Collecting Classical CDs


Sviatoslav Richter a Prague, Hard to find CD set
Sviatoslav Richter a Prague, a hard-to-find CD-set

If you have read my previous post about the fever of collecting 78 rmp records and agreed with me that the future of antiquing falls into the hands of the younger generation who are more inclined to buy things they can relate to, then you would probably also agree with me that music CDs may have the potential to become collectible.

The problem of this statement is that CDs are mass-produced and re-packaged to such a degree that they have always sided toward the buyers. Mass production means uniqueness is not likely, as with majority products made in the 20th century. Re-packaging means that the content is greatly available in slightly different variations so that if buyers who are looking for a specific performance, he or she may get confused with versioning.

I have been buying classical CD for the last 15 years for the music content. But with so much time digging into piles of plastic boxes, I understand that CD collecting is no different from record collecting in that it is essentially a hobby of owning tangible things. Thus if the mass production means there will never be a case of only three Willie Brown records existing in the world, thus making CDs less valuable, re-packaging in fact only increases the uniqueness of the original version of the CDs. (Will you trade a 70’s Coca-Cola glass for a new one?)

Still, in my experience as a music fan and maybe a slightly CDs fan, I would think of the following points that may direct the practice of classical CD collecting. (Note, the following paragraphs are more about the future market value of shining plastic discs in their pristine jewel box than music appreciation.)

1. CDs made in West Germany (yes, West Germany instead of EU) are sought-after because of their relative high quality. Even the case made in West Germany weighs heavier, not to mention the covers, the multi-languaged brochure and most of all the pressing quality. They are hard to find now, and not many are still in best condition. Worst of all, online stores usually do not list CDs with such details. If you want CDs made in West Germany, do your homework and head to local second-hand stores.

2. Always try to find the original version (which unfortunately is usually discontinued). The re-issues usually have a different cover which pay the homage to the original version by including a small picture of the original cover. And check the back of the CD case. Most likely for ADD CDs,  there will be two different years printed on the back cover: One for the record publishing year, one for compact disc publishing year. But if there is a third year (which is also the latest) there, then that’s the publishing year of this reprint. This is by no means of some vanity associated with collecting, it is actually practical. The reprinted CDs of classical or enduring performances are  not a mere change of cover design but a systematic re-engineering projects. The master tape will be taken out and re-digital mastered based on the CURRENT sound engineer’s aesthetics and judgment. There are cases that the same performance from the same master tape sounds totally different in the reprint CDs. To some extent, the media that contains the performance is a hybrid product of both music makers and music recorders. The latter, though not visible and may only have their names listed inside the brochure, have a great impact on how the music sound (lean or rich, resonant or dry, pro-background noise or pro-purity) Would you trade a photo taken and processed by Ansel Adams himself for some posthumous ones?

Does the complete set of the Great Pianists of 20th Century (200 CDs) still exist?
Does the complete set of the Great Pianists of 20th Century (200 CDs) still exist?

3. Know the product line. For example, the DOCUMENTE series of DGG, the Silver Line Classics of PHILIPS or the Red Seal of BMG are a few good examples. In particular, there are occasionally limited addition for some bundled set. The Great Pianists of 20th Century published by PHILIPS in 1999 has become a classics itself. A complete set (200 CDs) will turn into great asset although I am not sure it is still possible to find a complete unwrapped set. Even individual ones (not all of them) have seen their values appreciated in the market. Stephen Kovacevich’s first set is asked for 30 dollars on Amazon. Ivan Moravec set in new condition commands over 100 dollars. Another example will be the DGG centenary collection series which were issued in 1998. In this series, from 1898 to 1998, DGG compiled one CD for each year featuring either landmark recordings, famous debuts or some first-time release.  The marketing of this series was not very successful since people who were looking for first-released material would hate to buy another same legendary performances while new beginners would not be happy to see some not-so-popular works in the compilation. Nevertheless if you can find mint-conditioned set (issued in the group of every decade), it could be appreciated in future because of its rarity. In both two cases, because of the nature of the sets which allow the separation of individual CDs for enjoyment, the complete set can truly come to the term of uniqueness.

4. Lastly, there are a few musicians who command more. Interestingly it is not the musicians who had scanty recordings that attract collectors, on the contrary, it was those who had too many. (Isn’t it too easy and not fun afterward to find a definite thing without laboring?) In the case of Sviatoslav Richter, the music fans are still amazed by the continuing new found recordings from his tours in Europe, Asia and America. To collect Richter’s recording  spanning  his long career is a daunting task because there seems no end and no limit, thus giving collectors the motivation to explore even after the pianist has been long dead. I own a set of Richter’s CD “Richter in Prague”, a repetoire over more than three decades in the place where Richter found more congenial than grandier European cities. A quick check on Amazon showed that one seller is asking for $579.99. Luckily I only paid a small fraction of it when I obtained the set a few years ago.

There are also some factors that will greatly depreciate the values for CD collecting.

Firstly, club CDs are second-rated for collecting purpose. Both BMG and Music Heritage have issued CDs at lower price with lower manufacturing standard. Be careful to read the back. (You probably won’t miss them because some covers are in B&W to cut the cost.)


Cutout CDs, a thing to avoid  for collecting purpose (from Wiki Commons)
Cutout CDs, a thing to avoid for collecting purpose (from Wiki Commons)

Secondly, the condition matters. In particular, if the CD has cuts on the spine or holes punched in the UPC label of the back cover, it means that they are being distributed for free (promotional discs) or sold at a deep discount (cut-out titles). To prevent these copies from being resold at full value, the record company marks them before they distribute them in the stores.

So how long will the market begin to see the collectible values of CDs? If the question is asked a few years ago, I would say not soon. But with the rapid growth of music content on internet, music is on the final stage of being decoupled from its media.  Every movement toward some new style may also trigger the nostagia sentimentality. No matter in what age, the desire to own tangible things is part of the human nature. Thus the day when we cannot ‘t find a regular online store to buy CDs will be the days when memory of physical solidity associated with music demands a space in antiques mall allocated for these plastic discs. You may think this may come a long way, but the trasition is happening, at a lighting speed that you may not notice.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

Leave a Reply