There’s a subscription service for just about every aspect of your life now. From your wardrobe and whiskey to your razors and condoms, you can outsource even your most personal needs.
Since January of last year, VNYL has been curating record collections for its subscribers, sending monthly shipments of hand-picked LPs. The company has been gaining significant momentum lately. It just opened a boutique storefront at the Goodland Hotel in Santa Barbara, California, in conjunction with Kimpton Hotels, and it turned heads earlier this month with the unveiling of TRNTBL, the world’s first wireless record player.
But despite the recent success, reviews of VNYL’s shipments have been mixed at best. Curious, I decided to see if a startup could really find my next favorite record.
VNYL essentially updates the concept of a subscription music service for the Internet era. The business model borrows from those BMG deals of the ’90s: You know, the ones found in junk mail and glossy magazines offering “12 CDs for for the price of 1,” followed by one new release at list price per month.
The difference with VNYL is that it uses social data points to hone in on your interests, and your monthly LPs are ultimately hand-selected by VNYL’s staff. Customers can choose to have either one or three new records sent per month, for $22 or $39, respectively (shipping included), with slightly discounted rates for three- and 12-month commitments. You can sync your Spotify, Facebook, SoundCloud, and Discogs accounts, essentially allowing the staff to thumb through your record collection and see what you’re listening to in real time.
In setting up my profile, I was first asked to choose a “vibe” from one of six hashtags that no one on Twitter would actually consider tweeting: #SundayFunday, #Cooking, #Prom. Two of the options weren’t even vibes; they were just offers for two random albums, Autolux’s new electro-thriller Pussy’s Dead or the Fugees’ classic The Score.
#GameNight, with its accompanying Spotify playlist of the Black Keys, Gang of Four, the Ramones, and Black Sabbath, among others, looked ideal. There was even some overlap with some of the artists I referenced on VNYL’s accompanying questionnaire:
- How many vinyl albums do you currently own? 101-200
- What traditional genres are you interested in? Indie, metal, blues, rock, soul/funk
- Favorite artists or albums, not just recent favorites but those classics you grew up with? Roky Erickson, Father John Misty, the Stooges, Willie Nelson, Boris, LCD Soundsystem
- What music—artists, albums, genres—SHOULD NOT be in your VNYL shipment? Top 40, pop country
With all of that info to work from, there’s little left to chance. Or so you would think.
When VNYL launched last year, after raising $36,000 via Kickstarter, the feedback was the startup equivalent of a severely scratched record.
The problem, in part, stemmed from the company’s initial pitch as the “Netflix for vinyl”—the idea being that if customers didn’t like the records they received, they could swap them out for different selections. Doing so, however, would have actually violated a portion of U.S. copyright law called the first-sale doctrine, which, as Stereogum explained shortly after VNYL’s launch, makes it illegal to lease, rent, or lend records for commercial purposes.
That wouldn’t have been as noticeable of a problem if people actually wanted to keep the records they received, but the general consensus seemed to be that people were getting bargain-bin records, the kind you find in abundance at Goodwills and estate sales—and they couldn’t find any info online about how to return the records.
“I am highly dissatisfied with what I was sent,” Bill LaMonaca wrote in April of last year on VNYL’s Kickstarter page. “All three were complete losers, and there was no real variety. And I’m not sure how you categorize the records—I would not call Steppenwolf a ‘Lazy Saturday’ listen, nor would I classify Uriah Heep as ‘Dinner Music.’”
VNYL backer Rafael Macho commented on Kickstarter April 21: “Hello Vnyl, how do I return the records I don’t want? I can’t find on your website any info… nor there was a Netflix-like envelope with the last shipment. There is no help or contact info on your website. Seriously?”
An email exchange between VNYL founder Nick Alt and a disgruntled subscriber, shared with Stereogum, ended with this scathing critique: “If you looked at my Discogs and thought that Jefferson Airplane, Dan Fogelberg, and ENGLAND DAN AND JOHN FORD COLEY were albums I would like, you need to re-assess your business, dude, because it’s not working. I’m not giving those records to anyone, I’m sending them back to you and I don’t even give a shit if you give me my money back. Go pawn that shit off on someone else.”
Surely things have improved in the last year, right?
I received my first VNYL shipment last month, as part of a free one-month trial for the purposes of this article. It looked something like this:
I landed Dinosaur Jr.’s 2007 comeback LP, Beyond—a surprisingly solid album by reunion-record standards, though I much prefer 2009’s Farm and the band’s back catalog; Cape Dory, the 2011 dream-pop debut by Tennis; and a throwaway record by Elliot Moss that sounds like Pura Filter James Blake.
All things considered, those three wouldn’t be a bad deal for $39, but I found the logic puzzling. I had encouraged VNYL to be adventurous with its selections, but only Dinosaur Jr. really fit the intended vibe. The accompanying note said that one and Tennis were selected because I had tracks by them on my annual best-of playlists on Spotify, but if I wanted those records, which I obviously heard, it’s safe to assume that I would’ve picked them up by now.
VNYL has a real opportunity to provide that same experience remotely.
Those LPs are a clear step up from the dust-bin albums VNYL was shipping just a year ago, but I can’t shake the feeling that what I really got was thoughtfully curated overstock. And given the relatively low subscription cost, which includes shipping, that’s really the only way the business model makes sense. I just bought two records today that I hoped would be in my package—White Denim’s Stiff and Explosions in the Sky’s The Wilderness—and it cost me $54. The only way that VNYL could afford to include new releases would be to do significant volume, and if that were the case, it would be difficult for VNYL to add a more personal touch.
Of course, VNYL could become a loss leader for TRNTBL, an easy entry point for its high-end vinyl record player, but even if it doesn’t, I still think there’s a tremendous opportunity for VNYL. Record store employees get a bad wrap. We picture Jack Black in High Fidelity—the dismissive clerk who actually makes you feel worse every time you visit the store—or the sort of “I was there when” hipster canonized in LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.”
But that’s never been my experience, no matter where I’ve been: Jackpot Records in Portland, Oregon; Amoeba in San Francisco; or even the Sub Pop store in the Seattle airport. I’ve bought countless LPs based solely on “employee’s picks,” and there have been multiple times when I’ve asked clerks I trust, especially at End of an Ear, a specialty shop in Austin, Texas, to pick out things they think I’d like.
VNYL has a real opportunity to provide that same experience remotely, especially for people who live in small towns, potentially hours away from a decent record store. In particular, I was encouraged by the way VNYL uses the messaging platform Slack to create a makeshift community online. The company has Slack rooms, or channels, devoted to trading tips on record storage and recent finds, swapping stories from concerts, and sharing what you’re currently listening to. You’ll find most of VNYL’s team in Slack, including CEO Nick Alt, hanging out and contributing to the larger conversations. It’s clear they’re passionate about music and the service they provide, and that real-time effort goes a long way to ease concerns and the occasional disappointment.
Other online music retailers like Amazon might offer relevant titles based on your buying history, but that’s a cold, calculated transaction. It will never surprise or delight the way that a service like VNYL could. Like most great bands, VNYL just needs more time to hone its sound and vision.
Correction: The VNYL record store is located at the Goodland Hotel in Santa Barbara, California.