📜 Feature The ups and downs of record grading

Feature article
Equal parts amusing and frustrating, record grading is one of those issues where there is often more than a little room for interpretation.

What is record grading? This is a rating assigned on a record's condition, with separate ratings for a record's jacket/sleeve as well as the record itself. The gold standard in rating systems might be the Goldmine Grading Guide, as presented by Goldmine Magazine, although Goldmine's own price guides only include a single overall rating that is "averaged" between jacket and record, which to me is a rather worthless rating since I am more concerned with how a record plays, as opposed to owning a collectible piece. (A single average Very Good Plus (VG+) rating for a title could indicate a Very Good Minus (VG-) record in a Near Mint jacket, for example...and I have no patience for poor quality vinyl.)

Per Goldmine's estimates and standards, perhaps two to four percent of records from 1970 and prior are worthy of a Near Mint grade. And they consider Mint to be absolutely perfect, without a single flaw, and that records in this grade are rarely seen.

PXL_20210104_041832877.NIGHT (2)-800x521.jpgYet if we look on Discogs, we find that grading is all over the place. Near Mint records are plentiful, and Mint is perhaps the most abused of all the ratings. Granted, I will freely admit that the slightly more relaxed standards of common record grading make more sense, as it gives a wider range of values to assign to the condition of an album.

The reality of grading, though, is where everyone takes a few liberties. We've heard numerous complaints about records being sold as VG+ or NM, only to arrive with multiple scratches or a lot of wear.

Pictured at right is my "NM" copy of an LP I purchased over a year ago (click to zoom in for a closer look); needless to say, it was returned, and I found a sealed copy from a MusicStack seller for half the price.

In many cases, though, I have been pleasantly surprised, where a seller graded conservatively, and the record exceeded my expectation. One recent purchase (the Charles Bevel record) didn't have a single visual flaw on it, and the record played like it had hardly seen a turntable at all in its life.

I have also been disappointed when a record arrives looking spotless, yet it plays back with a lot of noise. It achieves a high visual grade but play grading it would have resulted in a much lower grade. In this case, though, I can't really blame the dealers. We cannot expect a record store to play each and every record that comes through their doors--there isn't enough time in the day for that. A few will take a moment to give the record a test play to listen for any obvious defects, yet I have had a couple instances where a dealer had played a record, claiming it "plays really well," only to have it arrive noisy. And I don't think many dealers out there even recognize groove burn (groove wear), to be honest.

Then there's the old joke about an "eBay Near Mint" being somewhere in the vicinity of the Fair grade. 😁

The grade that really confuses me is Mint. The term came from coin traders and dealers--a coin that is in the same condition as when it left the mint, untouched by human hands, can only be graded as Mint. By that definition, Mint records should be sealed, never touched by human hands once it leaves the pressing plant. Yet if you go by Goldmine standards, that sealed record may not be "perfect in every way." In my mind, the more generous "untouched" definition better fits the standard of Mint, yet the record inside can still have flaws.

And I have found flaws in sealed "new old stock" records. Luckily, they have been very few in number. A couple were badly off-center. One was cracked. Another couple of records, just by the nature of their era, were pressed on noisy vinyl. Overall, though, I would prefer to pay more for a sealed record and know it was not mistreated by a previous owner or played on low-grade equipment (which causes groove burn), than to buy half a dozen copies of the same album to find one that is acceptable. I would say that among the many dozens of new old stock sealed LPs I've purchased in the past few years only three or four were bad enough that I needed to find replacements.

What really irritates me are the sellers (especially those in Europe, where this problem is more rampant) who grade records as Mint which were opened and inspected, or "played only once." Sorry, but when the stylus hits the record, that instantly disqualifies a record as being Mint, in my opinion. I've also seen listings where someone is selling records for another party, where the seller comes across a record that they claim "looks unplayed." And Goldmine's standard doesn't specify whether that "perfect in every way" Mint grade includes whether or not a record was ever played.

I believe a fairer grading system might be slightly more lax on the Near Mint grade (it has to look like it came fresh out of the jacket and play flawlessly), reserve Mint for those perfect/untouched records (or just eliminate Mint entirely since by Goldmine standards, Mint condition records probably don't exist anyway), and introduce a new grade, Sealed, that implies only one thing--the record inside is still in the same condition it left the pressing plant in, whether it was perfect or not. Sealed would also imply that the jacket could have damage from storage over the years. The only drawback to a Sealed grading is that some distributors or even some dishonest sellers could reseal the albums.

My own personal method of buying records these days is to stick to sealed, new old stock records as often as I can, even if they cost a little extra. Groove wear is a major issue I have with other grades of records, and I would say of records I have purchased locally in the past dozen years or more, I've rejected about 60% of what I've purchased due to groove burn. (Groove burn is impossible to spot visually unless the wear is extreme.) I otherwise tend to stick to NM, or VG+ or worse if the record is that rare. I've had better luck with Discogs sellers than any local stock I've purchased, though, and the selection has been far better than the same tired inventory our local stores have over time.

How has your experience been with record grading, compared to the records you have received? Do you feel the grades have usually been close to the actual condition received, or was the grading a bit generous? Any surprises, good or bad? Let us know!
 

Harry

Charter A&M Corner Member
Staff member
Site Admin
Like most everyone, I've had good surprises and bad surprises, and am probably guilty of over-grading some of my LPs as I add them to the Discogs database. I tend to look at listings and sales there as probably what I would do, which is to over-grade something. So if I choose to buy a VG+ record, if it arrives as a VG, I'm pretty happy.

My success in the used marketplace as a buyer is probably due to the fact that I'll choose a CD in most cases if it exists and is not overly pricey. The durability of CDs means that most will play flawlessly as long as they are in anything from "Good" on up. I at least hope to buy a CD that has all of its inserts intact, whether or not a jewel-case is included. Those are easily replaced. With newer cardboard packs, I'm a little fussier. When a title is only out there as an LP, that's where I really pay more attention to any descriptions or pictures that the seller provides.

I think my biggest "good surprise" came when I bought a "lot" of something like 60-70 Herb Alpert seven-inch singles, mostly Tijuana Brass era, and described in varying condition from good to great. The images showed varying label styles, many promos, and a bunch of them had jukebox title strips. When they arrived, the great bulk of these were in truly superb condition, good enough for me to compile a fairly complete singles collection. I only needed to add a few extra singles that were not included. My guess is that these were old stock that were inventoried for jukebox use, but perhaps never actually used. The seller probably didn't have time to play-grade them, and thus sold them for around a buck apiece. There were only a couple that were disappointing - one was "A Taste Of Honey" as it probably was used in a jukebox and got the most plays, so it was well groove-burned. For my compilation, I should have used the version on the mono DEE JAY SAMPLER.

Having the ability to digitally improve a recording that might have a scratch or two, makes it easier to be forgiving if a record is otherwise in good shape. It's the groove-burn or bad pressing noises that will drive me crazy. I'm still annoyed at Universal for what I consider a bad pressing of STONEBONE. The quiet parts of the record - and there are many - exhibit a whooshing sound that's telltale of bad vinyl. And that was of course a brand new pressing. Was it "Mint"?
 
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