Inside The World’s Biggest Record Fair
Gary Walker flies to Utrecht to join 25,000 crate diggers at vinyl’s Greatest Show On Earth – and tries to set a new record for the most albums ever fitted into one piece of hand luggage…
Mexico, Japan, Brazil, India, Australia, Serbia, Venezuela… The dealers come from all corners of the globe to fill 12,500 square metres of Utrecht’s vast Jaarbeurs conference centre, 35 miles south of Amsterdam. The genres on sale across an area the size of nearly two football pitches are equally wide. Krautrock. Speed metal. Prog. Nederbeat. South African jazz. Cape Verde folk. A specialist in Golden Earring… If there’s a record you’re looking for – any record – chances are, it’s here, on one of the Mega Record & CD Fair’s 550 stalls.
And when the doors are flung open at 9am on the first day, a snaking queue of eager punters from a similarly long list of nations pour into the hall. Some 25,000 people leave behind the springtime sunshine for this vast utilitarian air hangar-like hall over two days that would test the willpower of even the most financially challenged magazine journalist.
The undisputed world’s biggest record fair happens twice a year, with a total of 60,000 people paying €12 to €14 each to spend a day digging through thousands of crates in search of the Holy Grail. And for traders wanting to take up a stall, there’s a five-year waiting list. Anyone harbouring the slightest shred of doubt about vinyl’s enduring appeal in 2017 would be advised to step inside this cavernous cathedral to the format – vinyl is in rude health. And organiser Cas Bosland, reflecting on the success of an event he’s been putting on since 1992, has always believed in its wellbeing. “We never thought the interest in vinyl was lost,” he tells Long Live Vinyl in the event’s nerve centre at the rear of the hall. “It’s always been big here – 20 years ago, at the beginning of this century, we went to all the big fairs in the world, and we knew by then we were the largest in the world. People didn’t believe us, because they always say, ‘America is much bigger’.
“The one in Austin, Texas [the Austin Record Convention] that was in those days the biggest, has nowhere near the number of dealers we have here. We have dealers from 50 different countries, coming from as far as South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Ukraine, India and every European country.
“There was a little dip around the economic banking crisis in 2008, but since then, the amount of visitors has gone up, and in the last five or six years, we’ve noticed a lot more young people coming to the show, too. We’ve always believed in vinyl. I always thought it would outlast my days and in 2017, there are more young people coming. We’ve seen the same with Kindles: their sales have gone down because young people are buying books again. We saw many book shops and record shops disappearing, but in the last couple of years, more record and book shops are opening again. It’s the feeling of vintage – going back to print, something physical.”
That younger demographic being drawn to Utrecht has brought with it new interests and trends, and Cas says the genres in demand at the fair are changing.
“When we started, rock ’n’ roll was really big on vinyl, but nowadays, those people are getting so old. Young people are looking for different stuff, and we’ve noticed over the years – first of all, the 50s were really interesting, 10 years later, it was the 60s, then it was the 70s and now, people are even looking for the 2000s on vinyl, as there was not much vinyl pressed in those days because of the CD.
“We started organising fairs in 1985, and realised about 10 years later that less is more. More quality in the big one and skip the smaller ones, because we were organising fairs all over Germany and Holland. We decided quality is more important than quantity, and since then, it’s grown really huge.”
It’s a Grower
“The fair in November attracts about 33,000 to 35,000 visitors. In April, it’s slightly less – 24,000 to 26,000,” Cas tells us. “On a yearly basis, we have 60,000 people, and in the last couple of years it’s growing again, definitely.”
Day one of the show sees the UK’s Omega Auctions host a ‘Live From Utrecht’ sale of rare and collectable vinyl records, with Long Live Vinyl joining around 100 buyers fighting it out to land items from a catalogue of 85 rare pressings. The most expensive sale on the day is a second UK stereo pressing of The Beatles’ Please Please Me that fetches £5,000. A single-sided acetate of the Sex Pistols’ Did You No Wrong, meanwhile, proves the biggest story of the day, far exceeding the guide price of £800 to £1,200 to sell for an eyewatering £3,250.
We keep our hands firmly in our pockets throughout, although our more modest record hunting proves largely successful. Our aim to track down a limited-edition copy of New York band The Antlers’ In London double live album bears fruit within minutes of entering the hall, thanks to a helpful German dealer. We then pick up a bargain copy of Richard Hawley’s Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and Van Morrison’s T.B. Sheets at €5 is a snip. Spending the best part of two days trying to find decent original pressings of Scott Walker’s Scott 4 and Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home ends in disappointment, as we run out of time and settle for a 180-gram reissue of the Dylan album. Next time, we’ll swallow our pride and ask someone…
Elsewhere, Dutch artist Henk Zielman displays his works of vinyl art, sculptures formed from original Beatles and Metallica LPs, and we try out the “VIP of record cleaning machines” – the Okki Nokki – retailing at £400. There’s a mini festival stage hosting bands, a pop quiz, stalls dedicated to T-shirts, music magazines, posters, record sleeve doormats and vinyl storage, a company promoting a vinyl-related social-media network and even a few CDs and cassettes…
Joining the throng of happy shoppers winding towards the train station at the end of the opening day – many pulling trolleys filled with their purchases – Long Live Vinyl chats to American collector Tim Earle. “I’ve been coming to the fair for five or six years now, and it still makes more sense for me to come here than to fly to Austin, Texas during SXSW,” he says. “The flight is only $100 more, and there’s so much good stuff here.
“I’m more of an expert on American and Canadian stuff, but there’s a lot of really good European stuff around, too, this year – early-70s prog and that kind of thing, that’s worth good money. Utrecht’s not just the biggest in the world, it’s the best, too.”
Returning to the show on day two, we ask Cas, who estimates his personal collection at 3,000 to 3,500 records, how the Mega Record & CD Fair gained and holds on to its crown.
“We always try to have extra things, like live music, DJs, exhibitions, an auction, a pop quiz, vinyl art… we try to give it something special. It’s not just people looking down at the records, they can look up and see something interesting, too.
“This year, the theme was The Summer Of Love. Because of all the turmoil in the world, and it’s 50 years ago that all of these important albums were published, like Sgt Pepper’s…, Smile, The Velvet Underground, and Iggy Pop had just started with The Stooges, we thought we must give some power to the people.
“Visitors to this fair come to see each other – it’s a social event. They come from all over the world to talk to each other, to deal with each other and exchange information, and it’s worldwide. This time, we’re doing the Summer Of Love, and hopefully, we’ll spread the word across the world…”