Swimming With the Sharks: A Conversation on the Ethics of the Discogs Shark
by Luke Gregorio
Amidst a strangely stoic community of online record buyers, where online comments tend to read more like robotic essays rather than normal human opinions, one topic alone stirs emotion: the Discogs Shark.
So, who are these figures that provoke so much rage from the folk who still haven’t discovered the MP3 yet? Well, ‘sharking’ is the process by which records are bought strictly for resale profit, thereby driving up prices for everyone in the community. The objection here is that ‘true fans’ get priced out of buying the records they want, and the artist unfairly receives none of the profits that are artificially generated by the Sharks. But who could do such a thing? Do they even feel guilty about it, I hear you ask. Thankfully, I’ve only gone and decided to shoot some of these questions to the Sharks themselves on my social media of choice - the Discogs messaging service.
Weirdly enough, it turns out that many people actually check the messages in their Discogs inbox. Within an hour, hidden amongst all the bait daily reminders that that there are ‘100 New Items for Sale in Your Wantlist’, my inbox finally provided me some actual human interaction.
A comment on Brainwaltzera's Bewplum (2018) from Discogs user msr042377
Most protested their innocence and distanced themselves from the tag. For example, one seller, who asked go by the name Jabberjaw justified his actions by telling me, ‘I have some expensive records for sale but they are genuinely hard to find.’ In fact, he was keen to make clear he hates these Sharks as much as the next man, ‘I hate people who shark it's really unfair on genuine DJs and collectors, these idiots need banning from Discogs’.
I’m not sure what to make of this. One explanation is that, perhaps, these sellers were innocent, that they weren’t deliberately buying records purely to jack up the prices and turn a profit. Perhaps it was in fact the case that these sellers just happened to sell all of these predominantly rare and Shark-y records that I had used to hunt down them down in the first place. Or maybe, they were all liars. Perhaps, a mystery such as this could only be solved through some more hands-on investigative journalism. Give Louis Theroux a bell, I’m sure he’d be down for a series on The Dark Side of Discogs, where we go undercover amongst the resellers with Louis working in some fake new record shop, tracking the buyers when they move to resell the records. Or maybe, we could go even more ambitious, try and get Murdoch on board. Then, when he pulls through, we go full News of the World shaky footage style and set up some sort of trap where we offer stolen original presses of Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen as bait. If it’s good enough to catch out the likes of Sam Allardyce and Keith Vaz, these Sharks wouldn’t stand a chance against us.
Front page of the Daily Mirror on September 28th 2016, detailing the scandal surrounding Sam Allardyce's short-lived tenure as England football manager (credit: Daily Mirror, All Rights Reserved.)
Others I spoke to, however, seemed to embrace the tag. One user, who will go by the name of Jaws, irreverently proclaimed ‘I'm a fucking Discogs Shark, yes here I am’. For him, sharking was a form of entertainment, ‘I like speculation. It is a betting game. It is fun.’ Luckily though, there aren’t too many of these Poundland Wolf of Wall Streets roaming around Discogs though. Most of these self-described Sharks were more Michel Foucault than Jordan Belfort. To be fair, I could’ve avoided writing this article and just instead posted one of their theses on the ethics of the reselling market instead. I had more essays in my inbox than an AQA examiner.
Some passages were poetic, one Shark, I’ll call him Don Lino, versed about how the ‘beauty of music is that it’s in the air’, whilst others were had more in common with my overly argumentative A-Level politics essays. One even made me feel guilty about my finger-pointing shark accusations. For him scalping was a matter of necessity, ‘I would not feel ok with spending to more of the family budget on records than I do’. But regardless of how they chose to dodge the question, one thing they all agreed on was as follows. No-one was being forced to pay the prices they set. And clearly, consumers were willing to pay these prices. So, what’s the problem?
As you might expect of the Discogs folk, the conversation quickly turned then to one about the ethics of capitalism. As one Shark, let’s call him Sharktopus, succinctly put it, ‘capitalism does not encourage moral superiority’. Sharktopus went on to talk about how if others were going to benefit from the reselling market, why shouldn’t he? And that he didn’t create the laws of supply and demand that determine the market price. He asked me, ‘are you equally outraged by poverty, or people making money by selling stock, or the pharmaceutical industry cashing in on people that are sick? Or are you only mad about people flipping records and concert tickets?’ And he even went on to attack me personally, ‘And what about you? Are you mad at records being flipped in general all the time, or was it sparked by a certain record that you would like and you can’t buy.’
Slightly put off by his attack (does he assume I rate poverty or something?), I was briefly distracted from my disdain for the Sharks. But, the argument about the free market does nothing to justify the ethics of scalping really. In the same way no-one is forced to buy the overpriced records, no-one is forced to deliberately resell records at a higher price just because others are doing it. Of course, the playground ‘he started it’ excuse, that never worked out well for me in my younger years, doesn’t absolve any of these fully-grown record collectors. Besides, as was said, if anyone’s going to make money out of reselling, it seems right for it to only be the artist and distributor.
Yet, that’s not all to the tale. Indeed, it goes beyond a simple ethical dilemma in a capitalist world. It even goes beyond the dubious activity in the reselling market in general. Yes, there is a difference between the Sharks and the other scalpers. Where the tale of the Sharks differs from that of the other scalpers waking up early to buy tickets for the next Bring Me the Horizon tour is as follows. It doesn’t take much to know when tickets for a big game or gig go on sale. However, anticipating that the newest release on a label like Furthur-Electronix is going to sell out, and then quintuple in value isn’t common knowledge. Really, these guys are more like stockbrokers than scalpers with their niche expertise and ability to predict trends. Whilst often scalpers are an external enemy exploiting fans, the Discogs Shark is operating from within, betraying their own community. There’s something very unsettling about both the winners and losers of the sharking process being considered the same type of music fans.
Indeed, music fans are supposed to be a community. Ideally, we should be sharing the best records with each other rather than pricing each other out. After all, we are all on that same journey of trying to find the fattest tunes. And making the good stuff so inaccessible is just undeniably bait behaviour.
So, I set out to learn about the Discogs Shark. What makes them tick? What makes them take the mick? And what I’ve found is that they’re just like all the other record lovers out there in almost every way. The bombastic prose, borderline obsessive attitude to buying music, shit Discogs names; its all there. And that’s what seems to make sharking feel so wrong.
Words by Luke Gregorio