Vinyl Subscription Clubs Find a Narrow Groove

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 08.20.14 in News
@marchogan

Vinyl Me, Please got Sylvan Esso back on the charts. The North Carolina dance-pop duo’s self-titled debut, which bowed at No. 39 on the Billboard 200, had slipped from the ranking by the time it became the subscription-based vinyl club’s July “record of the month.” The team at Partisan Records credits that sales bump for knocking Sylvan Esso back onto the weekly album chart.

“Getting a debut record onto 1,300 turntables definitely feels good,” says Catie Ginsburg, marketing coordinator at Partisan, in an email response to questions.

As vinyl experiences its own slight return, so too are vinyl subscription services. The idea of record clubs is at least as old as Columbia House and, on an indie level, Sub Pop‘s Singles Club. Recent years have brought the rise of not only start-up vinyl curation programs like Vinyl Me, Please, but also subscription offerings from online retailers such as Insound and labels as big as Third Man Records.

They’re a niche in a niche market, and they’re a widely varying bunch. But subscription record clubs have a role to play in vinyl’s revival, even as they run up against some of the same assumptions and capacity challenges that affect the format more generally.

Ben Swanson, co-founder of Secretly Canadian — the label that released Vinyl Me, Please’s August “record of the month,” the War on Drugs‘ Lost in the Dream — sees the rise of subscription services as part of a bigger trend.

“There’s this movement within the retail landscape of various chains or mail order companies of trying to get exclusive versions of vinyl,” Swanson says over the phone. “They come to us and say, ‘Hey, we’re really like this record, we’re guaranteed a buy-in of x amount, can we get can get an exclusive color?’”

The “exclusives” boom isn’t limited to subscription services. New England-based chain Newbury Comics, for one, sells an array of vinyl albums in store-only color options. But the subscription providers try to offer something else of their own, too, whether that’s a communal experience, previously unreleased music or simply the convenience for busy listeners of having a monthly record pre-selected. On the other hand, paying ahead of time without knowing what record you’ll get requires a certain amount of trust.

Vinyl Me, Please fit charges $23 a month for an annual subscription, which includes an exclusive, limited-edition record each month picked out by the Vinyl Me, Please team. Each record comes with a recipe for a recommended cocktail pairing, and there’s also a weekly music-news digest called The Standard. The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream is on subscriber-only mint-green vinyl.

Tyler Barstow, who launched the Boulder, Colorado-based service in January 2013 with co-founder Matt Fielder, says they now have “a few thousand” subscribers, up from only a couple of hundred at the start of this year. The built-in sales have made it fairly easy to talk labels into exclusives, but Barstow gets passionate when he’s discussing the vinyl format. “We really are big on getting people to slow down,” the 26-year-old says. “There’s something about the listening experience of vinyl that we want to bring to as many people as we possibly can.”

Insound started its subscription program in November 2009. “One noteworthy thing about our record club,” says Nicole Johnson, Insound’s co-director and buyer, in an email response, “is that each month a different member of our staff selects the record and does a little write up that we print out and include with the shipment. This definitely ensures good variety — the subscriber might get garage rock one month and hip hop the next.” (She didn’t specify how many subscribers the service currently have, but Insound is in the midst of moving warehouses this week.)

When it comes to standalone vinyl subscription services, another option beyond Vinyl Me, Please is Feedbands, an “experimental crowdsourced record company” where $14.95 a month gets you a monthly vinyl first pressing of an independent album picked by subscribers. The pro-vinyl sales pitch is a bit strong — “Any true music lover will tell you that vinyl offers the absolute best experience,” indeed — but I can imagine the appeal of helping support an up-and-coming band (Feedbands didn’t respond to requests for comment). For $25 a month, Turntable Kitchen will send a monthly box containing a limited-edition seven-inch single, plus seasonal recipes, a few dried ingredients and a digital mix. For $24€ ($32), That Special Record sends out two “underground house & techno records.”

Though not a monthly subscription program — members can choose which records to buy — Vinyl Loop operates on a similar principle. Those who sign up (for free) have access to exclusive deals for vinyl records, where they can pay as little as $15 for the record, free shipping and various possible add-ons. Recent deals include records by JJ, Sharon Van Etten and Parquet Courts. Founder Sonny Byrd says he started selling records in June 2012 and now has 10,000 subscribers on the site.

“Vinyl Loop doesn’t just sell a record,” the 27-year-old says. “I sell an exclusive package around a record. Every time. no matter what record I’m carrying, I’m either selling it at the lowest price in the world, or it’s coming with exclusive content that you can’t get elsewhere. That’s a big differentiator for me.”

Other subscription clubs tend to be linked to more traditional stores or labels. The shop Good City Records in Jamestown, New York, runs Record Friends, which costs $24 a month for a selected independent record, plus discounts on other releases. Jack White’s label, Third Man Records, has released dozens of vinyl exclusives through its Vault subscription series, though a rep for the label says it keeps its subscriber numbers “under lock and key”; subscriptions start at $20 a month. Merge Records is in the midst of its $125 subscription-based 25th-anniversary box set. London has the Too Pure singles series; Portland label Mississippi Records has a subscription program.

Sometimes record clubs, like all good things, sometimes must come to an end. Grapefruit Record Club, a joint venture between Ben Goldberg of indie label Ba Da Bing and singer/songwriter Simon Joyner, is calling it quits as a subscription service after four years. But the club’s previous records, ranging from releases by Lambchop to the Dead C, are still available to buy on the site.

“Basically, we are working in very small quantities to a very niche market,” Joyner says in an email. “If we had been willing to mix in some big sellers here and there to partly fund the unknown artists we were championing, we’d have been able to go a little longer but we have no regrets, it was an amazing four years of rigorous challenging music we are very proud to have gotten out on vinyl.”

Demand could be an issue for any of the smaller vinyl subscription services, especially depending on how long the resurgence of interest in vinyl continues. And the influx of exclusive vinyl colors is just one more hurdle in the manufacturing process, where the number of vinyl presses remains relatively fixed, despite the addition of new capacity now and then. But as long as there are music listeners who love vinyl, there could be a place for vinyl subscription services, just as there was in the Columbia House and Sub Pop singles club days.

Don’t expect dozens and dozens of Vinyl Me, Please-like services popping up online, but there may be room for about a half-dozen, if each carves out a distinctive space. “It’s an interesting dynamic,” says Secretly Canadian’s Swanson. “The sites are starting to get more prevalent. It’s tough to say how much more crowded that field can get. Vinyl, while growing, is not a massive market.” What happens with vinyl subscription clubs may mirror the fate of vinyl itself.