We Went to the World's Biggest Record Convention in Utrecht. Here's our Report!

For the past 49 years, Utrecht, Netherlands has hosted what is now called the Mega Platen & CD Beurs fair, the world's biggest record convention. We went this year. It's glorious. You can read Punknews Editor John Gentile's impressions of the whole thing below.

Photo by Steve Zimmerman

Scenes from the Utrecht Record Convention

John Gentile

At 8:45am, Steve Zimmerman of Jupiter Records and I, stepped off the 1400 train with our empty record bags flapping across our backs and around our shoulders, rushed out of Central Station, sped down two stories worth of steps, zipped across the Dutch combo bicycle/car lane, hurried across the plaza of Kinepolis (a GIGANTIC ten story tall movie theatre), and then blasted through the doors of the Utrecht’s Jaarbeurs Center. By the time we got in line, it was a mere ten minutes before the doors opened to the Mega Platen & CD Beurs, the world’s largest record convention (read that as: largest by far.)

Although there were just about 500 – yes, that’s right FIVE HUNDRED- merchants setting up inside, and although the doors to Valhalla would swing open in just ten minutes, in a true showing of Dutch punctuality and tact, there were a mere 40-50 people in line ahead of us. I thought about the contrast to an American record convention where even a full hour before a medium sized convention, the line will wrap around the block and then wind back up the street again. We shot the shit for a few minutes only to turn around again at 8:55, and like very polite specters, hundreds, if not thousands, of Dutch- and people from all corners of the globe, mind you- were suddenly behind us.

The doors snapped open and we darted inside the building, eager to rip black gold from bins and shelves. Yet, as we hustled into the gigantic Jaarbeurs center, we stopped and looked around in distress. We were surrounded not by vinyl and plastic, but rather, antiques! Antiques as far as the eye could see! Old post cards! Dolls missing arms! Moldy lampshades! Torn up Time magazines! Unidentifiable pieces of tin! General crap!

Was this some cruel joke? Had we somehow botched our trip to Mecca? Were we the biggest dumbasses in the world? Was I in the middle of a nightmare?! It was at that moment that we noticed a crew of the usual record types (record sacks in hand) making a beeline for the far corner of the center. We followed in haste and within moments found ourselves in a second domed airport hanger wherein the records were stashed. And, it was glorious.

Row after row after row after row after row after row after row of records. Sellers from Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Mexico, France, Brazil, Japan, Israel, Italy, South Africa, Korea, and everywhere else brandishing their finest wares. Literal miles of those sweet round discs. The halls was so large that not only could you not see to the end, but if you climbed a 10 foot ladder, you still wouldn’t be able to take it all in. You may think I am exaggerating but I’m not. The record fair was HUGE and bigger than any other record convention I’ve been to by a factor of 20? 50? 100?

In fact, the sheer volume of records to flip through was so immense that some people paused, overwhelmed and unable to take it all in. But, being practical and American, instead of fretting at the immensity, I just tore forward and started throwing elbows and cracking people in the back of the head.

I kid, I kid. In fact, the first thing that I did notice was that unlike pretty much every other record convention I’ve been to, wherein the first hour is mainly people climbing over each other, reaching between bodies, and jostling for position, the Jaarbeurs convention was exceptionally polite with 99% of people either waiting their turn or busying themselves somewhere else before returning to a filled table. Though, to be fair, that simply may have been due to the fact that the fair was so huge, there were plenty of records to go around for everyone- and then some, and then some after that. I could not estimate the actual number of records and CDs for sale, but it was doubtlessly in the millions.

Organized roughly by genre, the Jaarbeurs fair is designed for the heaviest duty of collectors- the kind of guy that will drop 500 smackers for a T-Rex record simply because the title “Cosmic Dancer” is written in green instead of red on a 7-inch cover- with some allowances for moderates like myself. As for newbies, well, good luck.

Of course, I rushed over to the metal/punk section wherein the former was by far the more dominant genre. That being said, even though punk was a clear minority of the genres represented, because there were about 500 sellers, there were far more punk records than anyone could possibly hope to see.

For obvious reasons, UK punk was in the majority, but there was no shortage of the domestic stuff, and most sellers proudly displayed a section from their home country. If you want to learn about Scandinavian, Belgian, Peruvian, or Italian punk, there are your textbooks. Even more, it was a trip when I stumbled upon an Icelandic seller who had basically any punk record you could want, including, quite amazingly, fairly obscure limited press USA records. Pagan Babies, Psycotic Pineapple, and Humanity is the Devil on 10-inch were all there. For some reason, it was a real trip to see a gigantic NYHC collection from someone so far from the big apple, especially since so much of the classic era stuff is rooted in NYC imagery.

And if you wanted metal, any kind of metal, be it Iron Maiden’s greatest hits to some weirdo Norwegian grind-black-alt-ambiant-classical-yaarggg artist who only released 15 copies of his demo and nothing else, it was there. The Europeans seem to have a unique tag for stuff that isn’t quite rock and isn’t quite metal called “hard and heavy” which I saw nearly everywhere. Even more surprisingly, Bon Jovi was nearly always found in these bins. The continentals loooove their Bon Jovi for some reason. I guess someone has to.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Jaarbeurs record convention was that if it was a record you wanted, it was likely there. If you go to say, 5-6 record conventions a year in the states, you’d be lucky to find a single white whale find during that year. But at Jaarbeurs? They pretty much all where there. In fact, the very first box I flipped through had an original, Small Wonder Press of Crass’ Feeding of the 5000! For a mere 40 Euros! I snatched that up like lightening. Danzig III was in a bin just a short while down. The rare Slayer Decade of Aggression on double vinyl just across the lane. The rare Holland-only press of The Clash’s “Train in Vain” with “Bank Robber” and “Rocker’s Galore” jammed together on side B in tribute to the famed Jamaican Discomix! You want later day Ramones albums? They’re there. Yes, even double vinyl of We’re Outta Here. In fact, as a relatively superstitious person myself, I got a little creeped out as there were more than two handfuls of times where I said to myself something like “Boy, I hope this guy has the 12-inch singe of Bad Brains ‘I and I survive’” and BAM! There it was! I half believed that I was playing with bad mojo just because so many awesome records that you never see seemed to be as common as Rumors.

In fact, there are so many amazing records there, you’ll be amazed at the stuff you are throwing back. Stuff that if I found it at a USA convention I would buy immediately, sprint to my car, speed home, lock the doors, and take out insurance on, was tossed back. Rudimentary Peni’s Farce? GASP. I had to put it back. A weird Norway press of Haunting the Chapel? In this pond, it was just a guppie. GWAR’s Scumdogs? Dude, I can’t believe it, but I put it back! The fact is, you just can’t buy everything you want because there is so much there. One’s cup truly doth runneth over. Still, weirdly, it doesn’t bum you out too much because as much as you might put back, you keep even COOLER stuff that you’d never thought you would find.

Though, it needs to be said, despite my ace score on 5000, for the most part, records were not cheap at the convention. The rares were there if you wanted them, but you did have to pay for them. Generally, prices fluctuated around their discogs counterparts. Though, the benefit at Jaarbeurs was that you could actually see the records and didn’t have to pay crazy shipping prices. And, even so, there were deals here and there. A crisp Bullshit Detector came in at a mere ten Euros, Motorhead’s now rare CD reissue of their first album was just eight Euros, and multiple vendors had bootleg live recordings (which were produced with so much care that they could almost pass as licensed releases) at a mere two euros a pop. I filled my bag with soundboard and radio recordings of Bad Brains, Misfits, Minutemen, Yellowman, Black Uhuru, Joan Jett, Peter Tosh, Operation Ivy, UK Subs, and Dead Kennedys recordings.

Likewise, the vinyl format lasted longer in Europe than it did in the states. So, certain records which are very expensive stateside tend to be cheaper in Europe for the mere fact that they were domestic to the continent. Slayer records, later day Ramones records, Celtic Frost records, mid-period AC/DC Records, and the like are all significantly cheaper in Europe simply because they’re more common.

Also, as I leaned at the convention, Holland itself is famous for its record production and, despite its relatively smaller size, manufactured many of Europe’s records, wit a focus on 45s, and the Holland presses often have unique, and somewhat unusal covers. Were you to pick up, say, a Sweet, Led Zeppelin, or T-Rex Dutch import in the states, you’d likely pay $15-$25 . But, in Netherlands itself, a mere one of two euros, making it relatively cheap to easily build up a neat, colorful collection quickly.

All that being said, I was surprised to find that 12-inch singles, most popular in the ‘80s are even more expensive in Europe than in the states, even though most of them were made there. Likewise, no matter where you go, Smiths 12-inch maxi-singles are pricey. Though, at Jaarbeurs, Smiths albums themselves were a little cheaper than USA. CD singles, which were always more popular in Europe, remain expensive and even have dedicated collectors there. And no matter where you go, punkers know what their 7-inchers are worth and it’s damn hard to find a deal in that arena, though a reasonable price can usually be had.

It was quite refreshing that almost everyone there was polite. There was very, very little bumping or elbowing. Also, it seems no matter the culture, it’s ALWAYS rude to start flipping records in a bin ahead of a person working their way down the line… though a few miscreants still committed this misdemeanor. Yet, even then, it appeared they knew they were being rude, but just didn’t care. On the etiquette angle, at Jaarbeurs, it appeared to be rude to use your cell phone to lookup prices on Discogs or Popsike at a table. The rule appeared to be that you had to use your own knowledge to make an informed decision. That being said, yours truly was guilty of sneaking away from a table, looking up some crucial info, and slinking back some 20 minutes later.

And really, that was necessary for at least one reason. Even though there was gold at every corner, there were also bootlegs of official recordings tucked like thin landmines in many a-used bin. I suppose it’s okay for a seller to used sell bootleg records, especially of rare releases (emphasis on both the “used” and “rare”), so long as it’s clear that what’s for sale is indeed a boot, many seller had fakes tucked in with the genuine article, and often priced at bonafide prices. And really, with certain records, it’s really hard to tell if it is the genuine article without using discogs as an instruction manual. In fact, numerous sellers, namely those from countries that are known for their large bootleg industry, went so far as to put new-ish boots in old plastic outer-sleeves and yellow paper inner sleeves to further obscure the fakes. Totally lame. Yours truly got zapped a few times, but that’s the perils of the game, I suppose. The general rule of thumb at Jaarbeurs is that if it looks to good to be true, it almost definitely is. These sellers are the pro-ball of record slangers, and they know what their records are worth. Things do slip through the cracks, but not as much as they do stateside.

Negotiation also varies a great deal across cultures. Everyone seems to agree that it’s fair to try to knock down the price of a record at a convention (unless it’s a cheapo) but the percentage and method of negotiation varies widely across the continent. Obviously, mates from the UK negotiate in a style most similar to the USA, were you can get up to say 30% knocked off if you play your cards right and an offer in of itself isn’t seen as an insult, but merely the introduction to the beginning of a sale.

With, say, the Germans, not so much. From my perspective, they saw a 10% slash as a huge setback, and didn’t really seem to care if you walked away or not. In fact, the mere suggestion of cutting the price down a little seemed uncomfortable them, even though their records weren’t particularly cheap. At one point, I bought a number of 7-inchers, and the seller said to me, “Do you vant ze plastics?” At first, I thought the fellow was asking me if I wanted a plastic bag, which was unusual, as in Europe, they don’t really do the plastic bag thing, to their credit. So, I said, “Oh, no thanks, I have my PUNKNEWS BRANDED RECORD BAG with me.” The fellow then responded, much sterner and some wanted angrier, “No, do you vant ze plastics?!” I realized that he was asking me if I wanted to keep the plastic sleeves on the records I just bought. I thought to myself, “damn dude, how cheap can you be?” but I merely replied, “Yes. Yes. I. Do.” And then walked away.

I found the UK and Scottish sellers to be particularly jovial. One seller was selling two Inner City Unit albums, which are Hawkwind spinoff releases. So, he and I engaged in a discussion on the Dave Brock v. Nik Turner lawsuit, only for a third fellow to asked, “Say, are you mates talking about Hawkwind?” So, while they three of us gabbed, a fourth gentleman hopped in on the discussion and before we knew it, a mini-Hawkwind convention broke out.

On the other end of the spectrum, I saw an Eastern European seller wearing a Cro-Mags shirt and said to him, “Oh, nice shirt! Have you heard the new Harley Flanagan album? It’s great!” His reply: “I did not like it. It was too over-the-top.” (Whatever that means). He then seemed to intimate that he didn’t even really like the Cro-Mags. Truly, I will never master the complexities of European self-expression.

Indeed, there were mega-pricey records there. One stall, which I have to assume, was owned by the biggest Rolling Stones collector in the world, had nothing but rack after rack of different presses of every single Stones album and even more live boots. You want Sticky Fingers from Japan, Croatia, Portugal, Singapore, or Canada? He’s got it. But ya gotta pay for it. The famed limited alt-mix, promo edition of SF was indeed there. The price? A cool 5,000 Euros.

Unfortunately for him, the analogue Michael Jackson seller was not fairing nearly as well as the Stones maniac. Similarly, at one point, Steve from Jupiter records was at a stand that had nothing but pristine 45s laid across the table at premium price. A fellow from Japan asked the seller, “How much for Who?” and pointed at a 60s release. The seller announced, in a blocky bluster, “ONE THOUSAND EUROS.” The prospective buyer said softly, “Too much, too much.” The seller then grabbed the record and pointed vigorously at it, “PROMO RELEASE.” The interested party then repeated, “Too much, too much” while shaking his head and walking away, suggesting that the seller was brining shame upon himself for charging so much, and honestly, he was probably right.

The general line-of-thought at Jaarbeurs is that if you really want the deals, wait until a few hours before the second day ends and then you can really shave the sticker down. I did not find that to be true. For me, most sellers stayed relatively firm, even down to the last 60 minutes. However, that may be because I was trying to buy specific records in the 10-50 euro range. By contrast, if you were a shop, and just wanted general stock, and not specific releases, you probably could have gone up to a 3 euro/record table and offered to take the whole kit and kaboodle for a single a pop. Those kinds of sellers were slashing their prices near the end. By contrast, the people with the mid-range stuff know that if it doesn’t sell there, it’ll sell somewhere else so there’s no real impetus to cut back on the price.

From the minute day one begins, you do need to make a choice. There’s no possible way to see everything, or really, even 15% of all the records for sale. So, you have to make the decision: do I want to root through the random boxes of “Stuff” or flip through the highly manicure and sorted collections. The former often have the real gold hidden in them and offer prizes that you hadn’t considered before. But, the latter offer near promise of “the good stuff” and allow for more rapid survey. At home, I usually opt for the former strategy, but in Utrech, because time was limited (you’d think a two day, 8 hour per day hour record convention would seem like a long day but it feels like its about 150 minutes), I went for the later. That did seem to be the better strategy, at least for foreigners abroad. Do you really want to spend 45 minutes looking for a three euro copy For Those About to Rock or do you want to go to that pristine stack, snap out that beautiful copy of It’s Alive in 30 seconds, and move on to the next goldmine?

Honestly, you’d think that after two eight-hour days, you’d get bored from looking at records. You don’t. There are so many incredible finds in box after box, and so many sellers, that the thrill from the first hour of a normal convention carries on throughout the day. You’ll look at your watch and see that it’s already 4:45! Where did the day go? The answer is, it was put to damn good use.

As a closing note, I do have to say, the Dutch people themselves are some of the most pleasant, most polite, most generally cool and stylish people I’ve ever met. When thinking of Holland and the greater Netherlands, one imagines a person skipping through the tulip field, between two windmills, singing to oneself, while wearing wooden shoes. Maybe there is a wedge of cheese in one hand and a croissant in the other. The Netherlands are so nice you actually want to go do that. And on top of that, the Utrecht Record convention is so great, you’ll want to go back every year. I do. For real, it really is as great as people say it is. Actually, it’s better. I want to go back right now and camp out for the next 360 days to reserve my spot. To hell with Dutch punctuality. Gimme dem records!