By Dave Thompson
Most readers of a certain age will remember the golden age of record clubs — a box-load of vinyl for a cheap, introductory price, and then a commitment to buy a set number of LPs at full price over the course of the next year or so.
It was (and it remains) a great sounding deal, and a terrific way, too, of building a collection — even in those days when the price of an LP was still measured as a percentage of your weekly pocket money and not hiked up to reflect its exclusivity and snob-appeal. “Oh, I see you only have the CD. I picked up the vinyl, it was twice the price, consumes twice the space, and will probably be scratched in a week. But I guess music just means more to me.”
Those days are gone (the days of record clubs, that is; not of being bled dry for five-bucks-worth of plastic and cardboard), but their spirit lives on among a fast-growing assortment of modern-day trends that themselves range from clubs that you actively join and partake in, to those who hope you’ll just keep an eye on their offerings and purchase the ones that appeal.
ReplyYes leads the field in that latter department, a text service that suggests one album a day every day, and if you want to buy it — you reply ‘yes.’ Born of the food-delivery service Peach, which offers customers a particular lunch dish every day, ReplyYes was an attempt — a successful one, too — to “do something really different.”
According to ReplyYes CEO Dave Cotter, “We wanted to provide a service to people who love to collect and consume their passion. Vinyl made immediate sense as we were already vinyl junkies and knew that records are an extension of a person’s personality, their identity and an important ritual in their lives.
“There are few things that are as self-expressive as listening to vinyl. The ritual of listening to a record is something that involves you, your space and those around you. With a record you aren’t distracted by 10 million other choices, or audio-ads, and it isn’t lost as a misnamed file in the depths of your hard drive, it’s a one-to-one connection with a physical object produced by the artist specifically for your listening experience.”
Focusing on new releases and reissues, “our goal is to be the neighborhood record store in your pocket, listening to your requests and helping you discover music you’ll love. We know that half the fun of a record store is not knowing what you’re going to discover; digging is its own delight.”
For 50,000 users in the U.S. (international expansion is on its way), ReplyYes does the digging for you — you let them know, whether through purchases or direct comment, the music you’re interested in, and a combination of computer algorithms and in-house advisors does the rest. They’ll also do their best to answer any music-related questions you might have — again, like a neighborhood record store.
“You text us ‘Led Zeppelin IV?’ Our AI immediately sends you a (price). You text us “Send me that Led Zeppelin album with the old guy carrying the sticks”? Or “How ‘bout something that sounds like the band Spirit”? Those questions will go to one of our team members.”
As for what they carry, the quick answer is — if it’s available, they’ll get it. The service’s bestsellers testify to the range of audience: Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” “Led Zeppelin IV” and Nirvana’s “Nevermind”; but really the sky’s the limit, and it’s reasonably priced as well. Single LP prices average around $22, plus $3 shipping.
If ReplyYes look to replicate the record store experience, suggesting discs they think you’ll like, Vinyl Me, Please is more like the elder sibling who hands you a new album every month and tells you, simply, to listen.
The VMP record club was originally formed to introduce customers to new releases, and regular pressings, by lesser-known bands. Over time, however, it moved to more exclusive offerings, limited edition pressings of sometimes new, sometimes classic albums (Diarrhea Planet’s “I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams” was the first, in 2014; Weezer’s “Pinkerton” and Fugees’ “The Score” among the most recent).
VMP CEO Matt Fiedler explains, “We want to make sure that each package is something unique so we spend a lot of time putting them together. We work with the labels and artists and brainstorm ideas with the goal of helping them put their best foot forward.”
Colored vinyl, unique booklets and handwritten letters are among the bonuses that come with your monthly subscription; art prints are included with every offering; and (as the name suggests), it’s vinyl all the way.
Fiedler admits “I grew up with CDs, so they have a special place in my heart but vinyl, to me, is so much more compelling as a format. Listening to vinyl has a certain ritual to it that other formats just don’t have. There’s nothing romantic or magical about putting a CD into a CD player. But dropping a needle, hearing the cracks and pops before the music starts, getting up to flip the record over … all of those things create an experience that brings people closer to the music. I (also) think the fact that people are more willing to take a chance with vinyl.”
Some collectors will squirm a little at the thought of colored vinyl — for a long time, after all it had a dreadful reputation, sound-wise. Recent releases seem to have remedied that, and listening right now to the Fugees album, it’s really impressive. So what has changed?
“The manufacturing process, while still archaic in some ways, has improved tremendously,” says Fiedler. “There is still a wide spectrum of quality but we make it a point to work with top-notch manufacturers. They take it just as seriously as we do and we have pretty high standards. They use better materials and have better processes, which results in a better finished product.”
VMP have even moved into remastering occasional albums themselves (Big Bill Broonzy, for one), and it’s this devotion to quality, coupled with the aforementioned limited availability of releases that raises VMP high above any record club you may recall from your youth, and into a whole new realm of unique collectibles altogether.
There it is joined not by another club, but a simply staggering series of similarly high quality, low pressing, customized releases produced by the New England chain of stores Newbury Comics, and available not by subscription, not by text, but simply by visiting the stores (or else, their website) and buying what you fancy.
Of course the series was collector-driven. According to Newbury Comics’ Carl Mello, “seeing customer reaction to available limited vinyl pieces made us aware there could be a market for this type of reissue series. From there, it was all about drawing up a list of albums and approaching our label and distribution partners to see if this was something we could achieve. We’ve thankfully gotten plenty of support in bringing this initiative to life.”
There have been some 250 releases so far, in heavyweight vinyl and vivid colors (Elvis at Stax arrives in half-gold, half-black wax, and it might be the most striking of the bunch … might) and ranging across the sonic spectrum.
From John Fahey and Roky Erickson to Jimi Hendrix (a beautiful “Electric Ladyland”) and Robert Plant/Alison Krauss; punk and new wave, ‘50s jazz and ‘90s alternative; the first Public Image and the latest Belle and Sebastian… the list is astonishing. And all have received the NC treatment — they look and sound great. Plus, coming soon, “the Velvet Underground, Sun Kil Moon, Guided by Voices, Jack Kerouac, the MC5 and many more.”
Mello: “I think the expectations are higher of a colored vinyl release in 2016 than they might have been 30 or 40 years ago. Contrary to received wisdom, much of the vinyl produced 40 years ago was diabolical sound-wise, and colored vinyl would have been seen as more of a novelty (and treated as such) than a playable good. In 2016, if you’re selling someone a record (colored or no), they better be able to get enjoyment out of playing it. Everyone has so many entertainment choices, so, the manufacturer, the label, the distributor, the retailer, etc… have to up their game or lose out.”
New releases are decided by a committee of three; “and if two people are up for a title, we give it a shot. On occasion, if one person feels strongly enough about a title, we give that a shot, too. The three of us are all voracious music fans, with interests spanning from modern classical to hip-hop to ‘60s psych to jazz to modern indie to power electronics to folk to … you get the idea! We all obsess about music constantly, so, we’ve been doing ‘research’ for this series our whole lives.”
And collectors have responded strongly, both to the releases and to the vinyl-specific newsletter that falls into their in-box whenever a new album is due. Mello continues, “It’s very important to communicate directly with your best customers and we want to make sure they find out about things they may be interested in first! We’re up to our 250th or so release at this point, so I’m not sure that anybody has them all (if somebody reading this actually does have them all, please get in touch!), but many are very regular customers.”