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I love Flexi-discs. One of the most memorable events in my earliest phase of taking collecting music media seriously (and believe me when I say I was just a kid), was discovering a Flexi-disc for the very first time.
Sometime in the early-mid ‘80s, I’d been looking through a box of 7-inch 45 rpm singles, that my ‘collector father’ kept separate from the rest of his collection, full of ‘special’ records that he and my mother collected together (for the most part) before marriage, when they were high school sweethearts. In that box I found a bendable piece of plastic that looked like a record, complete with a white paper picture sleeve, and it read – “RADIO - The ‘30s & ‘40s” – containing old time radio programs from the past. It was distributed as a promotional item by Gibraltar Savings and Loan here in the U.S., for customers opening new accounts (circa 1972). That one record fascinated me so much, that it piqued my interest, so far as to me wondering if there were any more of these cool flexible records that could be found.
My second encounter – slightly earlier than this first 'Flexi-encounter', I'd discovered MAD Magazine and became a die-hard fan. It all came about, being influenced by the son of my maternal grandparents' best friends. Obviously, their son [Howard] was much older, but I would visit with him (mostly during the summertime) when my grandfather would take me over their house to go swimming. He had a massive collection of the magazine, and after swimming I would spend the remainder of my time there, digging through his extensive collection (as it was much, much larger than mine I'd started only earlier that year). I remember the issue – Super Special Number Twenty-Six (1978) – having been published way before my time of even knowing what MAD Magazine was. And even though the cover sported a picture of Alfred E. Neuman’s face in the middle of a record, it did not prepare me for what I would find inside, lodged between the pages. “MAD Magazine presents ‘Makin’ Out’,” was the title of the beautiful, shiny Flexi-disc, that starred me in the face, and started me on a serious journey and into a love affair with this bendable-musical-novelty.
What is a Flexi-disc? – Concisely, a Flexi-disc is a sound [music] medium format, likened to a traditional 7-inch vinyl record, in size and shape (though other shapes have been produced over the history of the format). They are usually manufactured on very thin [.75mm] single layered vinyl sheets, with a moulded [not pressed] stylus groove, and a center hole to directly fit turntable spindles. They can also be manufactured “card backed” — a thin cardboard backing with an extremely thin laminate layer, which contains the stylus groove and the recorded sound.
Flexi-discs as promotional items – As early as the 1900’s the idea of resin-covered cardboard ‘cards’ [talking postcard] that could contain recorded sound and be used to mail audible messages from sender to receiver [played back on a phonograph], never really took-off. The idea of using the same type of process to record music ‘for retail sale’ and replace brittle shellac records (circa 1930’s) also died out with the country still recovering from a depression. However, in 1962, the reinvented production process and idea behind Flexi-discs (launched with the marketing name, Eva-tone Soundsheet), was a success, yet utilized strictly for promotional campaigning. They were mostly found attached to the binding of a magazine, internally, within the center page of the publication, with a micro-perforated edge that would allow for being detached and played. In fact, though most of the recorded material found on promotional flexi-discs was popular music, syndicated radio shows, narrated stories, etc., the purpose was not to promote the entertainment recorded on the discs, but instead, to use as an incentive so that customers would become interested in purchasing the issue, or subscribing to the publication that included this hidden gem. Almost as soon as the format became commercial, and the popularity of the medium began to increase, the entertainment industry (namely the recording industry) began seeing the possibilities in directly utilizing this type of media to promote and publicize recording artists and the music that was being marketed, in a creative way, on a cost effective medium.
One of the earliest and most notable moves towards that ‘tactic’ was The Beatles’ use of Flexi-discs to send ‘thank you’ speeches and messages to their fans. Eventually, in ‘63, they began using the format to record promotional Christmas music, that would be exclusively sent to the members of their international fan club, and would perpetuate through to 1969, just a year before their disbandment. And though the medium wasn’t manufacturable to a standard good enough to be used as a mainstream retail product, it began to gain momentum as a bona fide and novel way to promote recording acts with ‘exclusive songs’ or as ‘samplers’ for upcoming releases.
Since the invent of the format, for the majority of its commercial use, the most common way that music fans and music collectors alike were able to obtain Flexi-disc-promotionals, was though the increasing practice of magazines and fan publications including them as bonus items. I mentioned in the very beginning, the frequent inclusion of Flexi-discs in special editions of MAD magazine. However, even educational publications such as National Geographic utilized this promotional aid, for example, one time giving their readers a playable disc that contained the ‘songs of whales’. And it was in 1980 that the newly formed music and pop-culture British publication – Flexipop! – would make this practice mainstream by being the first magazine in the world to include a Flexi-disc (from varied artist’s) in each issue during its entire four year run (1980-83). Since that time until now, music publications, fanzines, and pop-culture magazines have used this medium to promote their own publications while at the same time, helping to launch independent artists, promoting upcoming music, releasing exclusive music, and the like. I have personally seen (and own) a multitude of Flexi’s distributed by major music publications and less mainstream magazines throughout the world. To this very day, the popularity of this type of music promotion is increasing as never before.
Flexis as retail items – Not as common as the promotional aspect behind the format, is the intermittent but uincreasing use of Flexi-discs for bands to inexpensively introduce their music into the retail arena. However, in the majority, these are bands that would be considered “LoFi” or garage-level bands, who purposefully use this format to sell their music, while keeping the cost of getting their music out there, down. In an early example, the Punk Rock genre is one whose artists greatly took advantage of this benefit, and there are many Flexi’s out there to this day, from great underground Punk acts, whose Flexi-discs have become rare and highly collectible. In recent years, the novelty of the seemingly fragile, flimsy Flexi-disc has exploded into popularity and desirability more than ever before. So much so, that there have been established independent record companies that have put out series of releases exclusively on Flexi-disc format, as well as, indie labels that have been established and built on the sole basis of only releasing music artists of the Flexi-disc medium. Even some major label imprints have taken to the novelty and released Flexi-discs to retail.
For example: The hardcore Metal publication – Decibel Magazine – began their well-known Flexi Series as promotional items solely for bands who they’d featured in their publication. However now, you can purchase the Decibel Flexi Series in retail Box Sets, from the magazine, or by chance from a retail vendor online. On Bandcamp, you can peruse and find a plethora of indie bands selling their music on physical media via Flexi-discs. Third Man Records has [for years] done and continues to do several limited-edition retail releases on Flexi’s! And, one of the most notable in the present time, is the very-well-put-together and unique indie label – Vinyl Post – who through their monthly subscription, release new singles by independent artists, on a 5 X 7 inch rectangular Flexi-disc, in the shape of a postcard. They used to produce them as high quality ‘card-backed’ discs (with the reverse resembling a mailable post card), but have graduated their releases to an even higher quality, thicker-gauge vinyl Flexi, with matching [shape-wise] promotional inserts and an actual mailable postcard with personalized message from the artist (see images)... and yes, I'm a subscriber.
Misconceptions of playback – It seems there are two types of music collectors when it comes to sound – collectors whose focus is solely on the music media and give little or no detailed attention to their playback equipment, and collectors who are just as concerned about the quality of their ‘audio gear’ as they are their music collection. The latter are normally referred to as “Audiophiles” or “Stereophiles” – I, am one of those. And while the sound that is produced from a Flexi is miles and miles from ‘audiophile quality,’ I feel qualified to share a little information that might put a collector at ease and erase some of the negative stigma that goes along with the Flexi-disc medium. Many people who I’ve spoken to in the past, have this misconception that either, the Flexi is going to ruin their stylus [needle], or that the stylus is going to simply damage and eventually cut right through the Flexi. Good news – neither of those schools of thought hold any truth. Another thought process is that all Flexi-discs are sonically negligent and have no way to produce enjoyable sound… that is not entirely true. While the majority of Flexi-disc records have mediocre sonic playback capability, it does not mean that you can’t get an enjoyable listen from a Flexi-disc. And, with the quality of the production of Flexi’s getting better and better, so does the opportunity for better sound.
The main issue with poorer sound quality is the instability of most Flexi-discs with the slight inability to lay as flat as it should on the turntable platter, coupled with the lack of density of the record. One easy and quick way to combat this, is to buffer the Flexi by playing it on top of an actual 7-inch 45 rpm vinyl record. Another very prevalent issue, is the average stylus weight that modern phono cartridges are suggested, by the manufacturer, to be set at. Those established weight parameters (known as ‘tracking force’) are too heavy to produce the best playback sound on a Flexi-disc. The problem is that the stylus is being pushed into the groove so heavily, that it is contacting the bottom of the groove where there is no recorded information. How do I personally fix this problem? I try to establish a set time to sit and enjoy 'only' my Flexi-disc collection, then I adjust the tracking force on my stylus to between .25 grams — .5 grams lighter than what my tracking force is normally set to (depending on the original tracking force weight recommendation). This will greatly help, so that the stylus isn’t pushing too heavily down into the grooves of the Flexi-disc. Then, when I’m finished with my listening session, I simply reset the tracking force back to where I normally would have it set. Voilà!
My biggest and most valuable suggestion regarding collecting and listening to Flexi-discs is this – “don’t take them too seriously.” Take them for what they are – fun to collect, fun to listen to, but still, a novelty. If you realize that they are not made to be played in rotation like standard vinyl records, and limit your listening time to every once in a while, and, if you lower your sonic-expectations to a realistic level; you will find yourself traveling down another “rabbit hole,” as you fall in love with Flexi-discs.
Contact TONE Scott at GoldmineMagazine@GoldmineMag.com. Please put Adventures in Music Collecting in the subject line.