Netflix for Vinyl? Startup Will Let Subscribers Rent Albums

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 01.09.15 in News

Vinyl subscription clubs are about to get a new 21st-century spin. In August, we reported that services such as Vinyl Me, Please, where subscribers receive an album each month selected by the young company, were finding a space for themselves amid vinyl’s ongoing resurgence. Now (via Gizmodo/Mic) comes a new entrant to the field being billed as “the Netflix of vinyl records.”

Comparisons to the popular video rental service are a handy, if inexact, way of explaining the idea behind VNYL, a subscription-based vinyl startup that has more than doubled its $10,000 Kickstarter funding goal ahead of today’s deadline. Users say what they’re in the mood for, and then the VNYL team will pick out three vinyl LPs to send based on that selection. Listeners can keep the records as long as they want, then either send them back in prepaid shipping materials or buy the ones they want to keep.

Given the growing market for vinyl albums, the concept makes sense in a “why didn’t I think of that” way, especially for listeners who are just starting their collections. New vinyl album sales were up 52 percent last year to 9.2 million copies, for their seventh straight annual record high since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track in 1991. Where Vinyl Me, Please offers a single, hand-picked vinyl exclusive each month, VNYL takes what looks like a logical next step, keeping the personal curation but broadening into Netflix-style, no-return-date rentals (with, yes, the option to own).

Nick Alt, VNYL’s 35-year-old founder, tells Wondering Sound he was brought up listening to records and never stopped. “To me it’s really interesting to introduce a new audience to vinyl,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles.  “Ever since I’ve had disposable income, music is all I’ve spent my money on. My first job was working at the now-defunct Camelot Music in Toledo, Ohio.”

Once VNYL’s user base expands beyond its Kickstarter backers, subscribers will pay a monthly fee, though the specific amount is still being determined, Alt says (about $15 is the goal). Records selected will be both old and new, which will affect the cost of the vinyl that people choose to keep. VNYL has about 10 people on the team right now, and it’s hiring, with plans to reach 15 or 20 staffers in the second quarter of this year.

While VNYL’s most natural fit might be the audience now discovering vinyl, Alt says the service isn’t necessarily targeting a particular set of listeners. He hopes its appeal ranges from vinyl newcomers who just got their first turntable from Urban Outfitters for Christmas to hip-hop sample-seekers and audiophiles who appreciate vinyl’s distinct sound. There’s certainly ample precedent for subscription-based music services, going back to the old Columbia House Record Club.

VNYL, which launched its Kickstarter campaign last month, has been in the works for about a year, Alt says, and he has more in mind than the general “Netflix for vinyl” analogy suggests. Alt’s background is on the digital side, including Appetites, a cooking app, and Echograph, a GIF-making app bought in 2013 by video service Vimeo.

There might even be a whiff of Silicon Valley to how VNYL subscribers will make their selections: from a list of “#vibes” (for instance, “#danceparty” or “#betweenthesheets”), rather than by genre or some other, more traditional categorization. But, again, the records themselves will be picked by actual people. And there’s no getting around the physical differences between shipping a DVD, as Netflix does, and shipping 12-inch vinyl LPs.

“It’s going to increase our cost basis,” Alt acknowledges of mailing vinyl. “We’re aware of it. We know what we’re getting ourselves into. There’s going to be pitfalls with any new type of thing that comes along.”

If VNYL catches on beyond its roughly 500 Kickstarter backers, where it might ultimately set itself apart is by connecting the analogue and the online. Alt wants VNYL to have a social aspect.

“The only thing that Netflix never did is building a community around the content,” he says. “I know there’s a bunch of other people who are into watching comedy specials on Netflix, but I don’t know anyone else who’s watching them. I can’t easily post that to Facebook.

“What’s different about our service of vinyl that’s not like Netflix is this whole digital layer that we’re going to put on top of it.”