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What is Crate Digging?

It’s tempting, we know—the allure of spending hours upon hours under the fluorescent lights of a record shop and obsessively flipping through stack after stack of used, perhaps vintage records. That unmistakable smell of aged dust jackets and liner note inserts tickles your nose as your finger skips to the next record. And in the back of your mind, you keep thinking that the next one might be the one; the one you’ve been looking for. So, what is crate digging, and why should you care? Sure, vinyl sales have been on the rise for years—even new vinyl records are selling at rates not seen since the mid-1980s. But, with high-quality streaming and lossless formats like compact discs, why is there a continuing fascination with vinyl discs with their fragile grooves and potential to warp wear out over time? What is so special about music carved into polyvinyl chloride? Let’s look at the recent history of vinyl and why crate digging has taken off in recent years.

Crate Digging Defined:

If you are wondering what crate digging is look no further than the Urban Dictionary. Urban Dictionary defined Crate digging as a hip-hop term for when one goes to a record store to look for records to sample.

The essence of crate digging is found in the last three words of that definition: records to sample. See, when hip hop artists and producers are looking to test tracks for beats and melodies, they face an obvious problem: You have to pay for the right to use a sample or run the risk of finding yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. So one of the original purposes of crate digging was to find records cool enough yet obscure enough that they could be sampled without anyone recognizing the track you sampled. It’s a pretty tricky tactic, but it’s in line with sampling’s long history of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.

After all, there have been lots of artists (Sam Smith, Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, etc.) who have recently found themselves in hot water over melodies they had “unconsciously” lifted from other—usually obscure—songs. The worst-case scenario seems to be sharing credit with the original artist and perhaps a bit of embarrassment. On the other hand, Crate diggers are trying to fly safely under the radar by finding obscure records that no one will remember or recognize. But this was just the beginning of crate digging. The vinyl craze of the 2010s has brought crate digging to the mainstream for all kinds of reasons. Here at turntablelive.com we’re going to take a look at this phenomenon and whether it should become your next obsession.

Why do people care about vinyl so much these days?

Vinyl records have some obvious drawbacks: They can be scratched or melted, they can be easily bent out of shape during shipping, on many turntables they need to be turned over, and they can’t be played on your car stereo or when you go for a jog. But despite this, vinyl sales have soared over the last decade, and it’s not just used records or obscure rock bands putting out the vinyl in an attempt to remain “authentic.”

In 2010, the best-selling new vinyl record was In Rainbows by Radiohead. Sure, Radiohead is an internationally famous band, but they’re not pop stars. In 2020, though, the top-selling vinyl record was Fine Line by Harry Styles, who is very much a pop star. So, it appears that vinyl isn’t only popular with indie rock guys who can’t stop talking about how great their 180-gram original pressing of Brighten the Corners by Pavement sounds. In addition, the general public has gotten back into vinyl, which has given rise to an increase in crate digging.

So, what is crate digging for a DJ versus crate digging for the general vinyl buying public?

Crate digging originally became popular because DJs and hip-hop producers wanted to find new, previously unheard sounds they could use in their mixes and tracks. Instead of booking studio time to record new beats or melodies, these early samplers realized there was a vast untapped reservoir of sounds out there that virtually no one had heard or remembered.

But the trends of the late 90s and early 00s brought a new audience into crate digging for a surprising reason: vinyl was cheap and available if you knew where to look. Record shops like Amoeba in Los Angeles and Princeton Record Exchange in New Jersey had tens of thousands of records that had, for many years, been mostly overlooked by the CD buying public. But then record players became cool again, and there was a whole new generation of record collectors in no time.

Suddenly, finding used records wasn’t just about adding new music to your library at a reasonable cost. Collectors quickly realized that there was value in hard-to-find records like any other rare commodity. Once people began to care about vinyl again, this rarity became a selling point and a reason why people started obsessively crate digging.

Have you become addicted to crate digging?

We know what crate digging is, but how do you know when your casual hobby has become a full-blown obsession? Does the guy who works at the record store know you by name? Does he give you hints about the new, rare records that just came in? If so, you may be addicted to crate digging.

Much like the dusty hunters who obsessively try to track down vintage bottles of booze, crate diggers are known to go to great lengths to find records that no one else has. So if you’re wondering if you have a vinyl problem, ask yourself this: When you go to yard sales, are you looking for records more than anything else? Do you make long trips to places on the off chance they might have some rare records? Are you willing to spend small fortunes on records because of small details like the color of the label? You are probably a crate digger if you answered yes to any of these questions.

So, you might be thinking, I know what crate digging is, but I don’t have a PROBLEM, man.” Of course, people collect all kinds of things, but that doesn’t mean you have a problem. While any truly obsessive behavior can cause concern, being a little too into records isn’t the end of the world.

So, instead of focusing on how crate diggers can while away countless hours in search of a holy grail record like an original pressing of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, let’s talk about how you can be the best crate digger you can be. So, how do you start if you want to get into crate digging or get better at it? Turntablelive.com wants you to get the most out of your search, so let’s look at the best places to crate dig.

Where should you go for the best crate digging?

Now that we know what crate digging is, we can talk about where you can do it if you feel your life is missing some rare vinyl. At first, you might think the best place to go would be your local record shop. It seems logical enough, but there’s a good chance that stores specializing only in vinyl are already picked over by other, more experienced crate diggers.

If you still want to search the stacks at your local record shop, try forging a relationship with the people who work there and follow the shop on social media. Shops specializing in vinyl rely on regular people selling an LP here and there, but their bread and butter come from buying extensive collections, often at estate sales. So knowing when a new, big shipment is coming in is key to finding those obscure gems.

When a record shop lands a big haul of vinyl, they want to make sure they can sell it, so they’re going to post it on social media. Not every big score is going to be for you, though. For example, if you primarily look for obscure 1970s funk recordings, a huge cache of 19th century German opera probably isn’t your bag, but being among the first to know will help you beat out the competition.

Part of the key to successful crate digging is finding treasures that casual record collectors have overlooked. This is where knowing your stuff comes into play and will inform what kind of crate digger you are.

As far as we’re concerned, there are two significant types of crate diggers: Those who are perusing the stacks in search of something they’ve never seen before and those who keep on flipping because they know exactly what they’re looking for. But people also crate dig for a different reason.

As we previously mentioned, early crate diggers were looking for records they could use for sampling and not have to pay royalties. Other crate diggers simply want the most impressive record collection in the world. This means tracking down hard-to-find singles and early pressings of famous records.

It’s important to consider that record collecting is more like collecting rare books than collecting CDs. Like books, records have first editions or “first pressings,” typically the rarest and sought-after records. But why are first pressings so rare?

Two reasons: If they’re old records, there’s a good chance that many of the first batches have been so damaged by time and use that they don’t have collectible value anymore. Second, for many records, the companies releasing them didn’t know if those records would sell well, so the first pressing was a limited run. If those sold quickly, additional pressings were done in much larger quantities. Those records, however, are far less rare and, thus, less valuable.

Some of the best places to crate dig are where large quantities of used “stuff” are dropped off. Thrift shops, flea markets, and even pawn shops can be hiding valuable vinyl simply because the people who work at those shops aren’t experts in vintage vinyl. Because of this, a real find could be sitting right under their nose in the bargain LP bin.

What do I need to know before I start crate digging?

This depends on why you are crate digging in the first place. Are you looking for records you’ve never seen before because you want to hear what they sound like? Or are you trying to build a valuable collection of rare but well-known records?

If you fall into the first camp, you don’t need to know much of anything. You really just need a curious spirit and a hunger to hear music you’ve never heard before. But if you are in the second group, you need to know some technical facts to avoid paying too much for something that isn’t worth it.

Many collectors make the mistake of assuming that collecting only the most significant name artists is worth the money, but that’s not true. For example, while a mono first pressing of the Beatles’ White Album may bring in thousands of dollars, there are plenty of lesser-known artists whose records are still valuable. The key is to know what to look for when you go digging.

As we mentioned, first pressings are always the most valuable edition of a record, but most LP sleeves don’t specifically say it’s a first pressing the way a book would say it is a first edition. So instead, you have to do a bit of sleuthing.

Most records have the date they were produced on both the LP itself and the jacket. If you research the release date of a given record, you can then match it to the date engraved in the vinyl itself. If the date is within a few months of the release date, there is a good chance you’ve found a first pressing. For British artists like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc., keep in mind that these band’s first pressings were produced in the United Kingdom with subsequent pressings made elsewhere. So a record that says “Made in UK” is likely also a first pressing.

If you have specific titles on your “want” list, make sure to do some research about what those records should cost. Many vintage vinyl dealers have gotten carried away with the vinyl craze, and they try to trick inexperienced collectors by charging more than a record is worth. Unfortunately, some dealers or private sellers simply don’t know what records are worth, so they price them incorrectly.

The easiest way to make sure you are getting a good deal is to go to eBay and search for completed sales for the record you are looking for. Then, taking into account rarity and condition, you can get a pretty good idea of what actual collectors are paying for the record.

Confessions of a former crate digger

We recently sat down with admitted former crate digger and current Yale music professor Aaron Jackson to get his take on his long experience with crate digging. This is what he had to say.

Turntablelive.com: When you were looking through record stacks, was the activity itself a big part of the appeal, or did you feel that you were looking for something specific?

Aaron Jackson: The activity itself was the most significant part of the appeal. Flipping through records is this tactile thing, like a meditation. Sure, the treasure hunt is a big part of it, too but really, I could just get lost for hours flipping through and remembering music I knew and imagining music I didn’t.

TTL: Did the rarity or obscurity of the "finds" play a big part in why you looked for records?

AJ: Some part but probably not a big part. I liked learning about stuff I found. Like I would ask other people about a record if I didn’t know about it. At Princeton Record Exchange there was always someone around who knew something and wanted to show off their knowledge.

TTL: On the whole, did you feel like this was a worthwhile way to look for music?

AJ: Yes, especially in the social sense that people looking through records with you will connect you with stuff you might not otherwise notice and seeing record after record next to each other you get a sense of how much music circulates through the world. I think that all made it very rich for me.

So, there you have it. Now that you know exactly what crate digging is, you can decide whether this is the right hobby for you. Like any obsessive behavior, crate digging can always get out of hand, and many crate digger has found themselves overwhelmed by their collections. But crate digging can also be a great way to explore the music you’ve never heard and engage with a community of like-minded souls. Happy digging!