5 Tips for Spotting Collectible CDs


This lot of cds still sealed in longboxes sold for $898 in 2012.

If you were an early adopter of music on compact disc in the 1980s – or even if you started buying music CDs in the 90s – chances are good that you have a few valuable discs in your collection. These days, vintage CD prices rival those of vintage vinyl. Used CDs regularly sell in the $50-$100 range, but some sell for thousands

Curiously, it’s not the music itself that drives vintage CD sales. Dave Thompson, in his 2002 book The Music Lovers Guide to Record Collecting reminds us that traditionally, vinyl record collectors insisted that: “Music is only part of the equation; the artifact itself is what matters; the vinyl, the sleeve, the physical presence of the original recording.” Adds Thompson: “Today, CDs have become accepted as artifacts in their own right.” 

What is it, exactly, that moves a CD from the dollar bin at a flea market to collectible status, valued at hundreds or thousands of dollars? How does a mass-produced CD become an “artifact?” Each collector has his own criteria, but here are five generally accepted attributes that identify collectible CDs:

1. Packaging: In the early days of CD production, packaging had not settled on the jewel cases that are standard today. More than a dozen variations were tried, and any of the now-defunct packaging types can add to a CDs collectibility.

Longboxes encased a jewel case; once opened, the longbox packaging could be discarded and the jewel case kept for storage. This Michael Jackson 1982 Thriller longbox sold for $909.99 in 2009.

A few of the most common are:

  • Digipacks, which were made of heavy cardboard and opened as a tri-fold.
  • The longbox: Longboxes were made of cardboard and were the same length as vinyl record albums– 12″. The longbox concept had been used in the 1970s as a packaging solution for cassette and 8-track tapes. Longboxes encased a jewel case; once opened, the longbox packaging could be discarded and the jewel case kept for storage (some longboxes were works of art in their own right, meant to be saved). Retailers liked longboxes because they could display CDs in their existing record racks. They also liked them better than jewel cases because they were harder to steal; jewel-box CDs were too easily dropped into a jacket pocket. But, small record labels didn’t like them because they were more expensive to produce than jewel cases. Artists and musicians didn’t like them because of the waste they generated.
  • 12X12 boxes: Essentially a double longbox, it would contain four CDs. They were usually used to package re-issue box sets.
  • Slip boxes: Slip boxes were about the same length and width as a jewel case, but twice as thick. The box contained a CD in a jewel case and a booklet of album notes or promotional material.
  • Jewel case variations, which included Slimline (thinner than a jewel case, but otherwise the same dimensions) and Q-pack, which was a two-piece molded plastic jewel case (most jewel cases were assembled from three pieces).

2. Excluded material: Early CDs didn’t have the storage capacity of later discs; they were limited to 74 minutes of music. Consequently, some vinyl albums had to be shortened to fit onto the new format. This was accomplished in a couple of ways: editing one or more songs to shorten them or leaving off a song. For example, with the 1979 Fleetwood Mac album Tusk, three songs had to be edited in order to fit on the 1987 Japan 1st press CD: “Sara”, “Not That Funny”, and “I Know I’m Not Wrong.” A completely remastered (digitally enhanced) version was issued in 2004, when disc capacity had increased. The differences in the pre-2004 and later versions make the early releases collectible.

With the 1979 Fleetwood Mac album Tusk, three songs had to be edited in order to fit on the 1987 Japan 1st press CD: “Sara”, “Not That Funny,” and “I Know I’m Not Wrong.” This copy sold for $79 in 2011.

3. First release of additional material: To make CD re-issues appealing to folks who already owned the vinyl album, extra songs (sometimes in the form of hidden tracks) were added to a CD release. The 1997 release of Bob Dylan’s 1985 Biograph box set contained four extra songs, variations on existing songs, and several substitutions of original recordings. According to Discogs.com(arguably the best resource for music collectors), Biograph has been issued in 26 versions on multiple labels manufactured in multiple countries. Multiple versions can be compared to discover which have first-release material. Prices for the collection range from $462 to $3.63. Re-issues of historic collections may vary in song-by-song sound quality due to having been recorded at different times in different locations with different equipment. Digital re-mastering seeks to even-out the sound variations, but remastering can’t improve what didn’t exist in the first place.

This Bob Dylan Biograph set sold for $39.99 in 2009.

4. Promotional CDs: As a matter of course, record labels send out promotional CDs to radio stations and music critics, in the hope of getting some airplay or a good review. Promos by “A-list” artists typically come with extras; concert schedules, a photo booklet, or other printed material. New or not-so-popular artists seldom come with such extras, because the label doesn’t have the money to spend. Some collectors seek out promo records and CDs of both types.

Record labels send out promotional CDs to radio stations and music critics, in the hope of getting some airplay or a good review. This Tori Amos promo CD sold for $155.49 in 2011.

5. Original press quantity: As with other collectibles, rarity affects value. Often, (especially with new artists) first-releases are limited in quantity, but sometimes a popular artist will issue a limited quantity of a release to achieve a particular purpose. For example, from 1963 through 1969 The Beatles issued limited quantities of a 45 RPM acetate (flexible disc) in their fan club magazine. A gatefold sleeve/acetate combination in good condition typically sells for around $200. In 1970, the Beatles’ Apple Records issued a vinyl compilation of the seven fan club Christmas recordings that sells for around $350 in good condition. The Christmas recordings are available as a bootleg CD (which, though illegal, is still very collectible).

The Beatles Fan Club Issue:  “Season’s Greetings from the Beatles.”

Will the compact disc be the last of the collectible music formats? On July 1 of this year, Best Buy will cease to sell compact discs. Other retailers will soon follow suit. The music market is changing, and digital downloads are in demand. CDs will continue to be manufactured, but in smaller quantities. I can’t image how a digital download could ever become an artifact. Perhaps the day will come when all CDs will become collectible, regardless of the five criteria listed above.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.

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