Sealed Fate – The Temptation of Unopened Vinyl Records

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Sealed Fate – the Temptation of Unopened Vinyl Records

I hold the record in one hand. Its factory shrink-wrap is still pristine and smooth and glossy. The album jacket’s opening is closed as well. The album is perfectly sealed. This is rare. The record is fairly rare too, but finding anything in perfect condition is pretty difficult. It almost feels wrong, just touching it. It’s mint – don’t drop it. I’m not even using two hands. The record is in one hand, a cheap plastic utility knife is in the other. The knife rattles and clicks as I bring the blade out. A year ago I would barely have considered this. Now I move with a clear, blank resolve. And I touch the blade to the edge.

For awhile now (over a year) I’ve been sitting on a small stack of vinyl LP’s that have never been opened. I acquired them second-hand, $2 or less each, and for various reasons. Some looked interesting, as per my personal tastes. Others looked perceivably valuable in terms of reselling. But the reason I kept them sealed until recently was not just the perceived resale value – only a few would likely be actually worth anything, even in mint condition.

I kept them sealed precisely because they were sealed.

But over the past week or so, after unearthing them from behind other boxes of records I’ve been selling, I’ve changed my mind about keeping them sealed. Some of them, anyway. The reasons vary, and are often similar to why I hadn’t opened the records to begin with. Some of them only looked marginally interesting to me, content wise. But likely uninteresting to others as well. And as such, sealed or not, they are less likely to sell for significant money. Sealed or not.

Buying used records entails a lot of risks. This is especially true when it comes to music you’ve never heard before. Faced with an unfamiliar album, one’s curiosity can be piqued to varying degrees. And unless one has immediate access to a turntable or an internet connection while looking for records, you may be left with no recourse but to roll the dice and risk the mystery on something you may not ultimately like.

Such a risk is doubled when it comes to reselling a fruitless purchase. Some make a business of it altogether, “flipping” albums found cheap in thrift stores to collectors willing to pay proper market value. The ideal situation in these cases is to find an album in as mint condition as possible. And, with exceptions (mainly warping), none are more mint than those still factory sealed in shrink-wrapped plastic.

It can be heart-stopping to find an album still sealed. And the more valuable an album is already perceived to be, the more intense the discovery. The wrap doesn’t even have to be perfectly intact – an album’s value already increases even if open but otherwise wrapped. But a solidly sealed vinyl record is equivalent to an unopened food item. It’s safe, an assurance that nobody before you has touched it (outside of somebody on an assembly line). It is immaculate. Unsullied. It is pure.

And therein lies the conflict. Like a painter faced with a fresh canvas, do you mar the purity of the surface with irreversible contact? Or leave it as it is, a field of fallen snow unbroken by footsteps?

The decision is yet more complicated. One can debate the practical purposes of things like vinyl records: is the music not meant to be listened to? Is this round piece of wax not the means to that end? Audiophile collectors in fact prefer vinyl, heralding the medium as the utmost in audio purity. But even they know that this platform is physical, a material that degrades each time even the highest-end of styluses pass through the grooves.

And so maybe sealed records serve to delay the inevitable. Even if opened and played, the life of the record is presented at its fullest, its first few spins offering the optimal listening experience. And if it remains sealed, perhaps it’s an assurance that at least one copy in the world remains pure. And that copy is yours.

What remains is the question of resale value. When you buy a car, you automatically deduct thousands from its value the moment you drive it off the lot. So too, surely, must a vinyl record’s value become depreciated once a needle crosses its surface, even if for only a second. The visual and audible difference may be negligible – you may even be able to lie about it. This is all a matter of record of course, no pun intended. Analysis and grading and appraisal and the ever important dollar value. If it’s sealed, it’s worth the most it will ever be.

So unless you really do want to listen to it, you shouldn’t take the chance. Instead you do your research and check the market value. You find out what people are willing to pay. Someone out there could hand you an easy $20 just based on its sealed condition alone – they might not know what lies within either, but sealed is sealed. And so if you want to maximize your profit, never open it. Keep it safe. Keep it pure. Don’t take the risk.

But… what if? What if you really do want to play it? What if, despite having never heard it before, you just have to know if that sealed record is something that you would enjoy and want for your own? Not everything can be test-driven; not all music can be heard online, as big as the web seems to be. Not everyone has networks of fellow record geeks ready to help classify and describe for you. And not all albums give even the slightest sense of what lies within on their jackets. It could be the funkiest, the jazziest, the heaviest, most enjoyable thing you’ve come across in months. Or it could be a dud.

You have to take the risk.

That’s where a certain thrill comes in. A moment of whimsical abandon, a flicker of youthful smile accompanying a “fuck it” once you make the decision. It changes from a risk to a dare. “Will you? Won’t you? What would they say down at the record conventions? Do you even care what they think? In the end, does it really even matter?”

And so I grab the cheap plastic knife. I touch the blade to the edge of the record’s opening, at the top where I know there’s a bit of a gap in the jacket to make a puncture. The knife pops in and it’s arguably too late – open is open; unsealed is unsealed. But I don’t hesitate. I carefully try to move the blade lengthwise. Moving slowly. Feeling the pressure of the plastic as it gives way. I only move my hand as much as the cutting allows. I force nothing. To force the blade is to risk cutting into the cardboard jacket and cause real damage. Maybe not as definable as the undoing of the precious factory sealing, but significant. Really, the unsealing is an event unto itself. A real before-and-after. Sealed versus not sealed. Pure versus impure.

The blade glides along this one’s edge with ease, and the seas part. The record lies within. At least that much remains true. The knife is put away and the vinyl is extracted. Sometimes the paper or plastic inner sleeve is factory-inserted clumsily, folds and creases causing a lesser but similar frustration. This should be perfect, unsullied, in every aspect. It was factory-sealed, wasn’t it? Brand new?

But that’s just cheap packing material. Less consequential. Sometimes the record itself isn’t perfect. A bit of a curved warp. A misprinted label. Or the most criminal of infractions: a pre-existing scratch, if not several. Blemished before it even leaves the plant. The ugliest sight. The most disheartening, frustrating moment next to damaging the thing yourself.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t check records, sealed or not, for hidden treasures inside. As if Willy Wonka had some chocolate records pressed (something you can actually do) with five golden tickets dispersed at random. A sealed record would guarantee such a prize. I’ve yet to find anything unique.

It seems easy to put the unsealing behind me, at least at first. The real test comes when I listen to the music itself. Will it satisfy? Will the initial purchase be made worth it? Will hoarding these records be made a waste of time? Will the opening have been a waste too?

The results are mixed. So are the feelings. Only the risk remains constant.

© 2016 Andrew Hall Writes

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