.
Bel Canto Colored Vinyl Records
A short-lived record label from Columbus, Ohio, Bel Canto, arrived on the scene in the late 1950s. Bel Canto was an odd label in a number of ways. First of all, they were located in Ohio, away from the music scenes on either coast.
The company was owned by Thompson-Ramo-Woolridge (later TRW), a company known as an aerospace company and defense contractor, not as an entertainment company. Even more odd was the fact that Bel Canto released all of their albums on colored vinyl and in stereo only, which was quite unusual at a time when more than nine records out of ten were sold in mono.
One of Bel Canto’s titles, a stereo demonstration record, was pressed on multicolored vinyl. Most of Bel Canto’s releases fell into the light jazz and popular vocal category, and as far as we know, the label was out of business well before 1965.
Columbia Colored Vinyl Records
In the 1960s, a few record companies, notably Columbia Records and their affiliated label, Epic, began pressing colored vinyl records for promotional use.
The record company realized that radio station program managers often received dozens of records per month, and they wanted their product to stand out among them and perhaps get airplay as a result.
Columbia pressed hundreds of colored vinyl singles throughout the 1960s by artists as diverse as Andy Williams, Eydie Gorme, Patti Page, The New Christy Minstrels, Bob Dylan, the Yardbirds, Simon and Garfunkel and the Dave Clark 5.
Colors of vinyl used were green, blue, red, yellow, purple and orange, though red was by far the color used most often.
Columbia also pressed at least 14 colored vinyl albums for promotional use on red, yellow, blue, purple and green vinyl. The selection of albums pressed as colored vinyl records wasn’t nearly as diverse as the label’s singles; the titles were all easy listening, classical or soundtrack/original cast recordings.
Perhaps the most noteworthy among them were two different titles by Barbra Streisand – The Second Barbra Streisand Album was pressed on blue vinyl and Color Me Barbra was pressed on red vinyl.
Occasionally, starting in the 1970s and continuing to the present day, other record labels have pressed some of their titles as colored vinyl records exclusively for promotional use.
Sometimes these were intended as a tool to get the record played on the radio and at other times, they were simply pressed as a “thank you” to radio personnel for having promoted the record already.
As a rule these rare pressings always sell for higher prices than their black vinyl counterparts that were sold in stores.
A few examples:
The Beatles – Reel Music – yellow vinyl; limited to 12,000 numbered copies
Electric Light Orchestra
Ole ELO! – yellow vinyl
Out of the Blue – blue vinyl
Fabulous Poodles – Mirror Stars – pink vinyl
Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – brown vinyl; autographed on the inside cover by Elton John and Bernie Taupin (2000 copies)
Like a Virgin – white vinyl
Bedtime Stories – pink vinyl
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – You’re Gonna Get It – red vinyl
In 1958 in Japan, Toshiba Musical Industries, one of the two or three large manufacturers of records in Japan, began pressing colored vinyl records, with the introduction of their red, “Everclean” vinyl.
This vinyl compound was created in order to be more resistant to static electricity, and was intended to help prevent records from accumulating dust. Toshiba pressed red colored vinyl records from 1958 through early 1974, though they often coexisted on the shelves with black vinyl pressings.
Labels that were pressed by Toshiba included Capitol Records (and all of their subsidiaries), Odeon Records, Liberty Records, Stateside Records, and World Pacific Records.
While the red Everclean vinyl was intended to prevent the buildup of static electricity, the label was inconsistent in its use, as only a small percentage of the albums and singles pressed during that sixteen year period were made using that vinyl compound.
Furthermore, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to which albums would be issued on red vinyl and which only on black, and sometimes that was the case even with a particular title. In some cases, promotional copies of a particular album might have been pressed with red (or black) vinyl while the copies available for sale in the stores might be the opposite color.
Though these Everclean pressings were not manufactured with the specific intention that they be collectors’ items, they have become so over time, and a red vinyl copy of a given album will always sell for a higher price than its black vinyl counterpart, even if the red vinyl version is more common than the black one. Red vinyl LPs exist for such artists as the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, and Julie London, among numerous others.
Japanese records are collectible for a number of other reasons that you can read about here.
Taiwan Colored Vinyl Records
In the 1960s, thousands of titles were released in Taiwan as colored vinyl records. None of the record companies in Taiwan seem to have had legitimate licensing arrangements with major American or European record labels, however, making all of these titles unauthorized.
The most common colors used for these colored vinyl records were a pale green, a bright orange and a bright red. Some had English language label names, such as First Records, while others were printed in Chinese.
The albums were of poor quality, and while the records sounded terrible, being dubbed from other records, the quality of the album covers was even worse. The artwork was poorly printed on ultra-thin paper that was laminated in thin plastic.
What these colored vinyl records lacked in quality, they made up in quantity – nearly every major artist of the 1960s saw their albums issued as colored vinyl records in Taiwan. These include titles by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and hundreds of other artists.
Despite their poor quality, these records are sought out by collectors today. In some cases, these albums represent the only colored vinyl albums available by a particular artist.
Mass Market Colored Vinyl Records
Seeing an opportunity to make some money from record collectors by selling them the same titles a second time, record companies began pressing colored vinyl records as limited edition collectibles in the late 1970s. Albums by bands such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Rush, Elton John, AC/DC, and the Eagles were pressed on various colors of vinyl for a short time.
While a few of these titles were domestically produced, such as the Beatles’ White Album, most of them were available in the United States only as imports from Canada, England and the Netherlands. Several of the titles from England, including the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Let It Be and Magical Mystery Tour, were pressed exclusively for export, making them quite hard to find in England today.
Here’s a list of a few of the titles pressed on colored vinyl in the late 1970s (not comprehensive):
Got Blood If You Want It – multicolored vinyl (Netherlands)
Powerage – red vinyl (Canada)
1962-1966 – red vinyl (U.S., Japan, France, Germany, UK, and possibly others)
1967-1970 – blue vinyl (U.S., Japan, France, Germany, UK, and possibly others)
The majority of colored vinyl records are pressed using a single color – red, green, blue, etc. Occasionally, there have been examples of records pressed using more than one color or a color that wouldn’t be considered a “normal” color.
Twelve inch singles by Kraftwerk and Metallica have been issued on pale green “glow in the dark” vinyl. Madonna’s Hard Candy was released on a red and white swirl “candy” vinyl. Several titles, starting with Faust’s self-titled 1971 LP (UK) were pressed in clear, transparent vinyl.
A Bob Marley title was pressed with three colors of vinyl – red, yellow, and green, to evoke the colors of the Jamaican flag.
Others are made using a hodgepodge of colors and are known as “splatter” or “swirl” vinyl, depending on the appearance of the finished product.
There have been quite a few examples of multicolored vinyl pressings in recent years, mostly from small, privately-owned record companies. Third Man Records, run by Jack White of White Stripes fame, has released a number of unusual colored vinyl records in the past few years.
Privately Pressed Colored Vinyl Records
Sometimes, a record company or pressing plant employee will take it upon themselves to press colored vinyl records, even though they have not been authorized to do so by their employer. They may do this for their own use, or with the intention of secretly reselling the records at a profit at some point in the future.
Because of the covert nature of these pressings, it’s not possible to document all of them, and sometimes, they aren’t even discovered until many years (or decades) after they were initially manufactured.
Collectors are generally very interested in these sorts of titles, provided that it can be demonstrated that they were manufactured at the time of the record’s initial commercial release and that they were made at the same facility used to press the regular, black vinyl copies of the same record.
Here’s a list of a few of the titles we’ve seen over the years that appear to have been privately pressed as colored vinyl records:
The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night – a single copy of this album is known to exist on pink vinyl. This copy was found at a Los Angeles yard sale!
Dave Brubeck – Jackpot – one copy of this LP is known on blue vinyl
Dion – Runaround Sue – copies of this 1962 LP are known to exist on both green and brown vinyl; the brown vinyl copy may be unique
Fats Domino – Just Domino – One copy of this 1962 LP is known to exist on multicolored vinyl
Bob Dylan – John Wesley Harding – copies of this 1967 LP are known to exist on red and on yellow vinyl
Electric Light Orchestra – Ole ELO! – While yellow vinyl copies of this album were officially issued as promotional items, there are also copies on red, white, and blue vinyl that were pressed by a record company employee.
Julie London – Julie Is Her Name – a single copy of this 1955 LP is known to exist on half red/ half green vinyl (see photo)
Rolling Stones – Let It Bleed – two copies are known to exist on multicolored vinyl
Nina Simone – The Amazing Nina Simone – one blue vinyl copy of this 1959 album is known
Ike and Tina Turner – River Deep, Mountain High – one copy of this album is known on blue vinyl
This list is hardly comprehensive, but because of the nature of these pressings, it’s impossible to document all of them. New ones are discovered all the time; the Julie London album, pressed in 1955, turned up for the first time in 2014!
Unauthorized or Pirate Colored Vinyl Records
Since collectors have demonstrated a willingness to buy just about anything by their favorite artist, a number of unscrupulous individuals have taken it upon themselves to issue quite a few colored vinyl records by famous artists.
These titles are technically known as “pirate” pressings; they very closely resemble official releases, but are actually unauthorized private pressings.
As these pressings are unofficial and are not related to official releases by the artist represented, nor are they authorized by the artists’ record companies, these pressings rarely attract much attention from record collectors.
They do, however, usually sell for quite a bit more than the standard, black vinyl pressings of the same title, usually selling for $30-$40.
Here are a few examples of titles we’ve seen for sale on colored vinyl that are unauthorized:
John Lennon/Yoko Ono – Milk and Honey – green and yellow copies exist; these were reportedly pressed from legitimate stampers that were stolen from the record company.
Led Zeppelin I – multiple colors of vinyl
Led Zeppelin II – multiple colors of vinyl
Led Zeppelin III – multiple colors of vinyl
Houses of the Holy – multiple colors of vinyl
Physical Graffiti – multiple colors of vinyl
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – multiple colors of vinyl
A Saucerful of Secrets – multiple colors of vinyl
Dark Side of the Moon – multiple colors of vinyl (these are distinctly different from the authorized pressings listed above)
There are numerous other examples of these, but it’s impossible to document all of them.
Colored Vinyl Records Today
Limited edition colored vinyl pressings continue to this day, particularly among companies that specialize in reissuing older titles. The original pressing of a Bob Dylan album from the 1960s might have been on black vinyl, but you can buy a red vinyl pressing today!
Many titles released in the past five years have been issued as colored vinyl records, sometimes for the entire run and sometimes as a limited edition item.
About five years ago, Warner Brothers Records began reissuing the entire Metallica catalog as high quality pressings, some were mastered at 45 RPM for better sound quality. All of these titles were briefly available as colored vinyl records, though several of the titles were limited to 100 colored vinyl copies. Later pressings in the series were manufactured in larger quantities to help satisfy collector demand.
Record companies today understand that it’s a bit more work than it used to be to persuade customers to pay cash for hard media, rather than downloads. Because of this, it’s quite common these days to see titles issued as colored vinyl records as an added incentive for the customer to buy.
That’s not the only reason why someone might want to buy colored vinyl records, however.
Because colored vinyl pressings are generally more free of impurities than black vinyl, many of them provide good sound quality. This is particularly true of those colored vinyl records which are pressed for promotional use by radio stations. Regardless of sound, they’re all popular among collectors, if for no other reason than the fact that they’re different and unique.
Bootleg records have been around for decades, but a lot of collectors don’t know much about them, and perhaps have never seen one. In the strictest sense, a bootleg record is an album that has been pressed and released by a third party who has no relationship with the recording artist or the artist’s record company and which has been released with neither the knowledge or approval of either. Bootleg records may be released as a tribute to the artist by fans, but it’s most common for them to be sold as for-profit products.
The term ROIR is sometimes used to describe bootleg records with the term meaning, “Records Of Indeterminate Origin.” This is an accurate description, as the records themselves rarely accurately list who manufactured them or where they were made.
This isn’t surprising, as bootleg records have long been illegal in most western countries.
In this article, we’ll discuss the definitions and origins of bootleg records, provide examples of some of the better known ones, and explain why bootleg records hold interest for record collectors.
Bootleg records are singles or albums that have been pressed and distributed with neither the knowledge or permission of the recording artist or their record company. Bootleg records have traditionally been sold to earn a profit for those who manufacture them and to fill voids in the marketplace by providing recorded material by popular artists that is not available through legitimate, licensed recordings.
While the manufacture of bootleg recordings is illegal in most Western countries, copyright laws in the 1960s and 1970s were less strict than they are today, and at one time, bootleg records were so common as to be found in the bins in chain record stores and major department stores.
Most bootleg records contain either previously unreleased studio material or live, “in concert” recordings. Occasionally, bootleg records have compiled rare or otherwise hard to find legitimately released material, though such compilation albums comprise a small percentage of the bootleg market. Historically, most bootleg records have been live recordings, as those are the easiest type of unreleased material to obtain.
The term “bootleg records” is sometimes applied to any unauthorized record, including counterfeit records, which are copies of legitimate releases that are created to fool the buyer into thinking that they are buying an authorized release, and pirate records, which are unauthorized pressings that contain previously released legitimate recordings.
Bootleg records have been around since at least the 1930s; there are numerous 78 RPM records in existence that are unauthorized. It’s quite possible that there were also bootleg recordings available in the cylinder record era, though record keeping from the early 20th century regarding copyright is a bit vague.
The term “bootleg records” is most commonly used, however, to describe unauthorized pressings issued starting in the late 1960s, when various individuals discovered that the copyright laws then in existence did not prohibit anyone from releasing previously unreleased live or studio recordings by any artists of their choosing.
The first of the modern bootleg records was a two record set of previously unreleased music by Bob Dylan. The album was originally released without a title and issued in a plain white cover. This album became known as “Great White Wonder,” and was soon released under that title, with the title rubber-stamped onto an otherwise plain white cover.
Sales figures are unknown, but the album is believed to have sold upwards of ten thousand copies. Of course, with copyright laws not applying to such releases, Great White Wonder soon became copied by other bootleg manufacturers, and the album has since appeared in a multitude of configurations, on black vinyl and colored vinyl, and with and without properly printed covers.
Shortly thereafter, an album by the Beatles called Kum Back appeared in stores, containing material from the then-unreleased Let It Be recording sessions. At this time, numerous FM radio stations around the country began playing both Kum Back and Great White Wonder on the air, and this helped sales tremendously.
A third title that attracted a lot of attention at that time was a release by the Rolling Stones called Live R Than You’ll Ever Be, which contained recordings from the band’s 1969 American tour. This album, in a rubber stamped white cover, sold so well that it encouraged the Rolling Stones’ record company to release a legitimate live album from the tour in order to take advantage of what was obviously large market demand.
It may seem odd today, but at the time, these three titles and a few others that popped up shortly thereafter were often available in mainstream record stores. We know a collector who bought his copy of Kum Back at a Sears store in Texas when the album was first released.
Over the next few years, hundreds, if not thousands, of bootleg records appeared on the market from a variety of manufacturers.
In the earliest days of bootleg records, most releases had plain covers and plain labels. This was due to the fact that record companies who were pressing these albums were reluctant to put printed labels on the discs, due to their dubious legality. Similarly, print shops that printed album covers for record pressing plants weren’t too eager to manufacture covers for albums which were, even then, technically illegal.
Over the next decade, bootleg records appeared on the market with blank labels, printed labels that correctly listed the name of the artist and song titles, and “fake” labels that listed a nonexistent artist and fabricated song titles. These labels likely came from manufacturing plants that were under contract to major record companies; if someone from a major label happened to stop by the pressing plant, they wouldn’t pay much attention to an album by Bruce Dillon, even though that album might actually play music by Fleetwood Mac!
Types of Bootleg Records
Bootleg records generally fall into three categories:
Live recordings – Live, “in concert” recordings probably comprise 80% of the market for bootleg records. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, these tapes were usually acquired by individuals who managed to sneak tape recorders into concert halls in order to surreptitiously record the performances. These so-called “audience tapes” are of varying quality, with some being quite good and others bordering on the unlistenable.Many bootleg records from the mid-1970s were sourced from FM broadcasts, as radio stations often had access to live recordings, including those from syndicated radio programs such as the King Biscuit Flour Hour. The quality of these recordings is generally excellent and virtually the equal of authorized live albums.Other live recordings have been obtained from crew members who worked on the mixing console at the concerts, as many artists have long recorded most or all of their performances.These recordings are usually intended for the artists’ own use, but sometimes employees made copies of them and made those available to bootleggers.
Previously unreleased studio recordings – While previously unreleased studio recordings comprise a relatively small percentage of bootleg albums, they’re highly sought after by collectors, who are often interested in obtaining everything they can by artists they follow. Such recordings are relatively hard to obtain, and usually come from record company employees, either directly or indirectly.The Bob Dylan Great White Wonder set, the Beatles Kum Back and the Beatles Ultra Rare Trax series are good examples of bootleg records that contain unreleased studio material. In the case of the Ultra Rare Trax series, the quality of the recordings was the equal of commercially released Beatles albums, as the source material reportedly came directly from the vaults of their own record company.Another Beatles title, Sessions contained recordings for a planned Beatles album of songs they’d recorded but never released that was to have been released in 1985. For various reasons, the project was canceled, but cassette tapes of the unreleased album, made for internal record company use, found their way into the hands of bootleggers, and shortly thereafter, an unauthorized album called Sessions appeared on the collector market.
Collections of previously released (but rare) material – While the market for bootleg records usually seeks out previously unreleased material, a few titles have included rare, previously released recordings. These might be singles that were long out of print, obscure B-sides of singles, or recordings that were previously issued only as promotional releases that were not intended for sale to the public.Two examples of such releases would The Complete Christmas Collection by the Beatles, which contained material that was previously only available on records sold through the Beatles Fan Club, and The Paul Simon Solo Album, which was a reissue of a 1965 LP by Paul Simon that was never released in the United States.
Packaging of Bootleg Records
While packaging of bootleg records was initially minimalist, with plain white covers and blank labels, competition quickly emerged in the industry and that led to better quality, if still untraditional, packaging. While many covers still had rubber stamped titles, those covers were often available in color. Printed covers soon followed from a few manufacturers, and some manufacturers, notably the Trademark of Quality (TMOQ) label and K&S records, pressed most of their records on colored vinyl.
Printed covers and colored vinyl helped spur sales, especially since few commercially available records in the early 1970s were available on colored vinyl. Albums that had rubber stamped covers began to include printed paper inserts that listed the artist, album title and song titles (and sometimes, the source of the material inside.)
A few titles had somewhat more elaborate packaging. When the company that printed the hardcover tour book for Blind Faith’s only U.S. tour found themselves with thousands of leftover programs at the end of the tour, a bootlegger bought a number of them and packaged them in a box along with a live recording from that tour.
A 10 disc package of Beatles outtakes from the Let It Be sessions was released in the mid-1980s, with every one of the discs on colored vinyl and with the entire set packaged inside a box that resembled those in which theatrical films are shipped. A late 1980s Led Zeppelin set called The Final Option contained 70 records, all on colored vinyl, and was packaged inside a heavy acrylic box.
These sorts of packages are unusual; most of the bootleg records made in the 1970s had simple covers and paper inserts. Most of the titles released in the 1980s had printed covers, though many still included either blank labels or labels with fake information.
Trademark of Quality Label
As the market for bootleg records grew in the early 1970s, a few manufacturers decided that establishing a brand identity might be good for business. While a number of companies attempted to do so, perhaps the most famous of them was the Trademark of Quality label, which is often abbreviated as TMOQ (or less frequently, TMQ.)
The Trademark of Quality label was started by two individuals from California, “Dub” Taylor and Ken Douglas They were the creators of the original Great White Wonder album, and they used their profits from that project to create their own record company.
Trademark of Quality releases included more than 150 titles that included live material, unreleased studio material and a few titles containing previously released (but hard to find) material. The earliest titles in the TMOQ catalog had rubber stamped covers (though most were color covers with stamped titles and paper inserts) and simple labels with either a number (“1” or “2”) or a drawing of a pig on them (either a “sideways” pig on early releases or the face of a pig smoking a cigar on later ones. A few later titles had printed covers with artwork by now-famous artist William Stout and printed labels that included both the name of the artist and song titles.
Most of the titles released by the Trademark of Quality label, which was in business from 1970 to 1976, were released on colored vinyl. Often, the first pressings of a given title were on colored vinyl, with subsequent pressings on regular black vinyl. For a few titles, a handful of copies were pressed on multicolored vinyl. Pressings on the Trademark of Quality label were highly regarded among collectors, as the vinyl itself was of good quality as was the source material of most of their releases.
The latter was an important factor, as the quality control in the overall manufacture of bootleg records was somewhat shoddy. Some companies used poor quality vinyl and often, equally poor quality recordings. Buyers rarely knew what they were going to get when they bought bootleg records, but most of the titles released by the Trademark of Quality label offered good recordings and good sound quality.
Because of this, the Trademark of Quality label is quite collectible today. Most of the material they released over the years has never been made available through legitimate sources, and 40+ years later, most of their titles are quite hard to find. Titles by major artists such as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd often sell for several hundred dollars, and some titles, particularly those on multicolored vinyl, occasionally sell for more than $1000.
Earlier pressings, with the large “1” or “2” on the labels, tend to sell for more money than the later pressings with either the sideways pig or the still-later “smoking” pig. The two different pig designs came about after Ken and Dub decided to part ways. Each of them continued to press titles under the Trademark of Quality name, but each used their own version of the label.
A label formed in the 1980s that was also known for high quality releases with finely printed color covers and colored vinyl records was a label from Europe called Swinging Pig. This name was an homage to the Trademark of Quality label.
Other Bootleg Record Labels
Ken Douglas of Trademark of Quality fame formed another well-known and highly regarded bootleg records label in the mid-1970s called The Amazing Korneyfone Record Label, or TAKRL, as it is known among collectors. This company released about the same number of titles as the TMOQ label.
TAKRL used printed, black and white covers, along with some that were plain white covers with printed paper inserts. As far as we known, all of the titles on the Korneyfone label were pressed on black vinyl.
Other labels of note in the 1970s were the Rubber Dubber label, which released a few titles with rubber stamped covers, Idle Mind Productions and K&S records. Both Idle Mind and K&S tended to use plain white covers with paper title inserts, though both released many titles on colored vinyl.
Many of the titles on the K&S label were pressed on beautiful, multicolored “splatter” vinyl. As this label was based in Canada, many of their records were reportedly seized by Customs officials during shipment to the United States. As a result, many K&S titles are quite hard to find today, though they’re sought out by collectors due to their attractive multicolored pressings.
Artist and Record Company Responses
Not surprisingly, record companies and the artists themselves were largely not happy about the exploding market for bootleg records, as they weren’t making money from their sales and they had no control over either content or quality. In a few cases, the official response to a bootleg release was to issue a similar legitimate one.
When Live R Than You’ll Ever Be was released in December, 1969, the Rolling Stones’ label, Decca Records, responded by releasing the official Get Your Ya-Yas Out not long after. Reportedly, the bootleg recording had sold in excess of 250,000 copies, though exact sales figures remain unknown.
An Elton John concert from November, 1970 that had originally been broadcast on FM radio was released by a number of bootleggers under a variety of titles. The official response was to simply release the concert legitimately, and the resulting album was Elton John’s first “official” live album titled 17-11-70 (or 11-17-70 in the United States.)
After Paul McCartney and Wings toured the United States in 1976 a three record set, pressed on red, white, and blue vinyl appeared with the title Wings From the Wings. This led to the official release of an authorized set, Wings Over America, which featured almost identical content.
The biggest response to the boom in the sales of bootleg records came from the United States Congress, which passed stricter copyright laws in 1976. This greatly reduced the number of bootleg records being produced, and numerous record stores stopped selling them, due to fear of being arrested for copyright violations.
While production of bootleg records declined in the United States in the 1980s, it increased in Europe, where copyright laws differ. A number of companies produced high quality pressings, often with color covers and colored vinyl, throughout the 1980s.
By the end of the decade, most manufacturing of bootleg records had come to a halt, as the industry moved towards compact discs.
Bootleg Records Conclusion
Bootleg records remain popular with collectors today, as they offer a number of things that draw collector interest. Most of them offer recorded material that is otherwise not available via the artists’ legitimate releases, and many of them were pressed on colored vinyl or even as picture discs, which are two features that always draw collector interest.
The Trademark of Quality label is collectible in its own right, and some titles are available from that label in a variety of configurations – black vinyl, colored vinyl, multicolored vinyl, and so on. Prices for bootleg records on that label that sold for as little as $4 when new now approach hundred, and sometimes even thousands, of dollars.
While not all record collectors are interested in bootleg records, and not all artists are represented by them, they remain an interesting area of record collecting.
The term “audiophile” has a number of meanings; one definition we found was, “hi-fi enthusiast: somebody who has an enthusiasm for sound reproduction, especially high-fidelity music recordings.” That’s probably a good overall assessment; it’s someone who has an appreciate for how music sounds.
What are audiophile records? Presumably, “audiophile records” would refer to records that were created for the enjoyment of people who like well-recorded sound.
Or, in short, “records that sound good.” In that case, why aren’t all records audiophile records? After all, no one makes records to intentionally sound bad, do they?
No, companies don’t intentionally make records that sound bad, though many records don’t sound as good as they possibly could.
All record companies intend for their product to be enjoyable for the listener. That said, every record company and every artist has different objectives in terms of what they’re trying to accomplish, and who they’re trying to please when they release a record. Is the goal to make money?
To make sure the artist is pleased with the result? Or to give the listener the best possible experience? Sometimes, these objectives are at odds with one another, and the result is often a record that doesn’t sound as good as it could. While all records could be audiophile records, few of them actually are.
Ideally, all recordings would be made under ideal recording conditions, with the greatest care taken to ensure that the recording produced a realistic reproduction of the music played in the studio. The tapes would then be transferred to production stampers with the greatest of care, and the records would be pressed using quiet, high-quality vinyl and packaged in such a way as to protect the finished disc as much as possible.
In a mass-production record company environment, those results rarely occur, though they are becoming more common as the record companies realize that consumers are now more picky than ever before about how they spend their money.
While most record companies today strive to make a quality product, from recording to final pressing, that wasn’t always the case. In the era of stereo records, we had a period where many, if not most, records produced qualified as audiophile records, then a long period where virtually none of them did. Today, as we enjoy the return of vinyl records to the marketplace, fans of well-recorded music are again able to enjoy listening to audiophile records.
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In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a few record companies, such as Columbia and Atlantic, spent a lot of time trying to make sure that their recordings sounded great and that their finished product was of a high quality. Their albums were well-recorded, with a sense of space and depth that truly immersed the listener in the experience.
Both companies were early adopters in acquiring then-expensive stereo and/or multi-track tape recording equipment. In addition, their records were pressed from quality vinyl, with quiet surfaces that reproduced the music well without producing distracting noise or ticks or pops that often comes with records pressed from poor quality or recycled vinyl compounds.
In the late 1950s, those companies, along with RCA, discovered that those consumers who were early adopters in buying stereo playback equipment had larger than average amounts of disposable income and they set out to make a quality product to appeal to those buyers. That’s not surprising; the cost of a stereo record album in 1960 equates to more than $40 today. Buying a new record back then was not an impulse purchase.
RCA in particular was an innovator in stereo recording, particularly in their classical releases, which were recorded using a three track tape recorder to capture the left, right, and center of the orchestra. These techniques were later used for RCA’s popular recordings, as well, and their records, issued under the “Living Stereo” banner, captured a realism that is still revered by audiophiles today. Many RCA stereo albums from that era command prices in the hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of dollars on the collector market.
This early “golden age” of stereo and high quality recordings didn’t last all that long; in fact, it was over in less than a decade. There were various reasons for changes in the industry, but the result was the mass production of records that, for the most part, didn’t sound that great when compared to what had been available just a few years before.
The price of stereo equipment began to drop as the 1960s wore on, and more people started buying stereo records. Their lower-priced equipment didn’t do as good a job of reproducing stereo sound, and RCA compensated for this beginning in 1963 when they introduced their “Dynagroove” process.
Dynagroove attempted to compensate for the deficiencies of consumer-grade equipment by artificially boosting bass frequencies and reducing the overall volume level of the music on the records.
While RCA claimed that the Dyangroove process added “a remarkable degree of musical realism,” the music community disagreed as did many stereo and hi-fi publications of the time.
Unfortunately, RCA continued using this process for all of their recordings for nearly a decade. By the time they stopped using it, they’d already adopted something far worse – Dynaflex, which we’ll cover shortly.
Another mid-1960s process that hurt the sound of records was the Haeco-CSG process, which attempted to correct a problem caused when consumers played stereo records on mono phonographs.
Between 1957, when stereo records were first introduced and sold alongside their mono counterparts, and 1968, when mono records were finally phased out, consumers had to choose either mono or stereo records when they made a purchase. Early mono phonographs could not play stereo records without damaging them, but by the late 1960s, manufacturers were using needles that were compatible with both formats.
The problem during playback was that a stereo record played on mono equipment would artificially boost the sound of any information that was present in both channels of the stereo disc. This resulted in recordings that didn’t sound right, as part of the music, usually the vocals, would play back at a higher sound level than intended.
The Haeco-CSG (“compatible stereo groove”) process attempted to correct this and allowed record companies to produce a record in one format only – stereo, which would play back at the same level regardless of the type of phonograph used to play it.
While this was great for record companies, as it allowed them to dramatically reduce manufacturing costs, it was terrible for consumers who appreciated high-quality sound, as the phase-cancellation process used by CSG resulted in “tinny” sounding records with relatively little bass.
Although the CSG process was used for only two or three years, it was often used at the master tape mixing stage, leaving master tapes of albums released during this time by several major record companies (the Warner-Elektra-Atlantic group among them) forever sounding artificially wrong.
While there are now processes available to remove the CSG artifacts from recordings from the 1968-1970 era when it was primarily used, most copies of albums released during that era suffer from poor sound quality due to its use.
By the early 1970s, various record company mergers with other labels and acquisitions by companies with no prior interest in music (such as Kinney’s buyout of Warner Brothers in the late 1960s – Kinney’s primary business to that point was managing parking garages and janitorial services) led to an increased interest in the bottom line and an emphasis on producing greater profits over producing a good-sounding, quality product.
These mergers, combined with a global oil crisis and a relative shortage of vinyl, led to cutbacks in quality across the industry. Many records were lighter in weight and indifferently manufactured, resulting in records with lots of surface noise and a tendency to warp. Making matters worse was the tendency of the record companies to press their records from noisy, recycled vinyl. With new vinyl (and the oil needed to make it) being scarce, companies would grind down their unsold product and reuse it for new releases.
Perhaps the worst example of this were the records RCA pressed at this time. These were extraordinarily thin pressings were so thin that you could almost fold them in half.
RCA knew these records were of poor quality, but they attempted to sell this obvious step back in quality as a feature, which they even chose to name – Dynaflex. These records were quite flexible, and weighed about half as much as a regular LP.
Dynaflex records sounded terrible and were prone to warping, but RCA actually advertised these pressings as an improvement, going so far as to claim that they were less likely to warp than traditional pressings from heavier vinyl.
While Dynaflex records were less prone to actual breakage than their predecessors, they were more prone to warpage, leading to the derisive nickname, “Dynawarp.” If you were unfortunate enough to buy albums from RCA artists around 1970 or so, you had the double problem of purchasing records by likes of the Guess Who, Elvis Presley or Jose Feliciano that were plagued by the problems of both Dynagroove and Dynaflex. You spent the same money that you used to, but now you received a product with thin, compressed sound on a disc that was more likely then ever to warp.
Adjusted for inflation, records were far more affordable in the early 1970s than they had been a decade earlier. This led to increased sales. Record companies expanded and opened more pressing plants, but this led to yet another decrease in quality. Ideally, to get the best-sounding record, you want to use the two-track master tape to make it.
This isn’t possible, of course, as record companies don’t want to use their only two track master to produce millions of records. The tape would wear out if they did that. So they’d use copies of that tape instead. Sometimes, they’d use copies of copies, with each copy sounding worse than the tape from which it was made. The product was widely available at an affordable price, but the finished product sounded worse than ever.
As a side note, there was a small label in operation from the late 1940s through the 1970s that called itself “Audiophile Records.” This label specialized in jazz recordings, and took great care in making sure their records sounded as good as possible.
As far as we know, all of their releases were pressed on red vinyl, and many of their early titles were cut at 78 RPM, as the company felt that speed offered better fidelity. Despite the label’s attention to quality, they were never overly successful, with their records being seen as a niche market.
The 1960s and early 1970s were not a good time for audiophiles, as the mass-produced product of that decade largely resulted in poor quality pressings made from noisy vinyl. It didn’t matter if the albums were well-recorded or not, as they playback was likely to sound terrible regardless of what kind of equipment you were using to listen to it.
Audiophile Records by Design
In the early 1970s, a record mastering engineer named Doug Sax and a musician named Lincoln Mayorga discovered that many of their old 78 RPM singles sounded better than newer recordings. This led to the formation of one of the earliest companies to intentionally produce audiophile records – Sheffield Lab.
Sheffield specialized in “direct-to-disc” recordings, which sent the signals from the artists’ microphones directly to the cutting lathe, bypassing the tape deck (though a tape deck was used as a backup.) These recordings produced records of astonishing depth and clarity and the label’s occasional releases became quite popular in the hi-fi and audiophile community.
There are several problems with the direct-to-disc process, however. Because the music is recorded live to the acetate, an entire album side had to be played and recorded at once, with no opportunity to make corrections later or overdub instruments or additional voices at a later time.
What was played live was what went on the record. Another problem was that the lack of a master tape meant that when the stampers wore out, production of a particular title must come to a stop forever.
Since most artists were, by that time, accustomed to recording in a studio with 8, 16 or even 32 track tape recorders and were more comfortable with a recording process that allowed them to record, and overdub or make corrections at leisure, direct-to-disc recordings were somewhat of a niche product that worked best with small jazz groups, who were accustomed to performing live with limited overdubbing.
A few other labels attempted to produce records using similar direct-to-disc methods, including Century, Direct Disk Labs, Crystal Clear and M&K Realtime, but most of them were out of business by the early 1980s.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Audiophile Records
In the late 1970s, a company called Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, founded by Brad Miller, decided that it was time to produce audiophile records, meaning records that manufactured to sound good as the music on them, and records intended for people who actually care how their music sounds.
Mobile Fidelity wasn’t new; the company had been founded around 1960 as an outlet for recordings of locomotives for train buffs. The company later expanded to include a few race car recordings, but through the 1960s, they were mostly a company that produced high-quality, but little-noticed, sound effects records.
In the mid-1970s, the owners of the label had noticed that the records issued by the major labels were of relatively poor quality and that they sounded a lot worse than what had been available ten or fifteen years earlier.
They came up with what was then a novel idea to produce higher-quality records than what was then available, allowing listeners to experience well-recorded albums, such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or John Klemmer’s Touch, as they were meant to be heard.
Miller’s plan was to approach the major labels and license recordings to some of their albums from major artists. They would negotiate, for example, with Capitol Records to release Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon themselves. They would insist on using only the master two-track tape, rather than a copy, or a copy of a copy.
The acetate from which the stampers were made was cut on the lathe using a process known as half speed mastering. Half speed mastering was a process where both the tape recorder playing back the album during mastering and the cutting lathe that cut the acetate from which stampers were made were both run at half of the normal speed, thus creating a more accurate groove in the record. This process, which required special equipment and a lot of extra time, was also thought to improve spatial imaging and bass response in the finished product.
The company also made the decision to use only new, high-quality, “virgin” vinyl, as opposed to the recycled vinyl that was then in use by nearly every major record company.
The vinyl that Mobile Fidelity used was a proprietary compound made by JVC in Japan called Supervinyl and had JVC manufacture the records in Japan. It was translucent, with a brownish-gray color when held to the light, had exceptional wear properties for repeated play, and had dead-quiet surfaces that allowed you to hear just the music, rather than a combination of music and record surface noise.
Mobile Fidelity sold their records for nearly double the price of that of the major record companies, but enjoyed considerable success in the days prior to the invention of the compact disc. Their records were available in specialty record shops and at hi-fi stores, which often used their albums as demonstration discs.
Mobile Fidelity also declared up front that all of their titles were to be limited editions, claiming that fewer than 200,000 copies of any of their titles would ever be pressed. While this appeared to be an appeal to scarcity to encourage sales, it actually had more to do with requirements from the record companies from whom they were licensing the recordings. Most, if not all, of their contracts had time limitations on them; Mobile Fidelity could only sell a particular title for a specified period of time before they were contractually required to discontinue their sales of that title.
By licensing titles that were already big sellers, such as the Pink Floyd LP, Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, and the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, Mobile Fidelity became quite successful, though not all record companies were interested in licensing their product to the label, nor were they interested in having it demonstrated to the public that the records they were selling themselves didn’t sound very good.
In 1982, Mobile Fidelity went a step further in producing audiophile records by creating the Ultra High Quality Record, or UHQR. These records used heavier, 200 gram vinyl, than the regular 140 gram releases from the company. The records were truly flat, unlike regular records, which tended to be thicker in the middle than at the edge. The records were kept in the presses longer than their regular releases in order to produce a better-defined disc. Only eight of these UHQR releases were ever issued, and they were limited to 5000 copies per title and were sold at a then-outrageous retail price of $50.
Other Modern Audiophile Records Labels
With the success of Mobile Fidelity, other companies soon joined the trend of releasing mass-produced audiophile records. Some of the early competitors were California-based Nautilus and Nashville’s Direct Disk Labs.
Nautilus produced about 50 titles through the early 1980s, before going out of business due to financial issues with their owner. They did, however, produce noteworthy titles by The Allman Brothers Band, Elton John, and John Lennon, among others.
Direct Disk Labs had best been known for their direct-to-disc releases, but they ventured into the same territory as Mobile Fidelity and Nautilus by licensing titles by Derek & the Dominoes, Elton John and Peter Gabriel, among others.
They only issued a handful of titles, but were noteworthy in that they released titles by artists who recorded for Columbia Records, a label whose products Mobile Fidelity didn’t release. Those titles included albums by Neil Diamond, Blood Sweat & Tears, and Loggins & Messina.
As they were then the largest record company, Columbia Records didn’t see that it made sense to license their titles to other companies who would then try to sell them by suggesting that their products were better than what Columbia was producing, even though that was exactly the case.
So in 1981, Columbia Records decided to make their own audiophile records, releasing both half speed mastered pressings of titles recorded on analog tape and albums using the then-new digital recording process, though the digital titles were mostly classical. These pressings were made entirely in-house, and used a higher quality vinyl than what Columbia used for their regular pressings.
Columbia’s audiophile records consisted of an odd mix of older, classic titles combined with then-new releases.
While Columbia’s titles, which included albums by Bob Dylan, Boston, Pink Floyd, Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Earth Wind & Fire and others were quite good, many buyers and audiophiles were annoyed by the combination of prices that were double those of Columbia’s regular pressings and by the fact Columbia was effectively choosing to improve a small selection of their products, when they had the ability to improve the quality of their entire product line.
Instead, the more expensive, higher quality audiophile records sat in the same bins as the noisy, indifferently manufactured regular pressings, with both produced by the same company.
In Canada, A&M records started their own line of half speed mastered audiophile records, and had them pressed by JVC in Japan using their proprietary “Super Vinyl.” Many of these titles, by artists such as Supertramp, Styx, the Carpenters, and The Police, were widely available for sale in the United States.
While these records looked a lot like those from Mobile Fidelity and used a similar half speed mastering process, the tapes used to make these audiophile records were at least one generation down in the duplication chain from those used to produce Mobile Fidelity records, resulting in a product with a quiet playing surface but sometimes spotty sound.
With the increased number of companies producing audiophile records, consumers were confused and frustrated by the experience of seeing the same titles sometimes offered in multiple versions at a wide variety of price ranges with little information offered as to what, exactly, they were buying. By the mid-1980s, a glut in the market and the introduction of the compact disc put all of these companies except Mobile Fidelity out of business.
Japanese Audiophile Records
While all of this was going on, a few people quietly noticed that records imported from Japan tended to always sound better than their American counterparts.
Part of that had to do with the fact that the Japanese record companies always used premium materials in their product manufacturing – the vinyl was of high quality, their cover printing was of high quality and they took great care in the mastering of their acetates and plating of their stampers.
The Japanese record companies even packaged their records using non-abrasive rice paper inner sleeves, instead of the heavy paper used by American record companies that often damaged the discs after repeated play.
In the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Japanese LPs were imported into the United States and sold as high quality “audiophile records.” Many of these titles were pressed in Japan by JVC, the same company that was pressing records for Mobile Fidelity, often using the same vinyl, though rarely the same master tapes.
The importation of Japanese audiophile records was halted in the mid-1980s when the American record companies realized that they were losing money on sales of imported records. Royalty payments to artists are negotiated on a country-by-country basis, with higher rates in the United States and Great Britain than in other countries, such as Japan.
If an American buyer purchased an imported Japanese album of a title that was also available as a domestic pressing, the royalty payment to the artist and likely the profit to the record company itself, would be less.
With the record companies putting an end to the importation of Japanese audiophile records, they then set out to try to get rid of the record altogether, instead promoting the digital compact disc, which had significantly higher profit margins. Unfortunately, audiophiles didn’t care for the sound of compact discs, and many simply stopped buying music altogether as records became scarce in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Audiophile Records Today
After forcing records from the market in the early 1990s, the record companies found themselves with little product to sell after consumers balked at paying high prices for compact discs and resorted instead to illegally downloading low-quality mp3 files from the Internet.
Realizing that they could still sell physical product if they made something that people felt was worth buying, the major record labels started selling a high-quality product that has long been popular with the public – records.
The public has responded, and today, every pressing plant in the world is running at full capacity.
Today, with the resurgence in sales of vinyl, lots of companies are again making audiophile records. After a brief period of bankruptcy, Mobile Fidelity is back in business, and Warner Brothers Records is selling albums on a Website with the title Because Sound Matters.
Often, these are limited edition pressings cut at 45 RPM (on twice as many discs) to produce even better sound quality than the standard 33 1/3 pressings. Mobile Fidelity is back in business again after a short period of bankruptcy, and other companies such as Classic Records and Acoustic Sounds have stepped in to add to the quality pressings available on the market. Newer labels include names such as Equinox, Analogue Productions and the Electric Recording Company.
The latter company produces painstakingly detailed reproductions of obscure classical titles that are limited to 300 copies only. The titles they choose to release may be obscure, but they’re albums that often sell for upwards of $1000 on the collector market.
Analogue Productions has been producing audiophile records in two versions – a regular pressing that plays at 33 1/3 RPM and a pressing that plays at 45 RPM. The 45 RPM pressings require that a single album be spread over two discs, but the higher speed allows for less distortion and better sound quality. The company is doing so well that they have built their own pressing plant.
Across the board, the overall quality of the records available today is the best it’s ever been. Record companies today are making a determined effort to make their product as good as possible, with careful attention paid to the quality of the mastering process, the quality of the vinyl used in pressing the records themselves and the tapes used in the mastering process.
While sales of vinyl records are the highest they’ve been in twenty five years, the sale of records is still a niche industry, as most consumers purchase digital downloads. As records represent a premium product that sells at a premium price, the companies making records today realize that quality matters more than ever, and if they don’t make a good product, consumers are going to take their business elsewhere.
The term “audiophile records” is really rather vague, and can encompass a wide variety of recordings, both those intended to be of high quality, such as those from Mobile Fidelity, as well as vintage titles that sounded great because that’s how the record companies at that time made all of their products. Nevertheless, if there’s a record out there that sounds great, with a wide soundstage and a sense of three dimensional depth to it, you can rest assured that people will be lining up to buy it.
Records today sound better than ever. If you like quiet vinyl and good representation of the recorded music on it, you may find audiophile records to be to your liking.
Most record collectors, like any other buyers of phonograph records, are primarily interested in commercial releases; that is, copies of records that were manufactured with the intention that they be sold at retail to the public. These are the kinds of records that are likely to comprise the bulk of anyone’s record collections
Serious collectors are usually interested in owning just about anything and everything produced by artists that they admire, and unusual items such as acetate pressings (also known as “acetates” or “lacquers”) or test pressings. These are records or components of record production that were manufactured not for sale, but to evaluate the process of making the commercial record itself.
As both acetates and test pressings are fairly rare, they tend to command a lot of interest in the collector market. While such pressings by any artist are rare, there is generally a lot of interest in acetates and test pressings by artists who are themselves popular with collectors, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and so on.
In this article, we’ll discuss the nature of acetates and test pressings, how they are made, why they are made, and what makes them of interest to collectors.
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While acetate pressings are usually referred to by record sellers and collectors as “acetates,” the term used to describe them within the industry is “lacquers.” That term makes more sense, as there isn’t any acetate used in the production of these records. For purposes of this article, however, we’ll call them “acetates,” as that’s the popular term used in the record collecting world.
Acetates represent the first step in the physical manufacture of a record, be it a single or an album. While acetates are technically “records” in the sense that they can be played on a turntable or phonograph, they are not pressed out of plastic using mechanical stampers, as are commercial records.
Instead, acetates are individually created using a cutting lathe, which is a device that loosely resembles a turntable. Acetates are lacquer-coated aluminum discs that are entirely smooth when first manufactured. They are “cut” by placing them on a cutting lathe that has a signal fed to the cutting head from either a live audio source or a performance recorded on magnetic tape. As the music plays, the cutting head cuts a groove in the soft lacquer surface.
The lacquer-coated disc rotates while the music plays, and the recording engineer controls the lathe, which must be periodically adjusted to compensate for changes in volume during the performance and to allow for gaps in between tracks.
In the early days of recording, music was played live in the studio and recorded directly to acetate discs. Since the 1940s, most performances are recorded first to magnetic tape and then transferred to acetates at the convenience of the record company.
Once the cutting process is complete, the disc is playable on any turntable to evaluate the performance, if necessary. Due to the softness of the lacquer coating, acetates are not particularly durable and will wear out and become noisy with repeated play. Acetates that are used for evaluation purposes are not generally used for production. Other discs will be cut for that purpose and then will be nickel-plated as part of the process to produce the stampers that will be used to make test pressings and later, records for sale to the public.
Uses for Acetates
Acetates are made for two purposes – to evaluate a recording and its suitability for pressing records and to use in the production of the finished product itself. For production, an acetate is first nickel plated and the plating is removed to create a negative image known as a father.
This process can be repeated by plating the father to produce a positive image known as a mother. The mother can be duplicated to create stampers. Typically, a father can be used to create about ten mothers and each mother can create ten stampers. A stamper can be used to press anywhere from 300-1000 finished records.
If all of the mothers and stampers are exhausted due to high production, another acetate must be cut and the process repeated.
Acetates are considerably heavier than records of a comparable size and usually weigh two to three times as much. While most acetates do have a label, these are generally generic labels with blank lines intended to be filled in by hand. Information found on the labels of acetate pressings usually consist of the name of the artist, the title(s) of the song(s) and perhaps the date the disc was cut and the timing of the song(s) on the disc.
Lacquer-coated blanks used to cut acetates used to have more than one hole near the center. One was the usual centering hole for the cutting lathe and/or turntable spindle; the other was a drive hole that fit a pin on the lathe to ensure that the disc wouldn’t slip on the lathe. More modern cutting lathes use a vacuum pump to hold the disc in place, making the drive hole unnecessary.
On rare occasions, there is a third purpose for acetates – sometimes, when a record company is in a hurry to get their album or single to radio stations, they will send acetates directly to radio. These are usually supplemented with regular vinyl pressings as soon as it can be arranged, as acetates are entirely unsuited to repeated play, as might be warranted by having them played on the radio.
Collector Interest in Acetates
What is the appeal of lacquers and acetates to collectors? There are a few reasons that collectors might be interested in owning acetates by the artists whom they collect:
They’re rare. Obviously, as acetates must be cut on a lathe, one at a time, they are going to be extremely limited in production. In general, there are probably fewer than a half dozen acetates cut of any single or album title. Most will be used for record production, and the process of plating them to produce a father destroys them.
A few others will be used for evaluation or promotional purposes, though it’s relatively rare for acetates to find their way out of the hands of record company personnel and into the public market. Their rarity alone makes them desirable. A popular album may sell in the millions, but only a couple of people are likely to ever have the opportunity to own an acetate copy of that album.
Good sound – Acetates sound terrific. While acetates are not suitable for repeated play on a turntable, they are playable and they usually sound better than the finished records sold at retail. Acetates are cut directly from the tape, where records are made from stampers that are made using multiple plating processes. Each step on the process to create a stamper creates a slight loss in quality, so acetates that haven’t been worn out from too much play will almost always sound better than finished records.
Unique content – Sometimes, artists have acetates prepared of songs just to hear how they sound as a record, though they may not have any intention of releasing them commercially. These may be working versions of songs that are later changed before release or songs that aren’t intended to be released at all.
On other occasions, acetates may be cut of “working” versions of albums, where the order of the songs may not be final. In other cases, one or more songs may appear on an acetate made early in the production process of an album but the final version of that album may not include them, making the acetate a rare collectible. We recently saw an acetate of the 1977 album The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl that was a working version of the album that contained two songs that were not on the finished LP. Those two songs have never been commercially released, making that particular acetate a desirable Beatles rarity.
About two years ago, someone found a box containing nearly 150 Bob Dylan acetates in a building in New York. Many of these acetates contained unreleased songs and/or different versions of songs from the versions that have been commercially released. Several of these discs have been sold publicly at prices in the several-thousand-dollar range.
A few bootleg albums have been released in acetate form over the years, simply as a gimmick. The only titles we have seen like this originated in Japan, usually in limited editions of no more than twenty five copies. As producing discs one at at time is both expensive and labor intensive, product of bootleg acetates as a commercial product is not a very common practice.
Prices for acetates can vary widely, depending on the artist and the content. Obviously, the more collectible the artist, the greater the interest from the collecting community. While all acetates are rare, collectors will be more interested in (and pay higher prices for) examples that feature unreleased material or versions of songs that are not otherwise available.
An acetate of an album by an artist that isn’t particularly collectible might sell for $10 or even less. On the other hand, an acetate containing unreleased material by a well-known artist might sell for thousands of dollars. About ten years ago, an acetate containing rough versions of the material that became the first album by the Velvet Underground sold for more than $25,000. That material has since been released commercially.
An acetate of Elvis Presley’s first recording sold for $300,000 in 2015 to musician Jack White of White Stripes fame.
Unfortunately, in the collecting world, nearly anything of value has been counterfeited, and that includes test pressings and acetates. They’re rare, they’re in demand, and they can sell for a lot of money, and that has led unscrupulous individuals to create acetates that appear to be original, record company-produced products but are actually homemade items that have no inherent value.
While counterfeit acetates exist for a number of artists, the most common artist represented by these discs is the Beatles. Many of these fake discs have labels that say either “EMIDISC” or have a representation of the Beatles’ own Apple label.
Since legitimate Beatles acetates turn up infrequently, few potential buyers have enough experience to be able to determine if an item offered for sale is a legitimate item or a counterfeit.
Many of these counterfeits have been artificially aged to give them a look of authenticity, and a number of them have sold for three and four figure prices at auction. The best advice we can offer to potential buyer is to know your seller and to get a guarantee when you make your purchase.
Along with acetates, collector also have a lot of interest in records known as test pressings. It’s not a clever name; a test pressing is exactly what the name suggests – a record manufactured for the express purpose of evaluating the finished product.
Test pressings might be manufactured for the purpose of listening to material that is being considered for commercial release or they might be made as a test of production stampers for a finished commercial record.
Unlike acetates, test pressings are vinyl records pressed from stampers and are physically virtually identical to commercially available records. The only difference is that test pressings usually have custom labels similar to those found on acetates. These labels might have the words “test pressing” pre-printed on them and may include blank lines that can be filled in by hand to indicate the name of the artist, the title of the album, the catalog number and perhaps the date of manufacture.
Like acetates, test pressings are occasionally sent out to radio stations for promotional use if the production discs aren’t yet ready, but most of the time, they’re simply used to evaluate the finished product. This would include making sure that the record contains the correct and intended versions of the songs on it, that the sound quality is acceptable and that the playing order is correct.
Test pressings are usually found without printed covers. They are usually packaged in plain white covers. Often they will be accompanied by a “label copy sheet,” which is a sheet of paper that contains the information that would ordinarily be printed on the label of a finished album – the album title and catalog number, the name of the artist, song titles and running times, the name of the record company and publishing information for the songs themselves.
Collector Interest in Test Pressings
Collectors like test pressings for many of the same reasons that they like acetates. While they are made further along in the manufacturing process than acetates, test pressings are usually the first discs made from production stampers, so they will likely sound better than commercially available, or “stock” copies of the records sold in stores.
Scarcity – Test pressings, like acetates, are also relatively rare. While acetates may be unique or limited to just a couple of discs, test pressings are usually manufactured in larger, though still limited, quantities. Unless test pressings are made to be issued as promotional copies, they are generally limited to no more than twenty copies, though the number of discs manufactured can vary widely.
Alternate or unreleased material – Like acetates, test pressings sometimes contain either unreleased material or songs that are different in some way from the commercially available versions of that particular album. The 1972 Beach Boys album Holland was originally intended to include a song called “We Got Love,” but the record company was unhappy with the song selection. The group recorded a song called “Sail On, Sailor” that was used in the place of “We Got Love” on the commercial release. A few test pressings of the earlier version exist and are of great interest to Beach Boys collectors.
A few test pressings of Bob Dylan’s 1975 LP Blood on the Tracks exist with different songs from the released version. The album was close to its release date when Dylan decided to rerecord a large portion of the album. Reportedly, only five copies of the test pressing of the original recording are known to exist. One of them recently sold for $12,000.
Test pressings of Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 album Born to Run were sent to radio stations in a printed gatefold cover that was blank on the inside and which featured the name of the artist and the title of the album in a font that looked like handwriting, rather than the block print used on the final version. Several hundred of these “script cover” test pressings were sent out to radio stations and are quite sought after today, usually selling for upwards of $1500 when they’re offered for sale.
The first live album by Genesis, 1974’s Genesis Live, was briefly intended to be a two record set but was ultimately released as a single album. A few test pressings of the two record set were made in the Netherlands. This set includes material that has otherwise never been released, and the few copies that have turned up over the years have sold for as much as $4000 at auction.
The audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs released eight titles in the early 1980s as Ultra High Quality Recordings, or UHQR, as they are known. These titles were made using a then-uncommon heavy-weight 200 gram vinyl pressed with a special “flat” profile that the company did not use for their regular pressings. All eight titles were limited to 5000 copies for commercial sale. The company also made test pressings of a handful of titles that they were considering releasing in the UHQR format, but which they ultimately decided not to release.
These titles included all thirteen of the UK Beatles albums, along with A Trick of the Tail by Genesis, Rickie Lee Jones’s first album, and The Grand Illusion by Styx, among others. These rarely-seen test pressings usually sell for upwards of $1000 each on the rare occasions when they are offered for sale.
Unreleased albums – Occasionally, artists will complete an album with the intention of commercial release, only to have the release canceled for any one of a number of reasons. These unreleased albums usually exist in the form of test pressings, and sometimes they turn up for sale.
One good example would be Läther, by Frank Zappa. The album, intended as a four-record set, was recorded in 1977. Zappa’s record company rejected the finished album, though test pressings exist. The album was finally released officially in 1996.
Another unreleased Zappa album, Crush All Boxes, was intended for release in 1980, but was scrapped in favor of releasing You Are What You Is instead. At least one test pressing is known to exist of that title.
Counterfeit Test Pressings
While counterfeit acetates are fairly common, counterfeit test pressings are not. We have seen a few examples over the years, including the original version of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. The most common counterfeit test pressings would be for titles that were otherwise unreleased. Buyers should exercise due diligence when considering a purchase, but as a rule, counterfeit test pressings are relatively uncommon.
The nice thing about test pressings is that they are physically no different from a commercially available album, which means that they can be played as often as any other record. Most collectors don’t buy them to play them, however; instead they tend to buy them as a collectible item in addition to the regular version of the album.
Acetates and Test Pressings Conclusion
While acetates and test pressings could hardly be regarded as something that every collector might find essential, they are unusual and interesting items to add to one’s collection. They’re relatively rare, they usually offer superior sound, and they occasionally offer access to material that otherwise might not be commercially available.