On Grading Records
THIS ARTICLE about grading records reprints the article Grading The Records that appeared in the fifth edition of Goldmine’s Price Guide To Collectible Record Albums (Krause Publications, 1996). This was the last book that I authored for Goldmine but this system has been used in one manner or another by every author since.
It is not an exact reprint: I made some corrections, added a few things, and modified the layout for a more readable look on the pages of a blog.
Please keep in mind that this article specifically addresses grading 33⅓ rpm LP albums. But most of the info pertains to 78 and 45 rpm singles. Nothing here should be conflated with the grading of compact-discs (CDs).
I use the word jacket to mean the cardboard or heavy paper sleeve in which the record is housed. I use cover to refer to the front (usually a photo or artwork) or back (usually text or ads) of the jacket.
A record always looks better when you’re selling it than when you’re buying it.
I kept this piece as close to the original as is reasonable so the reader can see two things:
• My grading system of twenty years ago is the foundation for all subsequent grading structures in other Goldmine books by other Goldmine authors.
• This grading system is still accurate and functional and, in some ways, superior to what followed.
The fifth edition of Goldmine’s Price Guide To Collectible Record Albums was the biggest selling title of any kind of book that Krause had published at that time.
It may still be.
On grading records
When purchasing a record at a collectors show or through the mail, the buyer does not get to listen to it. For that reason, records are almost always graded by visual standards, not aural. Unfortunately, this method relies on three things:
1. the subjectivity of the grader’s eyes,
2. the grader’s understanding of the grading, and
3. the fact that records do not always play as good or as bad as they look.
For this reason, records almost always look better when selling than when buying!
The arguments against play-grading are similar: the subjectivity of the listener’s ears is a HUGE factor, one that is multiplied by the type of equipment the grader is playing the record on to form his judgment. 1
So, for the sake of convenience and necessity, visual grading is the standard by which almost all dealers and collectors work.
Grade the overall condition
When grading a record for sale, grade the overall condition—mostly the general wear and tear—of the vinyl. A record graded as NM or VG should tell the prospective buyer the shape of the playable vinyl.
Common sense should be used. For example, a brand new, just-out-of-the-sleeve, unplayed record that is warped cannot be Mint. But such a record is not VG or even P, it’s an “Unplayed record with warp that affects play.”
It’s difficult to describe several common grades without discussing defects and/or the way the record plays; these are included to help define the grade, not to cause confusion.
Both manufacturing flaws and defects such as stickers on the label, or tape on the jacket, or writing on the labels or the sleeve, should not be included in the actual grade—they should be addressed separately with abbreviated notations!
A reliable set of notations has been developed over the years that cover most types of defects that can occur to a record or its jacket. A list of most of the more common abbreviations and their meanings can be found below.
Grading for sale via mail
Visual grading is most important in mail-order transactions, where a buyer doesn’t see his purchase until his check has cleared the bank. The aim of grading is to make the buyer visualize the record and not be disappointed when the record arrives!
Usually (but not always), a record that is accurately graded should play the same as the grading.
Always grade records under a good, steady light. A 100-watt light bulb in a common desk-lamp will do an adequate job: most major defects will jump out and allow you to make a reasonably accurate assessment.
Grading records using light from a ceiling fixture or from deflected sunlight entering the window will often hide paper-scuffs, discoloration, groove-wear, and even some fingerprints.
Grading for sale in person
In-person deals do not require a grade of any sort; if you are holding a record that has obviously been played a hundred times, you don’t need a grade to determine whether or not you are going to purchase that record.
Records in Mint condition (M) should appear to have just left the manufacturer without any handling. That is, they should appear perfect! No scuffs, scratches, botches, or stains.
No stickers or writing on the labels.
No tears or splits.
Age has nothing to do with condition! The same standards for Mint apply to an LP from 1954 as they do to LP from 1994 or 2014!
Mint jackets should appear to have never had a record in it: there should be no ring-wear. 2
No dog-eared corners, no writing, no seam-splits, etc.
Many dealers and collectors take the position that any opened album is a used album and cannot be verified as Mint. They will use Mint-minus (M-) to describe these albums.
A great percentage of records from the 1970s on are available in mint condition.
NEAR MINT CONDITION
Records in Near Mint condition (NM) are those that are otherwise Mint but have one or two tiny defects that do not affect the play. For many, NM and M- mean the same thing; for the sake of this book, they are interchangeable. When dealing with a seller that discriminates between the two, inquire as to what the dealer means when he calls one record M- and another NM.
Near mint jackets should still be close to perfect with minor signs of wear or age just becoming evident. Any ring-wear or dog-earing of a corner should be noted in the description.
A great percentage of records from the 1970s on are available in near-mint condition.
Records in Excellent condition (EX) are rarely excellent in the way most of us understand the word: i.e., “extremely good; outstanding.” This grade is often interchangeable with the more common VG+ (below).
VERY GOOD PLUS CONDITION
Records in Very Good Plus condition (VG+) are obviously not perfect, but are not too far from it. This could mean there are light paper scuffs from sliding in and out of a paper sleeve, or the vinyl may have lost some—but definitely not all—of its original luster.
On jackets, some wear from storage is acceptable, especially light wear that does not affect the integrity of the artwork.
Always list the flaws in a VG+ record or jacket.
VG+ is sometimes used almost interchangeably with EX. If a dealer uses both in grading his inventory, you might want to inquire as to what are the differences in the grades.
VERY GOOD CONDITION
Records in Very Good condition (VG) will display visible signs of handling and playing, such as loss of vinyl luster, light surface scratches, groove wear, and spindle trails from countless spins on the turntable.
A VG record looks like it will have some audible surface noise when it is played, although any such noise should not overwhelm the musical experience.
VG records should appear well-played although well-loved by a responsible owner. Gouges in the plating from slapping the record down onto the spindle, rips in the label from pulling stickers off, etc., are all unacceptable.
As more collectors spend more money on their acquisitions, the lower limits of acceptability for an item to be admitted into their collection rises. That is, to many collectors, a record in VG condition is not acceptable unless the item is truly rare and virtually unavailable in any other condition! Even then, it is acceptable only if the price is scaled appropriately to match the condition.
This is a difficult grade when discussing paper goods. Like a record, usually a jacket is VG when a variety of problems are evident: ring-wear, seam-splits, bent corners, loss of gloss, stains, etc. An aggravated combination of two of these problems—never all of them—would likely cause a jacket to be graded VG. Used but not abused might sum up this grade.
Records in Good condition (G) in record collecting parlance all too often means a beat trashed take-it-to-the-flea-market frisbee. Good should mean that the record was played frequently and has any number of defects that collectors normally shy away from, such as an almost complete loss of surface sheen, aggravating surface noise, etc.
Still, the purchaser, knowing full well that he is buying a G record, should be able to take it home, slap it onto the turntable, and have a good time listening to it. Records that do not provide this most fundamental requirement are just no good.
A G jacket has seen considerable handling over a course of years and displays the obvious signs: some seam-splitting, particularly along the bottom, which would receive the brunt of the record’s sliding in and out; corners may be dog-eared to a light degree; an infatuated owner may have written his or her name somewhere; etc.
If a record or jacket is beneath your contempt, it is not in G condition.
Records in Poor condition (P) are those records and jackets that do not qualify for the above Good grading.
When I have desirable records in G or P condition and I am selling at a record show, I give those record away as a freebee to anyone who expresses interest in it. Nice way to make a friend . . .
Keep in mind that visual evidence can be deceiving. Records manufactured by major American companies from 1948 through at least 1968 often used high-quality vinyl and high-quality vinyl plating. These records may look VG yet play NM.
During the first twenty years of LPs and 45s, print runs were dramatically smaller, vinyl was fresher, and more care was paid to the entire procedure. Records from this period are a better investment in VG and VG+ condition than the more recent American product (the ’70s on up).
The opposite can also be true: records manufactured from inferior vinyl or with poor plating may look M and play VG. Most dealers do not have the time to listen to each item in their inventory, so visual standards remain.
Record collecting abbreviations
Listed here are common abbreviations used in advertising to describe flaws and their locations on a record or jacket or sleeve:
cc: cut corner
coh: cut-out hole
dj: disc jockey or promotional copy
ips: inches per second (refers to reel-to-reel tapes)
lp: twelve-inch 33⅓ rpm long-playing album
nap: (does) not affect play
ol: on label
pln cvr: plain paper or cardboard cover, jacket, or sleeve without pictures or titles
repro: reproduction (may or may not be a counterfeit)
2nd: second pressing
slt wrp: slight warp
sm spt: seam-split
sol: sticker on label
srw: slight ring-wear on the front cover
t&t: disc jockey title and timing strip
toc: tape on cover
tol: tape on labels
ts: tape on jacket seams
wlp: white label promo
woc: writing on cover
wol: writing on label
That said, this standard of grading leaves a lot to be desired. While it’s not as convoluted as the 100-point system used by such organizations as Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA), Beckett Grading Services (BGS), Sportscard Guaranty (SGC), and International Sports Authentication (ISA), it’s not as encompassing as it could be. 3
Experience is the best teacher
Like almost every other field of endeavor, learning to grade records and sleeves takes time, concentration, and determination. You know it don’t come easy . . .
1 Those collectors/sellers blessed/cursed with ‘golden ears’ would be at an extreme disadvantage in grading anything less than near mint (NM) or better, as 99% of used records—and maybe that many new records!—would all sound noisy and crappy.
2 Here, ‘no’ is defined here as ‘none, zero, nada’ while ‘ring-wear’ is defined as ‘any imprint on the front or back cover from the record within.’
3 In the years since writing the above, I have considered a new record grading system with ten grades instead of the six listed below, and does away with misleading terms like VG (which usually means “not really very good at all”) and G (o.e., “bad”). It is more user-friendly than the excessively complex systems used for comic books and baseball cards, which actually require paid experts to determine the grade of a high ticket item prior to sale.