This is the third edition of a multi-part blog series produced in partnership with The Realest on the key events and factors shaping the modern music memorabilia market. The Realest is the first dedicated authentication standard and marketplace for music memorabilia.
The trading card boom of late 2020 and early 2021 invited huge sums of cards into grading facilities to join the circulation of a suddenly red-hot market. Those sums created bottlenecks that slowed the progress of cards into their cozy acrylic slabs, but now that we’re multiple years removed from the spark that lit the flame, shifts in collecting tastes are becoming more clear. It’s also becoming clearer what was popular before the boom and what was only more recently discovered.
In the latter category? Trading cards of various superstar musicians.
Now let’s get this out of the way up front. Music trading cards themselves are not a new phenomenon in terms of popularity. Key Beatles and Elvis cards from the 1950s and 1960s have seen very little population growth over the last two years, with collectors previously coveting these issues. However, that existing interest served as evidence that cultural icons are indeed coveted and collectable, whether those icons ply their trade on a field or on a stage.
What’s interesting though is that the cards of many star musicians both young and old were already out there long before the market for trading cards exploded. They just weren’t targets of widespread collector interest, at least as it pertains to graded examples.
Let’s take for example one of the more well-known musician “rookie” cards: Jay-Z’s appearance in 2005 Topps Basketball. When GemRate began tracking the population of the set back in April of 2021, there were just 22 PSA-graded copies of Jay-Z’s base card. Today? There are 450. That’s nearly 2000% growth, which makes the 340% growth of the overall set look extremely modest.
For reference, at the time of writing, PSA has graded 1,958 of the 2005 Topps Chris Paul base card, the most of any card from the set. In the last twelve months, the total population of the PSA-graded Paul rookie has increased 36% from 1,435 a year ago. In comparison, the graded population of the Jay-Z Topps card has climbed 64% over that same period.
22 graded copies will seem like a glut compared to some other “newly” discovered music cards. A little under two years ago, there was just 1 PSA-graded copy each of Nirvana’s and Snopp Dogg’s rookie cards from the 1995 Panini Smash Hits Stickers set. Today, there are 278 and 235 respectively. Given the humble starting point, there’s no need to even compare the growth to other mainstream sports sets from the period.
The story is similar for a fun card from 2011 Topps American Pie, which depicts Taylor Swift and Kanye West in the midst of the infamous VMA speech interruption. “Taylor I’m gonna let you finish…”
He did NOT let her finish. Shockingly, two years ago, just three of those cards were graded by PSA. Today, it’s 107. Over that same period, the overall 2011 Topps American Pie set grew in population by 415%, juuuust a hair shy of the 3,467% growth of “Miss Americana’s” card.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, another trio of examples can be found in the 2013 Panini Black Friday HRX set, featuring cards of Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, and Tupac. Two years ago, the total set population was 10 cards. Today, it’s 357.
Consider the dates of the cards we’ve highlighted. 2005, 2011, 2013. These products had been in circulation for several years, but they were entirely overlooked by the types of collectors that saw the merits in slabbing cards until just recently. Grading as a whole has exploded as a phenomenon, but it’s still surprising that so incredibly few of these cards were submitted prior to 2021.
It’s not just modern cards lost in a post-millennium supply glut, though. Lesser-known cards from the 60s and 70s are also finding their way through the doors of PSA facilities and into the limelight at a greater rate, though the growth is not as explosive as for the modern issues.
What about a Jimi Hendrix “rookie”? The Hendrix entry from 1968 Panini Cantanti has grown in population by 75% over the last two years. Viewed against the 4-5 figure percentage growth of the cards we discussed previously, 75% may not seem like much. But consider the growth of sports sets of that same year over the last 24 months. 1968 Topps Baseball and Football grew in population by just 12% and 8% respectively. Even the premier rookie card of the 1968 baseball set, the Mets Rookies card featuring Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan, has only experienced a 20% increase in PSA population over that two-year period.
Bob Marley was included in the 1978 Swedish Samlarsaker set, but only 5 of those cards had been PSA-graded two years ago. Fast forward to August of 2023, and 62 Marleys have found a new plastic home. Sports issue populations from that year have more commonly grown in the low double-digits.
In terms of values, while some of these cards have held their ground in recent years, it won’t be surprising to learn that many of them have followed the path of the broader market, which makes even more sense in light of the sharply rising populations. Over the last 12 months, CardLadder's Entertainment Index is down just 44%, not dramatically better than the markets for Basketball and Football. Over the last two years though, it's down just 2%, which compares very favorably to the Basketball Index's -46% performance. The market for these cards demonstrated some lag before enjoying their moment in the sun and eventually returning to earth, which makes sense given their delayed discovery.
Nonetheless, it’s possible that a sea-change has occurred in the last two years, as collectors took increasing notice of off-field cultural icons and their global appeal. That appeal is no longer exclusive to Elvis or the Beatles. Perhaps cardboard isn’t the best vehicle to express their collecting appeal, or to induce non card-collecting fans to become collectors. Maybe it’s stage-used material, concert posters, or rare concert merch. In any case, it seems we're just in the "sound check" phase of the collecting pursuit of global music icons.
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