All Hail the Cutout

Tomorrow is Record Store Day, on which we celebrate the unique culture of the independently owned record store. Although vinyl is making a comeback, there are still only a few hundred such places in the United States. Those of us of a certain age can remember when you could buy records everywhere: department stores, TV repair shops, drug stores, even service stations.

One such place was in my hometown, Gibson’s Discount Store. Gibson’s was like a modern chain drug store, a Walgreens or a CVS, in that it stocked a little bit of everything, but also like a dollar store in that much of their stuff was off-brand and sold cheap. It also stocked a few records. Independent rack jobbers would provide the records and the rack to display them on, and the store would receive a percentage of the sales—which is why it wasn’t uncommon to see racks of records in places that would seem strange today.

Gibson’s carried the top albums and a few singles, but it was also the first place I ever saw that carried cutouts. A cutout is an album or cassette sold at a discounted price, usually because it’s been discontinued by the label. A cutout album would have a corner of the jacket cut off or a hole punched in it; cutout cassettes (and later, CDs) usually had a notch sawed in the plastic case. This was to mark them so that they would not sold for full price—or, in the case of promotional copies sent to radio stations and record stores, not sold at all.

Where regularly-priced albums were six or seven dollars back in the 1970s, cutouts often sold for a couple of bucks and sometimes less. And while I loved music, I loved getting music for cheap even more—and as a result, I became a denizen of the cutout bins forever after.

It was at Gibson’s that I scored one of my favorite cutout purchases, the sort of musical bonanza that would have appealed to the geek I was circa 1975. One fine night I stumbled across the Warner Special Products compilation Superstars of the ’70s, a four-vinyl-album collection of hits I knew and artists I recognized. I remember staying up very, very late the night I brought it home, just to listen to the whole thing. It introduced me to certain artists I wasn’t hearing on my favorite Top 40 stations, like Jimi Hendrix (“Foxey Lady,” “Purple Haze”) , the Grateful Dead (Truckin'”), and Black Sabbath (“Paranoid”). It also includes Alice Cooper, Yes, the Doors (the long version of “Light My Fire”), the Kinks, Deep Purple, and the Jefferson Airplane. Most unusual of all, it includes tracks from Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, who rarely appear on anthologies of this sort. There are some odd choices in that company, though, including Roberta Flack’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Where Is the Love” by Flack and Donny Hathaway, and a couple of tunes by the Bee Gees (“Lonely Days” and “To Love Somebody”), but as a snapshot of the state of pop and rock circa 1973, you can scarcely do better.

The most off-the-wall track on the album is probably the Byrds‘ version of Neil Young‘s “Cowgirl in the Sand,” which appeared on the band’s self-titled 1973 album. I used to skip over it when I played Superstars of the ’70s back in the day, but I wouldn’t skip it now. So here it is, right off somebody else’s copy of Superstars of the 70s.

(Adapted from a post in my archives.)

6 thoughts on “All Hail the Cutout

  1. Yah Shure

    The primary purpose of the saw marks, cut corners or holes drilled into cutouts wasn’t to prevent them from being sold for full freight at retail; rather, it was to signify a record, tape or CD that could not be returned to the label for full credit. Were it not for the ability of retailers and wholesalers to return unsold inventory of in-print titles, few would have ever taken chances on stocking new or unproven artists. And were it not for physically marking the deleted items, retailers and distributors would’ve mightily abused said return privileges.

    Particularly in the case of 45s, those drill holes didn’t prevent records from being recycled to retail at full price. I bought a number of these in the oldies sections of record stores, as they were often the last copies remaining in the pipeline. Saw lots of ’em in the oldies 45s stacks in the distributor’s warehouse, too. And why not? If the distributors bought them directly through the cutout wholesalers in bulk for pennies, then turned around and sold them for a tidy profit at full retail price, they were getting higher margins than they could for in-print catalog 45s.

    I also found Superstars Of The ’70s in the cutouts, but the box had been broken up, with all four LPs available separately, each one re-wrapped in a plain white, die-cut sleeve. No complaints, though: that actually made them easier to handle for turntable duty. I’ve since inherited my sister’s copy, complete with box.

    The Superstars set comprised artists from the WEA family of labels, with the exception of the two Guess Who tracks and a Jefferson Airplane title from RCA. Although the set was a Warner Special Products release, the actual records were pressed by RCA. From a collector’s standpoint, the Superstars box was desirable for having included the stereo single edit of Yes’ “Roundabout,” which had previously appeared only on the stereo side of the mono/stereo gold-vinyl 1972 promo 45 (the commercial 45 was mono.)

    The StarTribune ran a story this morning on the opening of two new vinyl record stores in St. Paul within blocks of each other. One is owned by a record store vet who’s recognized former customers buying the same vinyl titles they’d unloaded twenty or more years ago. I may join the Record Store Day queue at Cheapo for the blue-vinyl “Action Woman” Sundazed repro 45 by the Litter. It’s not essential: I still have the original Scotty 45 I bought in ’67, and need more records like… well, you know. But, man… blue vinyl….. (drool)

    1. Yah Shure

      The Litter 45 was already sold out when I got there 45 minutes after opening time. It was just as well: the check-out line wait would’ve been longer than it took to walk home.

  2. Pingback: All Hail the Cutout | Isupon

  3. porky

    If I recall Superstars of the 70’s” was advertised on TV.

    Dad worked next door to a place called Unclaimed Freight and would bring home packages of bb-hole 45’s for my sibs and I. When I started collecting (’79-’80) I went to that store and found an unusually high percentage of LP’s and 45’s on the UNI label.

    Our local record/head shop had an enormous cut-out bin that yielded sealed Cryan’ Shames, thick vinyl Duane Eddy, Ruben and the Jets and other Mothers of Invention items side-by-side with the more recent failed new wave/punk titles. I discovered The Jam and Ramones there. It was a cheap way to sample a band ’cause you’d never hear ’em on the radio.

    My group of friends that are ten to fifteen years older than me recall the local Arlen’s store and their 44 cent cut-outs with a hushed sense of awe. They tell of Jaynett’s “Sally Go Round the Roses” LP, Fenderman LP, Bubble Puppy LP, recent Apple label failures etc all for under half a buck.

  4. Do you know if anyone has revived Chris S.’s “’70s Music Mayhem” blog? I don’t know if anyone still goes there except me, but I just left a post that said someone should pick up the blog where he left out. (Not me, though–i spend too much time online as it is!)

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