Fred Mills: VNYL Pt. 2 – For the 2nd Round, the Subscription Service Ups Its Game

VNYL

Second time’s the charm, eh folks? In our latest shipment, the arrival of choice LPs from the esteemed Fat Possum, Ubiquity and Glassnote labels—including a just-released album—suggests that the VNYL folks heard the withering criticisms and realized they had to do it right this time around. Guess what? They succeeded! (Go HERE to read Part 1, “Love Will Find a Way: The VNYL Subscription Service Blows It?”)

BY FRED MILLS

I’m almost tempted to publish just the header and subhead and be done with my latest, second report on the VNYL record subscription service (motto: “Join the record club of your dreams”). For my above description pretty much summarizes in full what happened with the second installment of my three-shipment subscription, which I initiated back in the early spring by pledging to the startup’s Kickstarter campaign.

To recap briefly: recall that a couple of months ago I wrote about my first shipment, which yielded a trio of aesthetically moldy (if, condition-wise, clean, shiny, and mold/scratch-free) slabs of ‘70s drek, namely Worlds Away by soft-rockers Pablo Cruise, Hydra by the ever-pompous, eternally sterile Toto, and Make Love to the Music by Leon Russell (along with wife Mary Russell) at a point in his career when he most assuredly was not The Master Of Space And Time. These were, put charitably, 99 cent bargain bin titles, the kind that BLURT’s sister business, Raleigh-Durham’s Schoolkids Records, can’t even move during half-off sales. In that report I also provided some background and context for how VNYL operates and included details and anecdotes from other media outlets and frustrated subscribers; my conclusion wasn’t necessarily as harsh as some of the others, many of whom flatly stated they thought the club was a scam, but I did point out that in the wake of a fairly appealing Kickstarter campaign, the ultimate execution was a huge misfire and a public relations disaster.

VNYL 1st

“While I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield,” I wrote at the time, “this initial installment in the series is not all that encouraging. In fact, it reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about Australian table wines: this is a shipment with a message, and the message is “beware.” In 2015, nobody is going to their local record store and looking for records by Pablo Cruise, Toto and Leon & Mary Russell, much less willing to pay twelve freakin’ dollars for a copy.”

Sharp-eyed readers will also recall that after I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums, the response to my post ultimately yielded a message board thread that ran for well over a month—and still generates comments to this day. Translation: it’s a topic that was not only resonated with the entire Hoffman community of record and audio geeks, it also generated the type of sputtering outrage and withering sarcasm generally saved for, I dunno, Justin Bieber (or, in an earlier era, Courtney Love). Concurrently, Stereogum had also taken a look at the matter in an article titled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess” and the consensus over there wasn’t much rosier. Worse, for VNYL at least, the comments section at the actual VNYL Kickstarter page was overflowing with frustration, with more than one angry backer indicating they had filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

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Needless to say, I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to my second shipment. But as I had signed up via the Kickstarter campaign, you could say my check had already been cashed, so I sat back and waited. And waited. And waited…

The first shipment had arrived on May 13, but by July 2 nothing else had arrived. During that time frame I had moved so, while my mail was being forwarded, I realized I should update my address with VNYL and then inquire—politely—about the delay. Lo and behold, I received a reply in less than 24 hours, impressive for any business’s customer service relations department, letting me know that they got the address update, but that I had not yet selected the “vibes” category for my second shipment—clearly my mistake. I immediately logged in at http://my.vnyl.org and made the selection of “#poolparty” for my vibes, having already taken a test run with #work for the initial shipment. Then I sat back and waited. And waited. And…

By July 24 nothing had arrived so I emailed the same staffer who had been so prompt with my earlier inquiry, and received the following reply, also in less than 24 hours: “Hi Fred – We apologize for the delay on that! One of our team members actually did a special order for your second Kickstarter order for you, and it’s taking a little longer to come in than we anticipated. It should be shipping out next week. I think you’re really going to love the shipment and I promise it will be worth the wait!”

Fair enough. But interestingly, one of the aforementioned Kickstarter backers’ comments had stood out. Posted on July 3, it read, in part, “I have experienced [a delay] but I sent them and e-mail asking why was it taking so long, politely. The response i got is they have so much of a demand there is a little backlog in the category that you might of chosen.” Hmm…. Perhaps, just perhaps, this time around VNYL was going to be a bit more professional with its “curation” process, and rather than just grab some bargain bin junk they had lying around to send out, they were actually going to eyeball the members’ profiles (which included likes and dislikes as well as a suggestion that we provide them links to, say, our personal Spotify playlists), and from there come up with a reasonable selection. With that in mind, my curiosity was piqued. So I sat back once again and waited…

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Somewhere in the middle of all this I received two additional emails from VNYL, on separate days, both essentially canned memos sent from the main hello@vnyl.org email address rather than personally drafted by a staffer. The first one, sent in early July, announced that “Your VNYL trial is about to end.” Say what? At that point I’ve only received one shipment, and they’re telling me the trial is about over? Well, I’m guessing that due to the canned nature of the email, it was simply synched to the roughly three-month time frame that the original Kickstarter agreement laid out, so that didn’t really worry me. It was just a standard notification.

What DID get my attention, and keep it, was the second canned email that showed up a couple of weeks later telling me the credit card they had on file was about to expire and I needed to update my billing information. Ha! Well, sorry folks, but I’m going to hold off just a bit on that until I’ve gotten all three shipments guaranteed to me in the Kickstarter agreement—and the credit card situation better not cause any delays or hiccups in my receiving the shipments. Now I know what you are thinking: since I stated in my previous report that when I originally heard about VNYL I decided to pledge during the campaign as much out of curiosity as sensing that there might be an interesting story here for BLURT, maybe I preemptively registered a card I knew would be no good if they subsequently tried to bill me. That’s not the case, however; I just used the card I always use for online shopping, and it was purely by chance that it was set to expire at the end of July. It was only after the fact that I heard of several instances when members did get charged without their authorizations. That duly noted, the lapsed conspiracy theorist in me did briefly consider the possibility that if VNYL has burned through all that Kickstarter funding as well as the money that came in from early subscribers—VNYL also opened a brick and mortar store in Venice, Calif., which couldn’t have been a small expense—then they would need to keep the cash flow moving if they wanted to purchase reasonably attractive product and not bargain bin junk to send out to subscribers. But I’m the kind of person that likes to give folks the benefit of the doubt, so I just didn’t worry about the credit card deal (nor, incidentally, have I registered a new one at VNYL yet).

***

Yesterday was August 17 and my latest VNYL box arrived via media mail, postmarked August 11. I knew it was en route because that same day I got an email announcing it had been shipped. Below you can see the results (extra points if you can identify the logo on the shirt I’m wearing):

Jackson Scott – Melbourne (2013, Fat Possum) hashtag #poolparty $16.99 retail/$12.99 cost

Various Artists Rewind! 5: Original Classics, Re-worked and Rewound Vol.5 (2006, Ubiquity) $15.99 retail/$11.25 cost

Son Lux Bones (2015, Glassnote) $17.99 retail/$12.74 cost

The cost and retail listed are taken from the Alliance Entertainment (AEC) website; AEC is probably the largest distributor of CDs, LPs and DVDs in the US, selling both major label and indie product, and while the cost price is usually somewhat higher than it would be if a store ordered from Sony, Universal or WEA (or, in the case of indie records, directly from the indie labels), with its huge selection and two-day shipping, it’s probably the main distributor for the majority of stores here in the States so the prices are representative (There are other indie distributors around the country as well but none with the same depth of catalog.) The actual retail prices in stores, which are based on the manufacturers’ suggested list prices, will vary depending on their policies—for example, a lot of $16.99 albums might ultimately be priced in their bins at $17.99 or even $18.99. Profit margins are ridiculously thin for vinyl. And it’s non-returnable, too.

All in all, not a bad haul, eh? I think the three titles speak for themselves: sealed, pristine new pieces, not promos or cutouts and definitely not bargain bin leftovers. As I said in my video, the Jackson Scott record didn’t knock me out when I heard it a couple of years ago, but it’s still not a dog. And as I have always dug titles on the Ubiquity label, I am eager to spin the 2-LP Rewind!, what with its eclectic roster of funk and downtempo DJs and musicians serving up an even more eclectic selection of covers, among them Nuspirit Helsinki tackling Led Zep’s “No Quarter,” The Randy Watson Experience (aka ?uestlove and friends) covering Sting’s “Be Still My Waiting Heart” and Danish duo Owusu & Hannibal for—get this—Beach Boys classic “Caroline No.” Regarding the Son Lux platter: I was definitely already a fan and I had definitely not heard the album because it’s not even two months old yet, having been released in late June! Toto, we’re not in moldy ‘70s territory anymore.

VNYL 2nd

As with the previous shipment there was a nice note enclosed from my personal curator, Teal, and it suggested that she did indeed eyeball my VNYL profile to see how she might line up the records with my tastes. “Saw you listen to Little Richard on Spotify,” she wrote, “so think you’ll really enjoy Rewind! 5, an amazing soul compilation… Gave you Son Lux, a post-rock project and rally promising up and comer.” (I had listed post-rock among my “likes” on my profile.)

Big salute to you this time, Teal, and hope there are no hard feelings from my comments a few months ago. I’m not going to be stingy with my kudos here, either, and plan to report back to some of the same correspondents and outlets that I interacted with for my initial commentary. Admittedly, while I’m definitely not eating my words from before—they remain accurate, I believe, and where I engaged in speculation I clearly labeled it as such—I am choosing to believe, for the time being at least, that Round #1 represented an extreme case of growing pains, and for Round #2 the VNYL crew made a concerted effort to up their game, and succeeded.

But Round #3 looms, and I am about to head over to my VNYL account to select my #vibes for it. Leaning towards either #lazysunday or #danceparty this time. What will I get in the mail in (hopefully) another month? Well, that recent deluxe box for the reissue of the Stones’ Sticky Fingers sure seems mighty appealing, hint-hint. But who knows? As the saying goes… to be continued…

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Fred Mills is the editor of BLURT. Extra thanks to Elijah Mills for the camera work. There will be a #poolparty in your honor very soon, bruh.

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