Finally, our intrepid spinderella Mark Elliott gets to go to the ball – 2018’s Mega Record & CD Fair in Utrecht, the greatest show on Earth for record collectors…

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht

Nothing quite prepares you for the scale. We’ve all been to those fairs where the marketing has far outstripped the metre-age (you know, the events where the 60-minute journey there leads you to spend far too long loitering around half-a-dozen paltry stalls, later convincing yourself you could justify the price you’ve just paid for a Bowie rarity because there just wasn’t anything else to buy). But the Mega Record & CD Fair sits in its own distinct universe. It is vast. Football-pitch vast, and if any crate-digging experience has come close to breaking me, this proves to be it…

I have a plan, of course. Across two days, my smug strategy is simple: spend the first few hours of the Saturday casually pacing the joint, working out the dealers I can haggle with and those where a swift sweep of the bargains will suffice. Get stuck into some boxes on the second round (estimated for some time after lunch) and then spend Sunday mopping up the also-rans (those discs that had caught my eye, but couldn’t be deemed essential during the first wave).

Within 20 minutes, my plan evaporates. I’m swiftly waist-deep in a German dealer’s endless crates of 70s and 80s LPs – all mint and €2 apiece. Emerging, blinking, 40 minutes later, I realise I’ve made it past just four stalls; with close to 600 more to see – and just seven hours to see them in – it’s clear that I’ll struggle to complete a circuit in a day at this pace, let alone have time for the second and third rounds.

The reason for my plan? I’ve taken advice and decided to see if the theory that prices on the most coveted pieces will fall on the Sunday (with dealers allegedly reluctant to lug stock back home) proves true. I’m also fixated on two searches – Sandra’s The Long Play (a huge European hit album from 1985) and a much rarer synth-pop release – Nik Kershaw’s James Cagney 7″, a release which was only issued in Germany.

Other than those, I’m determined to be surprised and, in that regard, the 49th Mega Record & CD Fair delivers in droves. You’ll start and you’ll emerge, blinking in the daylight, many hours later. Beyond that, one can only advise that you’ll make your own path (although after two days, I do develop some simple methods for making this easier, which I’ll share in due course). This truly isn’t for the faint-hearted…

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht

Saturday

The queues are already snaking out of the Convention Centre doors as I arrive, just before 9am, on the Saturday. A few minutes earlier than anticipated, the polite lines of people – looking, well, rather like me, as I guess the younger ones enjoyed rather more of the legendary Dutch hospitality last night than I did – shuffle into life and I’m through. Confusingly, at first, I’m confronted with vintage teddy bears, chintzy crockery and old advertising hoardings. Has it all gone wrong before I’ve started? No, I’d merely forgotten the record and CD event is just part of the International Collectors’ Fair, so, if all manner of curiosities are your thing, you’re going to be especially challenged for time. There are hundreds more stalls featuring all manner of the strange. Following the general direction of (largely) bearded blokes like me, it becomes clear that Halls 11 and 12 are where the vinyl action is. Stalls are nominally organised into zones (prog, beats, metal, etc) but, in truth, I find there’s little order to what you’ll discover beyond the obvious dealerships. This keeps things interesting from the off.

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht

The first obvious myth I’d like to dispel is that there are no bargains to be found here. While I think it’s true that everyone selling knows the value of everything, there’s plenty of interesting hunting here if you’re prepared to wade hard into the depths. Take Queen’s Greatest Hits – an exceedingly common album that you can buy new from a UK supermarket for around £20 and will set you back about half that, second-hand in most UK record shops. I see decent copies ranging from €8 to €25 and some slightly battered, but still playable, copies for a handful of Euros each. Looking for French, Belgian, German and Dutch 7″ and 12″ (Maxi) singles? These are an absolute steal and you could easily spend both days just sifting through these comprehensively. I set myself a strict budget: €200 a day, which is a pretty hefty spending target, but you can use it up in moments if you aren’t careful (and no one takes cards). I see people leaving after a full day with only a handful of records; perhaps suggesting that many are coming here with a select few purchases in their sights. Not me.

Even by this point, my first big Day One mistake is obvious. The veterans have got this sussed and are lugging suitcases and even mobility trolleys around with them. My trusty record bag is clearly going to prove woefully inadequate. Just how inadequate I’m soon to find out, as the haul (including Animal Nightlife, The Hollies and Grace Jones) from the German dealer has only just got things started.

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht

Sunday

The queues as the doors open at 10am are noticeably lighter on Sunday. I’ve had no luck with either of the two items on my wishlist, so far, but I’m hopeful. Plus, there is still that Xanadu-lifted 12″ from Cliff and Olivia, plus The Spice Girls to consider. The sight of Star Wars stormtroopers marching past jolts me momentarily, as I remember how much else of a non-vinyl variety is here; but I know I won’t have time to sample any of it.

Major Mistake Number Two for Day Two is simple. Trying to remember what I had seen, and precisely where I’d seen it, the previous day is a fool’s errand without proper preparation. After just a few minutes, you find your orientation is shot all over again and, unless you’ve taken a note of the stall number you spotted something on, there’s a limited chance you’ll ever likely find it again. I do find Suddenly fairly easily (it’s still up there for sale at €50), as the stall is near the end of an aisle, but can’t for the life of me locate Spiceworld. Good job, too, to be honest, as it’s selling for €150…

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht

With crowds lighter today – and the welcome sight of reductions for the final day – I am soon stuck into more crate-digging, slowly edging my way down each aisle in turn. Within hours, I’ve bought a lot again but, just as I’m giving up hope of ticking something off my wish list, here in a disco section (a genre stretch, to be honest) I find a brace of Sandra LPs, including The Long Play. At €9, it’s the same price I’d have paid for a similar-condition copy from Discogs, so I’m pleased I can stop fixating on this item. It proves you can come here with some sort of shopping list.

I chat to the team from Really Useful Products, who use the fair to promote their sturdy plastic storage boxes. When asked about the size of my collection, I sense the 20,000-odd items I quote is causing some excitement. It’s true our recent relocation to Norfolk is requiring a radical rethink on how they’re displayed. The fair is a great opportunity to examine accessories like this, but I’d estimate that there are fewer than 10 of these dealers exhibiting here. Vinyl massively outstrips CDs and memorabilia, too, at a ratio of eight to two, I’d guess…

Frank Hurts

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht  - Frank HurtsThis Rolling Stones specialist has been coming to the fair every two years and, given the band’s announcement of another tour, demand is proving high for the veteran act’s material. “The tours are really important,” says Tom Sattler. “It always leads to a spike in demand. The collectors are here for the rarities, but we do a good business for fans who love the memorabilia we sell.” The rarest issue on sale is a 1969 Malaysian compilation, with a unique picture sleeve, retailing for €1,200. It’s interesting how many collectors are heading straight for the specialists. As the previous day had been restricted to dealers, it’s clear that snapping up your wants list fast might be the name of the game… With the blaze of fluorescent strip-lights soon boring into my brain, the business of digging begins. Quickly, the stalls start to blur into one, with hundreds upon hundreds of boxes to sift through, each becoming more uniform than the last. I cotton on quickly that, unless it’s clearly a bargain, there’ll be another, cheaper, option: I find three copies of Limahl’s German-only Tar Beach 12″ during the two days, and I’ve never come across a single one before.

Discolecção

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht - DiscoleccaoThis Lisbon-based retailer (with two stores in that city) comes to the fair twice a year (had I mentioned there’s a second event each November?) and I was drawn to the dealer’s startling array of unique picture sleeves displayed on the table. “We know a lot of people,” Vitor and José tell me. “So this is just a small selection of what we have.” It’s an impressive set, for sure, with rare issues of The Supremes and Dylan battling for my attention. At €500, the unique Portuguese EP of The Who’s I’m A Boy is the most striking, but is comfortably out of my price range. “This is the most important fair in the world,” José tells me. “There is no other like it and we don’t really even bother with the rest anymore. I pick my stock to bring carefully, and it’s always a success for us.”

B Pedersen

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht  - B PedersenOne of the joys of the fair is the chance to immerse yourself in a specific genre or era; this Danish dealer specialises in 1950s, 1960s and the Eurovision Song Contest. The latter is an interesting world populated by the rather obsessive and, while I flirt around its edges, I couldn’t profess to be any true expert. Which is why this stall’s sale box of Song Contest 7″s is so welcome – it allows me the chance to sample some unusual items. From Denmark’s 1979 entry – Tommy Seebach’s Disco Tango (it came sixth) – to Stella’s entry for Belgium in 1982, it proves to be a deep dive (with many that I’d randomly selected for €2 turning out to be qualifying songs for Denmark that didn’t even get picked). Perhaps I could develop a specialism of a specialism and really impress some of my Eurovision-addicted mates!

Many more hours of random searches follow. I sense you need to be super-disciplined to do this properly, and I’m just not. Too often, a box of assorted ‘bargains’ will soak up many valuable minutes and yield little. Then – right there, on the wall opposite – is a super-rare copy of The Spice Girls’ Spiceworld – from 1997, when vinyl runs were so limited. The band’s first LP has been reissued, but there’s no sign yet of this one. At €150, this UK release is way beyond what my budget will stretch to, but I will come back on Sunday in the hope it will have been reduced. I can dream…

Another spot nearby is the 12″ of Cliff Richard And Olivia Newton- John’s Suddenly from Holland (the only territory to issue it in that format). This is a record I routinely refer to, describing how one Saturday in 1980 featured the purchase of this and Siouxsie & The Banshees’ Spellbound on a trip to Woolworths. A decent – I like to think – illustration of how my broad but populist tastes were already developed at the tender age of 11. At €30, this goes into the ‘Coming Back On Sunday’ list.

It’s now nearly 2pm and I need a break. I pause for lunch by the Omega Auctions room and, with somewhere to perch at a premium, sneak into the back, clutching a chicken with parmesan sandwich, Coke Zero and my expanding bags of records. Can I just say that quietly eating, balancing bags and trying not to move too much in case I end up bidding for some Led Zeppelin acetate proves to be one of the day’s more stressful moments? I leave as soon as I can, as the bidding gets really scary.

I usually make a point of passing the UK dealers by, reasoning that their stock is more easily accessible to me and that there’s just so much else here to choose from. One exception that I make – and I’m very grateful that I do – is Revolver. Here, I find the last of SAW’s singles with Princess, In The Heat Of A Passionate Moment, which barely charted and is harder to find. Here’s a copy for €2, with its rarer-still free poster pristine. It’s another gap plugged in my PWL collection and represents one of my finds of the day. After buying more singles, I spend a bit of time checking out the exhibition of 45 Years Of Disco Fever 1973-2018, which gives me pause for breath, but I’m soon back at it…

Bangla Desh Discos

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht  - Bangla Desh DiscosThis Spanish dealer might bill itself as a CD-single specialist, but I find it typical of many stalls here, selling a bit of everything if you’re prepared to hunt. Spain has some intriguing sleeve variants, and I source a mint copy of the Pet Shop Boys-assisted Liza Minnelli So Sorry, I Said 7″, which first emerged on her Results album. The cover is rare and I pay a fraction of what I’d fork out online. I also buy a Bedsitter promo 7″, billed to Marc Almond and released in 1993 to promote a compilation.

Now, here’s a dilemma: I see a copy of the Madonna picture disc for her first album in Japan. At the time of going to press, in just over a week’s time, I can (hopefully) pick up a reissue of it. The purist in me would love the original but, at more than €100, I think the power of Record Store Day wins out, especially given my strict budget criteria. It will be interesting to see if the price for this will drop in future, though. I doubt it…

Nearby, dozens more boxes of pristine German Maxi singles suck me back in and, with cash reserves dwindling, I need to decide (quite ruthlessly, for me) what to leave behind. I eke out every last coin and Barry Gibb’s Shine Shine, Talk Talk’s Another Word and the orange vinyl of Coldcut’s Doctorin’ The House make the list. Onto the next stall and there are yet more boxes of 12″ singles: I find VG+ copies of OMD’s Sailing On The Seven Seas and Donna Summer’s Cold Love; the 1987 Tony Visconti Remix of Bolan’s Get It On and a fabulous painted-portrait-sleeve edition of the Aretha and Whitney duet of It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be (the sort of variant-cover issue that makes pop collectors like me swoon).

And then that’s it, it’s almost 5pm and I’m beat. I make my way back out through the vintage fair and, here, you need to keep your eye out. Some dealers stock a few records – especially 7″ singles. I pass one selling off a library collection for 50 cents each and I make some final purchases, including a lot of Leo Sayer. Later, staggering back to my hotel, gulping down the sunlight and fresh air, I’m certain a lie-down and shower are desperately in order. The thought of going through it all again tomorrow fills me in equal parts with dread and yet more nervous excitement…

World Of Picture Discs

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht  - World Of Picture DiscsNow, here’s an oddity. A dealer who doesn’t have a website or shop and specialises only in the picture disc, a sometimes unfairly maligned format I happen to love (being an 80s-pop collector makes it mandatory). Peter Bastine, who contributed to Taschen’s great Extraordinary Records book, started buying picture discs back in 1977 and stopped when he hit the 8,000 mark! His stock today is modest (he uses the fair to offload a few items), but the impressive display behind him, detailing the history of a format that began around 1905 as a playable postcard, is an education in itself. Two picture discs much prized by me are the infamous, impossible-to-source Erotica 12″ by Madonna (withdrawn) and a release I think hit the shops but is so scarce it never even turns up on Discogs – Big Fun’s Handful Of Promises 12″. Peter has neither, but I do pick up the second Samantha Fox LP in three formatted segments (something her label had also done with her first release). There are boxes of shaped discs, plus genre-specific sections for metal, ‘girls’ and rock ‘n’ roll, which had a major 80s reissue programme in the format.

As the hours tumble by, I’m drawn ever deeper into racks of European picture sleeves: for example, sourcing nice copies of Cher (Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves) and a unique Dutch issue of the Mankind Doctor Who theme from 1978 (for €1, with Discogs listing mint copies for five times as much). There’s still plenty of time for the curiosity – Mike Mareen’s Hey, Galaxy Man is a picture of spray-on silver disco excess, but I doubt that it troubled the German equivalent of the Grammys much that year.

With the auctions over, I grab another cardboard sandwich by the stage to hear one of the bands – there’s an energy to it that’s all at odds with the harsh lighting. I salute the organisers for trying to keep things varied, but it’s clear most of this crowd is here to shop. Sunday is noticeably quieter than the previous day (and Friday is a dealers-only event, which is where a lot of the serious business takes place). It’s clear most stalls are by now up for a deal and, given my limited skill in this area, I head back to see if I can be united with Cliff and Olivia. Success! It’s still there and I knock five Euros from its €50 price tag.

DC Overstocks

The Trip: Mega Record & CD Fair, Utrecht  - DC OverstocksThese UK vinyl specialists, who regularly take a pitch at London’s Spitalfields market, came to the fair last November for the first time. “This has been amazing again,” Debbie Carey tells me. The stock is brand new and there’s a good mix, saving you at least €10 from what you’d pay in-store.

“We bring a van over on the ferry and have shifted a lot,” she says. A lot of people have come to fill their own stores but, even on Sunday, there’s still a good selection to be picked up. “We were discussing last night if CDs will ever make it back,” says Debbie. “We still have a lot in storage, but we aren’t convinced we’ll be bringing it over any time soon!” I buy shrink-wrapped copies of Maroon 5 and Rag‘N’Bone Man albums and could spend a lot more, if my money wasn’t now running out. It’s now about my 13th non-consecutive hour in the fair and I’ve finally completed a full circuit, stopping at, I’d guess, more than two-thirds of the stalls here. The predominance is UK and Western continental European dealers, but there are stalls here from South Africa, the USA, Asia and South America, too.

In truth, I can by now barely focus, let alone face another round, and so collecting together my final coins and notes, make another concerted swoop to see if I can pick up that elusive Nik Kershaw release. Mike Oxlong is a UK dealer who specialises in singles, but even his great selection doesn’t yield a result. I finally concede defeat and head for the exit, pausing only to discharge my final Euros on a programme from Cher’s 1992 Love Hurts tour. It’s half-price, and seems a fitting place to end, as she is the definition of a fighter, and this has been a challenge like no other. Could I face another day of it? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly impossible to cover properly in a single day. Next time, I’m bringing a trolley… but I did something right. I drove over from the UK, so at least I can be confident I can get it all home again. There’s no airline cabin class on the planet that could cope with this weight. Now, if I can just get it back to my hotel…

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