Utrecht Mega Record Fair 2011: The Vinyl Frontier

One from the “Tales…” vault. In 2011, Nick Amies went to Utrecht’s Mega Record Fair – the world’s largest. This is what happened…

The temperature outside is unseasonably warm as an ambitious spring sun shines down on Utrecht from a cloudless sky. It’s a day made for cycling by the canals or strolling through the Dutch city’s botanical gardens.  So why will a couple of thousand people decide over the course of this beautiful day to spend it shuffling around in the dim half-light of a cavernous, dingy conference hall? To those already in attendance, it’s a no-brainer: “I would go pretty much anywhere in the world to get that one special record,” says Hans Pokora, one of over 500 vendors set up and ready to go at the Mega Record & CD fair at Utrecht’s Jaarbeurs Convention Centre.

He’s obviously not the only one. Those who have forsaken the sun for the low fluorescent twilight of this huge hangar would appear to be just as committed to their own personal quests. With so many people streaming through the cramped corridors, one would expect to be met with a deafening roar and an almost frenzied atmosphere as the crowds swarm from stall to stall. Instead, the steady stream of collectors trawling through the racks and stalls at Europe’s largest record fair, one which regularly challenges the likes of the Austin Record Convention in Texas for the title of the Mecca of vinyl, creates a low, rumbling hum contrary to the cacophony one would expect in such a vast hall filled with an obsessive crowd. It’s as if the collective concentration is creating the noise; a purring energy which resembles the sound of a distant rhythmic machine whirring through an endless process. Whispered deals over steaming Styrofoam cups float on the air, mixing with the smell of percolator coffee, ageing cardboard and rising anticipation. Collectors flick through albums with the coordination of a production line; finishing one box, taking a step to the side and beginning again, their vacated place soon inhabited by another patient punter. Despite the hordes, movement is  executed with a determined focus but with an almost organic ease; there is no barging, no struggle for space even in the sometimes claustrophobic thoroughfares where collectors already laden with trophies and personal sound systems somehow manage to negotiate the human traffic without collision. Each person passes without hindrance through the flow of bodies as each pursues their own personal mission to find that most sought after piece of vinyl.

The vinyl. Oh yes, how could we forget. It’s all about the vinyl. There are those who love music, there are those who love bands and then there are those who love records; it’s a longing, a desire and in most cases an obsession. It’s a habit that constantly needs feeding; an all-consuming craving for every aspect of the medium. It’s a Jones for the sound, the smell, the feel and the sight of silky black vinyl spinning under a satisfied stylus. And it’s not just the monkey on the back of old school collectors. A new generation of junkies are currently driving a renaissance in record collecting; they’re searching for the roots of the music they love and finding them in the grooves of that most precious of acetates, and they’re beginning to buy their new music on a medium that is making a comeback thanks to champions such as Jack White who, along with an increasing number of artists, have been releasing their new material on vinyl weeks before issuing digital versions. “Vinyl is the real deal,” White says. “I’ve always felt that until you buy the vinyl record, you just don’t own the album. It’s not just me, it’s not just a little pet thing, it’s not just some retro romantic thing from the past. It’s still alive.” White and his Third Man records store have even invented the triple-decker record to entice fans back to the glossy black discs – a regular 12-inch format containing a seven-inch with an unreleased track embedded inside.

“A lot of bands today are getting smarter and making vinyl available as a special feature, a marketing tool,” says Laurent Sablairolles, a Dutch collector and former record store employee who already has a shopping caddy half-full of vinyl some thirty minutes after the fair opened. “Bands are giving the kids what they want – their CD or download – but they’re adding a vinyl pressing into the bundle. It’s a way of introducing vinyl to kids who may never have played a record in their lives.”

So what have the kids from the digital-only generation been missing out on? “For me it’s always about the music,” says Markus Rehmet, a 50’s specialist and collector who’s making one of his annual trips to Utrecht from his home in Germany. “I listen to everything I buy. The sound, that deep warm vibe, there’s an essence to it which is not just about the song but the whole production process and the era it was recorded in. I listen to it and those 50’s guys are doing their thing all over again for the first time. It’s all there, that moment, in the vinyl.” Markus has been a collector for over 30 years and began pursuing rare rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll records at a time when he had to cycle 25 miles to get to his nearest record shop just to order an album which could take an additional three weeks to arrive by mail order from the United States. “Funnily enough, these records were more available back then,” he says. He spreads his arms out over the tightly packed boxes of singles in front of him before pointing to the albums hung behind, one of which – an early Buddy Holly album – has a 150-euro price tag. “What you see here is everything I’ve got. With the stuff I love, the movement in the market is minimal these days. People are hoarding their collections. No-one’s really selling. But it comes in waves. There may be a time soon where a couple of huge collections go up for sale and the records will start moving again.”

Over at Hans Pokora’s stall, serious-looking punters are intensely flicking through cases of rare 60s psychedelia as Hans, an engaging and laid-back Austrian dealer with an air of Gandalf about him, reclines in a garden chair, sipping tea and appreciating the attention his records are getting. To his right, his assistant is explaining to a potential customer that the edition of  British psych-rockers Tomorrow’s eponymously titled 1968 album attached to the stall’s backdrop is well worth its 80-euro price tag as a rival store in the next row has one for twice that price and in much worse condition. “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t buy vinyl for the music,” says Hans, smiling serenely as another intense bartering transaction over an early Kinks seven-inch begins to his left. “Okay, there’s an aspect of investment for some, for others the artwork is important but it’s really just plastic and card. It’s what’s pressed into it, that’s the most important, most beautiful thing.” Hans admits that, with over 12,000 albums and 8,000 singles back home at his house in Vienna, he’ll never be able to listen to all his records but that he’s certainly going to try. “I know I have some really great music in my collection but you know, I may never have heard it. At least not yet.”

To most collectors, cash is often no object when it comes to owning what’s pressed into that inky, ribbed plastic.“Vinyl is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it but the thing is, people are willing to pay big money for what they really want,” says Markus Rehmet. “It’s all about budget. If I have the cash, and I find that particular album I’ve been searching for then I’ll spend it to get what I want. There are some really obscure US garage and psycho-billy records from the late 50s on my wish-list and if I find them then I may be walking home.” He grins but there’s steely determination and honesty in his eyes. “I don’t have an expensive car, it’s a beat-up old Ford worth about 1500 euros, but if I found all those records in one place, I’d probably sell it to get them all. I may have enough left over for a taxi back to Germany!”

Listening to the dedication of the die-hards, it’s not difficult to see how one record on a shelf can lead to whole rooms filled with albums and singles. With collectors of any art – and records are certainly considered works of art here – pursuing vinyl can quickly become a life’s work; one filled with as much mystery and myth as the search for the Holy Grail which, in some cases, a certain record can become. Legends of long-lost albums, never seen or touched, pass from generation to generation, driving collectors mad. Sometimes these mythical albums actually surface – not through magic but through clever marketing. “In one case I know of, one of these records actually came into existence because of the myth,” says Laurent Sablairolles. “There was always talk about this album called Italian Assault by Venom, the metal band. It was in their list, it had a catalogue number but no one had ever seen it. Then suddenly it started to appear because there was suddenly a great demand for it.”

Caio Beraldo’s quest has brought him to Utrecht from Brazil via Barcelona. A DJ with a keen sense of what gets a crowd buzzing, he is hunting, among other genres, for obscure Latin-influenced funk. Armed with his own portable turntable, he’s also very well-prepared and determined to avoid the pitfalls of buying without trying. “I came here especially from Barcelona looking for rare Brazilian jazz and fusion, 70’s progressive and psychedelia, and hip-hop, stuff I can drop into my set,” he says, explaining that tourists flocking to South America in the 90s are responsible for Europe becoming a treasure trove for rarities from his homeland. “The funky Brazilian stuff gets people up, especially the British, man. My shows in London have been wild. They get it, man, they know their stuff. But I only DJ with records because the quality can be ten times better than MP3 and it’s the closest you can get to the acoustic music itself.”

You’d expect most record collectors to pick up burning torches and head for the nearest Apple store when the subject of digital music is brought up but, while the minority CD stallholders in Utrecht do have a certain edginess about them, the vinyl loyalists are sanguine about the march of progress.

“Every record is an historical treasure,” Markus Rehmet says. “The atmosphere, the culture of the time, it’s all pressed into it. You don’t get that with CDs or digital files. Plus you lose the personal connection when buying files online. The debate and discussion about music during the sell is as much part of the process as the search and purchase. Real music lovers need that interaction and will never want to lose it.”

“The dawn of CDs was actually a boom time for vinyl collectors,” says Laurent Sablairolles. “People were dumping their records to replace them with CDs so I was buying hundreds at a time for silly money. I didn’t have time to listen to them before there was a new collection available. It hasn’t yet happened with digital downloads but we’ll see. If people are crazy enough to swap vinyl for computerized interpretations of the music, then collectors like me will be more than happy to take records off their hands.”

Music’s absorption into the cyberworld has more or less been accepted by record collectors and has its advantages in many ways but there are still enough disadvantages to keep a healthy level of suspicion simmering in the vinyl community. “The Internet is okay if you’re just wanting to fill a hole in your collection, one record to complete a back catalogue, but there are risks,” says Laurent  “Quality is everything in this business. If the vinyl is scratched or the artwork damaged then it’s useless. You can never always guarantee quality on the web.”

The effect that online sales have had on the personal interaction Markus Rehmet and others treasure so much has also compounded the struggle that independent record stores have to survive, as highlighted by events such as Record Store Day, the annual international celebration of grass-roots shops which fell on April 16 this year. While many collectors experienced their epiphanies in small-town stores and lament their current plight, they believe that the shops may come and go but vinyl will always remain.

“The ebb and flow of record shops is just progress, it’s evolution, but vinyl will never die,”says Laurent. “A lot of bands today are getting smarter and making vinyl available as a special feature, a marketing tool. They give the kids what they want – their CD or download – but add a vinyl pressing into the bundle. It’s a way of introducing vinyl to kids who may never have played a record in their lives.”

“Record shops come and go but fairs like this remain, and are keeping the flow of vinyl alive,” adds Hans Pokora. “Reissues to a certain extent are keeping shops on life-support and new shops dealing with certain labels and genres are starting up again but for people who are after first editions or rarities, the fairs are where it’s at and always will be.”

Unfortunately the Red Bulletin version is no longer available online. However, thanks to the kind people at Yumpu, you can still see the layout and read THE VINYL FRONTIER in the magazine format here.

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