Stephen M. H. Braitman has had a lifelong love affair with music, and has more than 20,000 vinyl records to prove it. In this interview, he discusses the British Invasion from a collector’s perspective, and explores the evolution of the technology behind the tunes—from 78s to 45s to LPs, from mono to stereo to quadrophonic. Braitman, who is both a music appraiser and collector, can be reached via his website, MusicAppraisals.com.
I was a Hollywood kid. My father was a TV and radio editor in the San Fernando Valley, and he allowed me to do my first writing to review concerts and shows for the newspaper. By 16 I was going to the Troubadour every week and reviewing all the acts—Joni Mitchell, Poco, Neil Young, Pentangle, Tim Buckley, all of them. I had a lot of friends in high school who really appreciated my being able to take them to the clubs for free.
But as a younger kid, I really hated rock ’n’ roll music and pop music, and I disliked the Beatles and all that. I have a younger sister who was a total Beatlemaniac. She started getting into the ’60s scene, but I was more influenced at that time by my father’s interest in classical music.
I was, however, interested in the phenomenon, and it was fun to see what was going on, even though I was a classical-music snob. I mostly listened to Romantic music, but also getting into the 20th century, the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg and Webern. I loved Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin.
I recall the first time I heard the Beatles song “We Can Work It Out”—that changed my whole idea about whether this music was really worth spending any time with. That song is rather complex in terms of harmonic structure, and that just set me off. I think that shows the influence of classical music on my tastes in pop music.
When the Ramones went to England, it had the same sort of impact as when the Beatles went to America.
Oddly, that didn’t translate into a really strong affinity for progressive rock music. You might think, “Classical music, progressive rock—they have so many similarities.” I do love several bands that are considered progressive rock, but in general, I think progressive rock is pompous and pretentious and just stupid: it borrows some of the structure and flourishes of classical music but it adds too much of the heavy metal and hard rock bombast and stupidity to interest me.
I started exploring the popular music world more, and getting singles. The first single I ever remember buying was Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues.” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” was another very early purchase.
In 1968 I bought my first little portable KLH turntable with the attached speakers, and that’s when I got my first albums. The first albums I bought were the Kaleidoscope album “Beacon from Mars” on Epic, the Beatles’ “White Album,” and Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye and Hello.” So I was exploring fairly non-mainstream music. We all listened to the radio hits—the Motown, the psychedelic rock, the Beatles. But I would take a chance on music I’d never heard of, like Pink Floyd’s first album, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” The cover looked cool.
Collectors Weekly: Why do you think the first wave of British bands flopped before the Beatles made it big in America in early ’64?
Braitman: The Beatles came out with their first single, “Love Me Do,” in England in the fall of 1962. It was a minor hit, but it wasn’t until January that they came out with “Please Please Me,” which was the real start of Beatlemania in Britain. So for all of 1963, you had an incredible musical revolution going on in England.
In America, the record companies were always looking for a new thing to sell. In 1963 they released several British Invasion songs, not just by the Beatles, and tried to get them played on American radio. And they couldn’t. It was just not happening.
You could speculate as to the reasons why this music didn’t take off at the time, but you’ve got to understand what happened a year later in January of ’64—the Beatles actually came to America. The record company decided to spend millions of dollars on promotion. They were on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” You can also look at the socio-cultural significance of the Kennedy assassination, that the country was ready for some excitement. So the stars were aligned for things to really explode in January ’64, as well as the influx of some really serious promotion money.
That had not happened the year before. In 1963, a record company would put out a single and promote it just like the old days. The old way of doing business in the record industry changed radically after the Beatles became big. If you were going to sell a Gerry & the Pacemakers or Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas or Searchers record in 1963, it was fundamentally different than the way you were going to do it in 1964, just given the way the marketplace and the business changed so radically.
Pre-Beatles, you had a very conservative industry. The way they got airplay and sales was through radio stations and middlemen, brokers who promoted records to their networks of retailers. They were conservative in that they sold what had gone on before. They weren’t promoting anything as a new idea. They weren’t selling to a demographic like they did after the Beatles.
After the Beatles, youth culture became dominant. Prior to the Beatles, anyone who was trying to make money selling a record had to hope that not only would teenagers buy it, but their parents would buy it, too. It was more of a mainstream approach to selling records in those days. The label would take out industry ads for any kind of music and target radio stations that would play a broad spectrum of music. There were fewer radio stations around that would just try to program for teenagers. That all changed after the Beatles.
I’ve identified 20 British Invasion records that were released in 1963 that all flopped before the Beatles. After the Beatles, they were all reissued and most of them became hits. Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to Be with You”; the Searchers’ “Sweets for My Sweet”; “I’ll Keep You Satisfied” by Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas; several Gerry & the Pacemakers songs; Freddie and The Dreamers; and the Beatles had several Vee-Jay singles released. None of those 1963 releases made any waves until they were identified with the British Invasion of 1964.
Collectors Weekly: How did the British Invasion impact American music in the long run?
Braitman: It really signaled the death of the classic Tin Pan Alley songsmith. With most of the British Invasion bands, the songwriters came from the bands themselves. Obviously, the Beatles were the preeminent songwriters of the era, but most of the other bands had their own songwriters, too.
‘We Can Work It Out’ changed my whole idea about whether this music was really worth spending any time with.
The British Invasion also altered the fundamental nature of the business in terms of how record companies promoted and marketed their products. It started niche marketing, much more than just broad categorization—this is pop music, this is race music, this is country western music, this is classical music. It broke the music down into many more subcategories than that to capitalize on the marketing potential.
It also started to erase regionalisms. Fortunately for garage-rock fans, regionalism—and particularly the way radio in regions expressed local scenes—held on for another five or six years. But by ’68, ’69, and ’70, regionalism in music was almost nonexistent because of the way radio had essentially become nationalized. Formats became standardized. A radio station in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would sound the same as a radio station in Salem, Oregon, or in Sacramento, California.
Collectors Weekly: Which labels were the key players at the time?
Braitman: Capitol Records was in the catbird seat. They had the number one artist, the Beatles, plus some other major artists, too. I would say Columbia Records was late to the game. They were very fortunate to have Bob Dylan, but then they moved more into folk and folk rock. They didn’t really have much in terms of real mainstream rock.
London Records, because of their relation to Decca, probably was the number-two label for the British Invasion. Unfortunately, I think they had really poor marketing and bad label design, but they were certainly a major label. Laurie Records, I think, also had a very strong profile early on with their artists. They had Gerry & the Pacemakers, who were very successful for them, and several others.
Lots of independents and minor labels did very well during this period, too. Not so much RCA. RCA has always been a really misbegotten label. I think that they’ve always had really crummy art design and usually pretty bad engineering and production values.
Columbia generally had excellent art design and okay engineering. They didn’t always have the best vinyl pressings, but they were always a class act in terms of the design and the way their albums looked and felt, as opposed to Capitol, whose albums often looked really crass—in particular, the crummy look of the Beatles albums early on before the Beatles stepped in and said, “Hey, you gotta put out a record that looks the way we want it to.”
Collectors Weekly: How else did the British Invasion affect U.S. music?
Braitman: Number one, they brought American music back to America. They stimulated our homegrown music scenes. Everyone who saw the Beatles started a band. So they helped America rediscover its own musical heritage. At the same time, the British Invasion helped break down the rigid class and racial structure of musical appreciation. White teenagers could now listen to black music without shame.
That wasn’t entirely due to the Beatles. I would say the folk bloom also helped many listeners to rediscover the old blues and folk artists who’d been forgotten in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. It was all kind of mixed up together in what was going on in the ’60s.
Collectors Weekly: How did the British Invasion compare to the punk explosion in the ’70s?
Braitman: You could say the British Invasion and that whole change was kind of an insurgency against the mainstream establishment of the music industry at the time that totally caught the record companies unaware. No one really knew what was happening, and it was just a big whirlwind of activity.
By the mid-’70s, the record industry had become very fat, very heavy, very large, and had gone back to those more rigid categorizations—here’s your mainstream rock, your hard rock, your progressive rock, your singer-songwriters, your folk. It was such a huge, successful machine that I think a lot of new musicians and young people who wanted to get into the business felt like they either had to ape existing styles or go outside the system to create the music they wanted to create. It didn’t seem as if the music industry was welcoming anymore.
That was, I think, one of the original stimulants of the DIY, or “Do It Yourself,” movement. Prior to the British punk explosion, we had our own American punk underground that was very active through most of the ’70s. That’s one reason why the Ramones and the New York punk scene developed as kind of a counterculture against the mainstream record culture.
When the Ramones went to England, everyone who saw them started a band. In terms of how they stimulated the musical scene, they affected England like the Beatles affected America.
In the ’70s, I was writing and editing music magazines. I saw that there were these scenes in Ohio, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco where there were bands putting out their own 45s and playing in these small, little-nothing clubs. This was very exciting to me. I found much more interesting music happening in these places than I found from the latest Montrose or Steve Miller Band or Genesis albums.
Mainstream music had become very formalized and bloated. I think progressive rock typified the way the mainstream music went off the deep end. It became pretentious, huge, and opulent. It lost its roots in a lot of ways.
Now, I don’t want to say I’m against the evolution of popular music. I think it’s really valid to try to change musical structures and merge musical forms like classical and rock music. But I think, for example, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Deep Purple are the biggest offenders: it’s mostly just about pomp and circumstance. It’s not about really exploring musical ideas and new forms of expression. It’s just a way of making it grander and bigger and more spectacular. It’s not really changing the fundamental nature of the music; it’s just adding layers of pomposity.
In general, I think progressive rock is pompous and pretentious and just stupid.
As we’ve seen, particularly with German progressive rock bands and experimental bands, there are really vital ways of expanding the structures and formal nature of rock music. But by the mid-’70s, the record companies, again, were looking for spectacle and shows, the million-dollar concerts on huge stages—kind of reminiscent of the situation today, in fact. Progressive rock fit right into that.
I believe 1975 was the greatest year for rock music. Most people don’t think that, but I do. In 1975, the wave of rock music from the early ’60s had reached its ultimate point, and you also have the first real definition of what the punk rock movement was going to be. You have Patti Smith and the Ramones, and you have Devo and Pere Ubu in 1975. Those are four of the most important exemplars of the punk rock that came after, and post-punk and new wave.
In 1975 you’ve also got Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” just to name two really major, important rock records. One could argue that those are the greatest records by those artists, but they also seem to represent a high watermark of what mainstream rock is all about.
Think about the myth of “Born to Run” that’s incorporated into the lyrics and the way the band is recorded, and how grand and all-encompassing that sound is—what more can you do in rock than what “Born to Run” is attempting to do?
The same thing with Bob Dylan. Obviously, “Blood on the Tracks” is not a “Highway 61 Revisited,” but in terms of Dylan’s depth of human understanding, of relationships, of musical sophistication, that album is a high watermark for him. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of other musicians and bands that I think did some really incredible, inventive stuff in 1975 that was not duplicated the year before or after.
Collectors Weekly: How did records labels respond to the DIY punk movement?
Braitman: In England, they jumped right on it, and they started putting stuff out all the time, but here in America, major labels were kicking and screaming—punk rock was still so suspect. No executive wanted to risk his job by putting out a bunch of sloppy, ugly-looking, cursing, weird music. “Who can listen to this crap?”
On the other hand, most of the bands and artists didn’t even want to be on a major label. They wanted to start their own. They wanted to put their own records out. They wanted to speak to their specific audience or their ideas without the influence of the major labels. They didn’t want to be involved with the labels and the labels didn’t want them, so everyone was happy.
Obviously, commercial considerations always win out, and eventually its success in England changed things. Take the Ramones, for example. Their albums were very cheap to produce, and they sold enough copies to cover all their expenses and make the label a little money. Executives in America started seeing some real opportunity there.
Sire Records was probably one of the leading proponents of punk and new wave music in the early days, and was really visionary in signing bands like Talking Heads and the Dead Boys. Elektra Records was another label that early on took some chances with bands like Television.
It was a slow-building process in America. Once ’78 and ’79 came about and you got some real successes like Joe Jackson, the Clash, and Elvis Costello, there was a new rush, and every record label had to have their punk bands. And don’t forget that the huge success of the Knack spurred the power pop scene. So just like the British Invasion of 15 years earlier, almost everybody had the opportunity to have a major label release.
Consequently, from a record collector standpoint, you’re going to have some genuine rarities because the record labels were putting out everything they could. Most of the stuff didn’t sell and became very hard to find.
Collectors Weekly: CDs were right around the corner. How did their introduction compare to the advent of LPs in the late ’40s?
Braitman: Well, every time there has been a new format introduced into the marketplace for the recorded medium—whether we’re talking about 78s replacing the cylinder discs, or LPs and 45s replacing 78s, or cassettes and 8-tracks and CDs replacing LPs, and now digital media replacing CDs—there’s a new marketing opportunity for the record companies to resell their older material in the new format.
If you were selling a Gerry & the Pacemakers record in 1963, it was fundamentally different than the way you did it in 1964.
In the late ’40s and early ’50s, after the LP finally became the main way people were purchasing music, the record companies underwent massive reissues of their 78 libraries. Lots of classic jazz, classical music, and such came out, and people were glad to replace their old 78s with this new long-playing, unbreakable vinyl version. The LP revolution proved the superiority of the technology and provided historical and educational opportunities by uncovering hidden gems and lost music from the past.
With the advent of the LP and the added amount of time that could be put on the records, there was a more thorough musicological and historical view of older music than there had been in the past. Scholars, historians, and musicologists were probably thankful that they now had a medium that could actually preserve the music of the past and be studied—they didn’t have to be afraid of breaking rare, fragile discs.
It was the same when the CD came out: there were incredible reissue campaigns in the late ’80s and early ’90s of wonderful stuff, with great ornate box sets of all these LP and earlier materials. We had the Sony Legacy series, the Living Stereo reissues, Capitol reissues, and lots of great stuff. You could consider it almost the golden age of the CD. Now those really classy reissues are only being done by a few niche companies, probably very few. In the next few years, the CD will go away.
Collectors Weekly: At what point did the LP evolve into something that artists were utilizing as a form unto itself?
Braitman: That happened with the advent of high fidelity. When manufacturers were able to introduce higher quality sound, you got the high-fidelity revolution, and stereo didn’t come too long after that. That’s when artists, musicians, engineers, and technologists realized that this wasn’t just something you could use to document someone’s playing—you could also use it as a medium itself to express new sounds that had never been created before.
In mono and regular fidelity, before there was high fidelity, you basically heard a more or less primitive version of whatever was being performed. But with stereo and high fidelity, you could do all kinds of tweaking and separation of tracks and moving music around. Think of an orchestra and all the instruments in it—you could position the mics in so many different ways to accent different parts. If you want the strings brighter or the horns louder, you could do it in a way that you never could before. The quality of sound reproduction through records, with better playback equipment, also improved the situation.
To a certain degree, this affected our way of listening to music. We were hearing things that had never been heard before. In fact, you could argue that stereo introduced an artificial way of listening to music, like nothing before it.
Think about so-called “headphone music”: you have to listen to it on headphones because you’re going to get deep into it. Think about all the layers of Radiohead stuff, for example. Well, that’s an artificial construct. It’s not like a musician playing a piano or playing a guitar. It’s something created in a studio. It’s an engineered, scientific, technological marvel, as it were. And that itself is an artistic medium. That’s almost as if the technology were a new instrument.
When stereo was being introduced, it was an expensive process, and stereo records sold for more than mono records. So the first artists who really took advantage of stereo were the higher-end adult artists, mostly in classical music, and then some of the major traditional pop artists. Rock bands, R&B bands, blues bands were still only recorded in mono, for the most part. It took a few years before they did a standard mono and stereo mix of pop artists. It was often not the choice of the artist whether they recorded in mono or stereo.
Later on, stereo became mainstream. That was the default, and mono was the oddball format. People like Phil Spector, however, were mixing specifically for AM radio in mono. I believe he was the first producer to realize that AM was, again, a different kind of medium for sound reproduction than what you would listen to in the home. He mixed records specifically for the poor quality of AM radio, so he mixed them hotter, brighter, denser, and in mono. That’s where his “back to mono” thing came from: it was basically a commercial consideration to get the best sound out of the crappy technology of the day.
And then someone like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys recorded in mono because he only really heard in one ear. So he didn’t need to hear in stereo.
High fidelity gave artists, musicians, and engineers a medium to express new sounds that had never been created before.
Now, if you want to get into the stereo-versus-mono debate, there are obviously pros and cons to both sides. I believe generally that if something was originally recorded in mono, that’s the way it should be heard. If the artist really wanted you to hear the music in stereo, there’s no point in hearing it in mono, and vice versa. But, again, there are always exceptions to that.
For example, I just got the mono version of the Idle Race’s “Birthday Party,” which was only released in England. It’s a very rare record. And one thing about the Idle Race is Jeff Lynne’s production—he used stereo very well, he really separated the instruments and made things move around in there. In mono, you’re hearing kind of an AM radio version of it, and the sound is just all in your face. Some people prefer that and think it’s really cool.
For some tracks that they didn’t spend a lot of time engineering and really designing well, mono is preferable, particularly a lot of early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, when they made stereo recordings that were weak and feeble-sounding compared to mono. There’s much more punch in loud R&B and hard rock music in mono sometimes than there is in stereo, particularly in the early days.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us a bit about the duophonic recordings in the late ’60s?
Braitman: Duophonic was just basically a method of splitting the mono signal into both high- and low-end channels so you could have a kind of fake stereo effect. The most notorious examples of that are the Sun recordings by Elvis Presley on RCA from the late ’50s and early ’60s, the reissues in fake stereo where the music almost becomes disembodied. It’s like there’s no hard edge to it.
By 1968 and ’69, you basically couldn’t find mono anymore. It was all stereo. Records that had only been recorded in mono would be released in some sort of stereo. Again, another marketing decision—”Let’s resell this stuff to people in a new format. Let’s sell it as stereo.” There’s some phony stereo that’s pretty okay, and there’s some that’s just atrocious.
I believe there was a British label in the late ’70s that was selling records, old ’50s recordings through something they called “binaural stereo.” Basically they took the mono signal, split it over the two speakers, and spread it out over the center channel. They didn’t add the highs and lows to it, so it didn’t have that artificial sense of depth that made the Elvis stuff so ghostly. They just had a way of spreading it out over the spectrum differently, and that worked fine. It doesn’t sound like stereo, but it just has a little more presence than the regular mono.
There are a couple RCA Camden releases of the Carter Family recordings from the ’20s and ’30s that they did in phony stereo, which sound fine. The recordings were so old that they couldn’t really define the highs and lows on it, so they just kind of split the signal.
In general, I’m saying stay away from the phony stereo unless it’s something you really need. An odd exception is Otis Redding. There are a couple of his records from the late ’60s on Atco and Volt that are phony stereo, but they’re very, very rare and collectible.
Collectors Weekly: Did you ever own any quadrophonic records?
Braitman: Yes, I got a few of those, but I’ve never heard them on a quadrophonic system. Even the Flaming Lips quadrophonic CD, “Zaireeka,” I never heard it. Generally there’s not much difference when you play it back on stereo. I’ve got a Joan Baez quad disc of “Come from the Shadows,” and there’s no difference between that and the regular stereo, when you play it back on a stereo system.
But here’s the thing about quad discs from a collector’s standpoint—they often could not use the original stereo recordings that they wanted to turn into quad, so they had to go to alternate versions of tracks. That’s where it becomes really interesting.
Probably the most famous one is Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” album—three or four tracks are completely different versions of the songs on the normal album. That’s worth having. I believe the Sly & the Family Stone “Greatest Hits” album in quad has true stereo versions of a couple of songs that were not otherwise released in stereo. So things like that are really worth seeking out and paying attention to.
Quadraphonic systems were relatively expensive for the time. I think it was a little technologically daunting for anyone to say, “Now, I have to get another kind of amplifier that will be able to play the four signals, and I’m going to have another couple speakers. And where do I place those?”
Ultimately, it didn’t matter that much to someone’s experience. With stereo, if you’ve got a good system and the speakers are aligned right and you’re sitting in the right place and the acoustics are fine, it’s going to be as good as you can get, really. And so the fact that you might have some sound coming behind you might be a nice, gimmicky thing, but do you really need to listen to music that way all the time? Probably not.
One other interesting thing about quad records relates to the vinyl crisis, which resulted from the oil crisis of the early ’70s. Oil was key to the manufacturing of vinyl at that time, so the record companies didn’t get the quality of material that they needed to press vinyl. Some of the budget labels would just crush up old vinyl and reprocess that, and they’d even leave the paper labels on. You got some really crummy stuff.
That’s also the time when RCA introduced Dynaflex, the super thin-disc that wobbled. People were very cynical about that. The company claimed it was a sonic advance, but the fact of the matter is they used about half the amount of vinyl in a disc as before.
Quad discs were sometimes materially superior because they were usually made from virgin vinyl and were treated very well by the record companies. Just as something to play back, they were a much superior medium.
Collectors Weekly: So how many records are in your collection today?
Braitman: I basically started accumulating records in the late ’60s. I graduated from UC Berkeley and went to SF State for graduate school, where I met a very close friend who was very much into iconoclastic music and obscure bands. Together, we started going to thrift stores, bargain basement places, the Alameda flea market, and garage sales. I would say the period of about ’71 to ’73 was the start of really intense record collecting for me.
Today I have everything cataloged in a FileMaker Pro database, which has taken me years: I usually just take a box or so at a time and put it in there.
I have 28,245 items in my collection catalog as of now, which does not include about 3,000 classical music LPs or CDs, which are in a separate database. So this is all the pop-oriented stuff. Of that, I have 10,118 45s; 8,909 LPs; 1,759 12-inch EPs; and 1,239 EPs. That’s right now; it changes all the time since I’m still adding old stuff and new purchases.
I also have cassettes, flexi-discs, 10” discs, and other formats cataloged. (No 8-tracks, sorry.) When I was in the record industry as a writer and editor, I was getting all the releases for free. I have 13,350 CDs in the archive. With LPs, it was like Christmas every day—boxes of records. And then I started to get boxes of CDs. That gives you an idea of my accumulation.
It’s unfortunate, but I have not lived in a house that allows me to display all of my collection. When my son was born, all of the LPs, all of the 45s, and a large chunk of the CDs went into storage. I have to rent a monthly storage space for this stuff, an interior place that’s temperature-controlled.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have an item or group of items that you treasure the most?
Braitman: Yes, I definitely have some records that I would consider desert-island discs, music I would like to have in my life for all my life. Giant Sand is my favorite current band, and some of their songs are very essential to me, as is Bob Dylan. I really love Procol Harum, the Idle Race, and the Move: those are very close to my heart. The Idle Race is probably my favorite British pop band.
In terms of more modern bands, I love the Clash and Wire, Patti Smith and Television, the Wipers and the Fastbacks. I was a big R.E.M. fan, but after they went to a trio they kind of lost me. I love The dB’s, Dwight Twilley, Spongetones, Matthew Sweet, and the whole power pop scene. I listened to the first Strokes album every day for months. Right now I can’t get enough of Swedish singer Miss Li. I have to listen to her every day. There’s another Swedish rock band called Atomic Swing who I really like.
But, again, one of my problems—and my wife would probably tell you this—is that I like too many things and I have too much stuff.
Collectors Weekly: So if I were a big-time collector, what gems from your collection would I be dying to have?
Braitman: I do have a couple things that I think I can show proudly to other collectors. I have a copy of Bob Dylan’s “Witmark” demo with the original, handwritten sheet music for each song.
That was a series of songs that Dylan had not released officially himself. The Witmark song publishers were distributing them to other singers and groups, wanting them to perform the songs as cover versions. And Witmark included the sheet music so people could follow the song and do it themselves.
I’ve also got some rare Beach Boys, like all three versions of “Surfin’” and other things like that.
Then I have what I think might be a unique copy of the series of radio commercials Jefferson Airplane did for Levi’s jeans. It’s well known that they recorded these weird little songs—in fact, I think some of them showed up in the big Jefferson Airplane box set.
There are a couple known versions of the record that Levi’s pressed; there’s a 12-inch disc with the Airplane doing these radio commercials. And then there’s a 7-inch EP, which I own. The 7-inch EP is obscure, but it has been cataloged. My copy, however, has a picture sleeve that was actually designed by Mouse Studios, one of the famous San Francisco psychedelic poster artists. That’s a pretty unique item.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have any of the coveted Beatles rarities?
Braitman: I have a butcher cover, but every collector who knows the Beatles well knows that the butcher cover is not rare, though it is desirable. There are first, second, and third state covers, which tells you whether it had the replacement cover glued on. I have a third state—the replacement was peeled off. It was not a great peel job, but it is the stereo version, which is rarer than the mono.
The best thing about it is it only cost me 50 cents, so I’m not complaining. Someone was selling it at the Alameda flea market some years ago. I picked it up, and the guy said, “Hey, remember this? The Beatles had these butcher covers,” and I asked, “How much is it?” “Fifty cents.” “Sure. Why not? I’ll take it.” So I have that.
I’ve got a few of the Vee-Jay things, a couple of the rare picture sleeves, but I haven’t concentrated on the Beatles because the prices are so astronomical. I just can’t afford to spend that much money on things now. They go up and up. It’s been awhile since I’ve added anything to my Beatles collection just because, well, there’s so much other old stuff to buy that costs less and is just as rare or interesting to me musically.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you go if you have to have a certain record?
Braitman: Well, I do have an extensive want list, but it’s actually been years since I circulated that. If I’ve checked something off that in recent years, it was probably serendipitous. Even with eBay, what you find of interest is kind of a happenstance. If I search, say, “rare picture sleeve,” I have no idea what’s going to show up, but I might find something that I never knew existed and bid on it.
The same thing is true with garage sales—you get up early in the morning, try to hit as many as there are available, and you never know what’s going to show up. Sometimes nothing, and sometimes you get some old guy who decides, “Well, I don’t need any of these old 1950s folk albums anymore, so you can have them.” That sort of thing.
Two things have colored my music-gathering experience. One is my knowledge of the marketplace. I’m not certainly an expert in all things, but I have a sense of what’s going to be of interest—if not to me, then to other people.
I won’t pass up any opportunity, whether for me or for someone else. I’ll always pick up everything that I see that has some potential value, either artistic/aesthetic value or collector’s value, whether it’s something I would personally collect or not. At this point in my life, I’m not going to pass up anything.
The other thing that’s affected my collecting and appreciation is my job as a music analyst at the digital media company, Gracenote. Since I am being paid to listen to music from all over the world of every kind of genre from every age, I’ve obviously been exposed to a much broader range of music than I ever had before in my life.
Thus, when I find music that looks interesting, what I’m defining as interesting is different for me now than what it was before. If there are some old gypsy records in a garage sale collection or some weird South American pop, I would pick it up now because I’m just curious to listen to it rather than say, “I don’t collect it. It’s not British rock,” or whatever.
I’m also a completist in some regards. That’s another obsessive, neurotic tendency that collectors have. I’ve been trying to define it myself. I think that if you’re really in love with something, whether it’s stamps or books or baseball cards, there’s something compelling about the ownership of the complete story.
If you have every Bob Dylan single and every Bob Dylan album—and obviously, if you know the music and play it—then you get a more mature, complete experience of that artist’s career, his highs and lows.
Since I have a little bit of the librarian in me, the discographical details are just fascinating—the label variations, the difference between mono and stereo, between promo and stock, between East Coast and West Coast pressings. Things like that are just fascinating details. It’s like being a movie fan and watching a film over and over again because each time you see some different detail in the background.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about your record label, Amorous Records.
Braitman: Amorous Records was a small, new-wave label from about ’82 to ’84. Times Beach, House of Pants, and Silhouette were the three bands that I managed and put out on the label. They were local, from San Francisco.
The current editor of “Guitar Player” magazine, Mike Molenda, was the leader of Silhouette. Times Beach was a group of local San Francisco theater actors who were all very well known, and they became a real trendy, showy new wave band. Snakefinger, a British guitarist who was a very interesting character and played on several Ralph Records releases, the Residents’ label, produced their record. House of Pants was a real pop trio; the lead singer of that band became a big, big rock manager and producer for bands like Testament and the Killers.
As with other scenes at the time, there was always a prejudice that if you’re local then you’re not worthwhile. If you come from another city and you play, you’re cool, but if you’re from your city and play your city, you just get your friends to show up. I had some bands that attained some level of respect, and most of the people involved in those bands have gone on to mostly successful non-music careers.
Collectors Weekly: What’s happening in the music industry right now?
Braitman: I think that the record companies now are still scared. They’re really troubled by the digital-download revolution, and they don’t quite know what’s going on and how to deal with that. The whole issue of free music versus artist-owned material versus publishing-owned stuff is still to be resolved. We’re in a great state of flux in terms of just the industry itself, and no one knows where the chips are going to fall. It’s kind of a scary time to be a record company executive right now.
It’s actually a fun, exciting time for musicians because they have so many new ways to connect with fans and to sell records on their own. They’re probably not getting heaps of money from a major label to do a worldwide tour and to make albums, but it’s easier now than it ever was for a musician to make a moderate, steady income, thanks to the Web tools available for artists to connect with fans directly.
There’s also so much information out there. There are still lots of music magazines, but also so many websites where you can find out about music. It’s, again, a really strange situation where you have much more access and availability than ever before, but you also have less critical understanding of what’s out there. In other words, there’s no good or bad anymore; there’s just a lot of stuff. Maybe that’s a good thing—it means ultimately that everyone is free to make more choices without bias.
Content is going to become less free on the Web because magazines and publishers are going to have to start charging in some way to survive. Maybe there will be more “respected” opinionators out there than there are now. Should I spend my money to buy this or that? How do I make a choice? Well, I can hear from my own ears, but is that really enough?
I don’t think people make a lot of choices just on the basis of what they hear. I think they make a lot of choices on the basis of what other people say and what other people hear. My friends like something, so I’m going to like it, too. If I read this critic on this online publication all the time and he or she says this is great, well, I want to hear it.
As much as I love vinyl—and I’m glad to see that it’s still not completely evaporated from the marketplace—I’m a little cynical about it in the market right now. I think it’s great that people still can buy records, and I appreciate the vinyl technology. I prefer to listen to a record than a CD.
But I do think there’s a tendency for record companies to just jump on the bandwagon. It’s like they see that they can make some money. It’s a little act of desperation for the major labels to say, “Alright. We’ll put the CD out, but also let’s put out a heavyweight, premium quality disc that we can charge $25 for,” and the profit margin will be very high on that thing.
Well, they’re doing this for records, particularly with the reissues. You can still buy the original vinyl disc for $2 and $5, and they’re charging $10, $20, or $30 for a reissue of it. So there’s a real disconnect in terms of what the record companies are hoping to sell versus what you can actually still buy in the marketplace.
Ultimately, in 10 or 20 years, I think we’re going to find lots of leftover vinyl released from 2000 to 2010. We’re going to find all this stuff remaindered, selling for really cheap because it couldn’t sell originally.
Collectors Weekly: What does it mean to be a music appraiser in 2010?
Braitman: There are two things that are amusing to me. When Michael Jackson died, for weeks after, I would get at least one call a day from people saying they had this really rare, original album by Michael Jackson that was really valuable. The album was called “Thriller.” Or maybe it was a 45 of “Beat It.” “It’s an old record,” they’d say. “It’s 20 years old! It’s really old! It’s really valuable.” Those calls have died down a little bit. I only get those once a month now.
But the other thing that happens regularly, every month or so, is the call from someone saying that they have found the original signed contract for The Who to play at Woodstock. “This is an amazing artifact. This is the actual contract because their signatures are on it. This was a famous concert. It’s Woodstock. It’s got to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Well, no. I have to tell everyone who calls—and they call regularly—that in 1970 in the “Who’s Next” album, the band included a copy of its Woodstock contract, as well as all this other memorabilia, with rare signed photos and posters and postcards. Over the years, all that stuff’s gotten out of those albums and is floating around out there. Every so often, someone finds one and thinks they’ve financed the mortgage on their house.
Collectors Weekly: As a veteran record collector, do you have any advice for someone who’s just starting to collect?
Braitman: If you really like punk rock, just start with punk rock, and maybe just start with British or American punk rock. Start with a genre or start with one band. If you really like U2 or you’re a really big Replacements fan, just stick with that in terms of what you’re actually going to search and buy. Set some limits.
I’m a prime example of a victim of eclecticism because if I had tons of money, I would be buying rockabilly. And prewar blues 78s. I would be buying British psychedelic releases. I would be buying incredibly rare, independent punk releases. I could go all over the map. Fortunately, my income sets some limits in that regard.
Also, I would use eBay sparingly and try not to get involved in bidding hysteria, particularly if you’re a newbie and you don’t really know what the prices are. You don’t want to end up paying more for a record than its average value because chances are you’ll always have another opportunity to buy it.
That’s one of the great things about eBay—there’s so much out there in the world. There are things I thought I’d never see again, and there they are again, with just a little patience. But there are also lots of alternative places to find records. Thrift stores and garage sales, I’d say, are the most fun because of the sense of exploration and surprise. Craigslist is great, as is GEMM.
I’d also add that even major collectors who have million-dollar collections often don’t respect their stuff enough to do two things. One is to archive the material and protect it properly, in terms of sleeves, folders, covers, and storage. I think that’s the thing that many record collectors neglect, and condition is always going to be more important than almost anything else in terms of keeping the value of a record.
Number two, and this is particularly important for collections that have high value and rarity, you need to have your things insured. You need to get specific coverage for your records, similar to insurance for rare paintings or stamp collections. Record collectors tend not to insure their collections, and at the prices that these things are going for now, it’s really foolish. Rare records are selling for the equal of stamps and coins and baseball cards, and those collectors are getting their collections insured. It’s very important, particularly as the demographic gets older.
There are a lot of old record collectors now with basements filled with records that might be multimillion-dollar collections and probably no one other than that collector knows what’s in there. The wife doesn’t know. The collector dies, and what is she going to do? She might dump it. Get it insured and get it appraised so you know what you’ve got.
(Images courtesy Stephen M. H. Braitman, MusicAppraisals.com)