View From The Side: Is New Vinyl Marketplace Reverb The End Of Discogs?
Reverb is here to challenge Discogs
Discogs is a monster be-straddling the vinyl world. It’s the Google of record selling, a hulking, monopoly that has near total control over the online sale of second hand vinyl. As this market becomes increasingly valuable it’s little surprise that Amazon, itself a big fan of crushing the competition, is rumoured to be buying up the company, and we’ve talked about the attempts to clean up Discogs in advance of this (or any other) potential takeover elsewhere.
The idea that Amazon – or indeed any global corporation – could buy Discogs leads the mind to wonder what would happen if they did. Any new parent company with the clout to buy the site would be reasonably likely to vertically integrate the company – for those of you less au fait with irritating corporate terminology, vertical integration is the process whereby a company expands into controlling every aspect of a supply line, from asset creation to sales. The old school record labels did this by owning recording studios, pressing plants, hi fi manufactures and record stores– effectively they could sign an artist, record their music, press it up, sell it and have a customer buy it without ever using a product that wasn’t made by ie Phillips. In the case of an Amazon owned Discogs, this vertical integration would more likely take the shape of Amazon buying up swathes of second hand vinyl, storing them in their warehouses, integrating the delivery system into Amazon Prime, and using the economies of scale, weighty purchase power and subsidised losses to undercut other sellers on everything from record pricing to packaging and delivery costs. It’s worth bearing in mind that Uber have used aggressive subsidisation to throttle rival cab firms to great effect – as Amazon have done with book selling.
The consumer – vinyl dad’s worldwide buying over-priced Chicago house rarities – will stay happy if the delivery costs are low, the return system is reliable, and things like shitty grading are tightened up on. As Amazon’s decimation of the independent book selling industry has shown, the warm fuzzy feeling of having a nice local shop where you know the owner turns out to mean dick all compared to the convenience of getting any book in the world for two quid cheaper. I would be genuinely astonished if plans for this process are not already in place – although it’s worth noting that Discogs themselves have denied that they are planning to sell up, so maybe it’s a long way off yet. It’s also worth noting that it’s very rare for a company that are about to sell up to give any clues it’s about to happen… But if nothing else, one has to wonder why Discogs themselves aren’t buying up collections to sell from a centralised Discogs account? The idea that there some sort of lovely fun guys who wouldn’t do such a thing just seems naïve in the extreme. The point is that with Discogs holding such a comprehensive monopoly – and controlling a vast, user created and maintained database- there’s not much anyone can do to argue with whatever Discogs choices are; if you’re a crate digger living in the sticks it’s the ‘cogs or bust. It’s an unusual position, and not an entirely welcome one.
This makes news of a new competitor appearing to challenge Discogs’ dominance very interesting, particularly because the site in question – Reverb LP- have enough weight behind them to be taken seriously. Based in Chicago, Reverb have risen to prominence as a marketplace for music gear. In 2015 the site’s owner, David Kalt, raised a $25million investment fund to turbo-charge Reverb’s growth (and presumably enable it to grab a Discogs like monopoly over the gear selling world). The plan appears to have gone well; Reverb can now claim to be the most popular music equipment website in the world. It seems like a fairly short leap from here into the world of vinyl selling, and this month they’ve taken the jump. Reverb LP is now up and running.
According to Kalt, Reverb LP “will differentiate itself from competitors with an attentive customer service team and an image-rich platform that emphasizes the uniqueness of album art… Reverb LP will also help sellers identify which specific pressings of an album they own so they can best determine pricing.” So far so meh – none of the vague lines from Kalt should disturb Discogs too much.
However, away from the corporate spin, the most notable difference between Discogs and Reverb is that Reverb are charging appreciably lower seller fees – around 6% compared to Discogs cost of 8%. This in itself can only be good news – the monopolistic control Discogs has on the vinyl selling industry has enabled them to raise fees almost at will. Before Reverb LP if you didn’t like it, you could piss off.
There is another major, inevitable difference; the Reverb LP database is a fraction of the size of Discogs’ frankly enormous archive. You’re genuinely getting to the point where you’re hard pressed to find an unlisted old release on Discogs whilst Reverb LP is riddled with holes that will take years to fill.
This disparity has highlighted a disparity of intent between the sites. Whatever it is now, Discogs started life as a community run discography rather than a marketplace. Its database was created by remarkably enthusiastic fans who were willing to spend hours peering at catalogue numbers on worn out grooves for no reward other than the weird collectors joy of knowing everything a loved artist had released. This was a site made by people who could pour over the record collector price guide in the way some people can absorb football stats. Reverb LP however has no such community at its core. It has been explicitly created to make money from a much hyped and revived vinyl market- it’s entire reason for being is to find good ways to make money selling records.
With this in mind, perhaps the birth of Reverb will go in some ways to putting Discogs itself back on track. The sudden emergence of a competitor gunning for that vinyl selling cash is a reminder of both where Discogs has gone wrong – the over inflated commissions, the purge of bootlegs- but also where it’s gone right; it was and still is primarily a community. As much as a corporation ever can be, it is owned by the people who made it. It offers a genuine value beyond buying and selling; there’s never been a time in my life that I can indulge my crate digging elements via such a well sculpted interface. I could literally never buy a thing on Discogs and still benefit from it.
In short we welcome Reverb. We don’t think it’s got much of a chance, but it’s a much needed challenge to a huge monopoly, and anything that chips away at Discogs utter domination is no bad thing – at the same time (and yes, we admit this is a bit having-cake-and-eating-cake) Reverb’s existence is a reminder that Discogs is more than just a market; it’s a community of people who love music on vinyl, and as such, long may it continue.