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Fred Mills: VNYL Pt.1 – Did the New Subscription Service Blow It?

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Would YOU pay $12 a pop for crap albums from Toto, Pablo Cruise and Leon & Mary Russell? Ye olde editor engages a hip new subscription service that promises “hand-curated vinyl records” to its eager—and apparently young/newbie—clientele. (Additional reading: Stereogum’s “Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”)

BY FRED MILLS, Blurt Editor

Like many of you, the BLURT braintrust was excited—or, after reading the fine print, at least optimistically enthused—by the January news that a new record subscription service was preparing to launch in a couple of months, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, which would adopt some of the (wildly successful) Netflix model features —but utilizing used vinyl LPs instead of DVDs, and instead of subscribers making their own choices, have their albums picked (“curated,” in today’s misnomer-strewn parlance) by employees of the service. The classic Sub Pop Singles Club and the Vinyl Me, Please services were also cited as inspirations.

Dubbed, somewhat minus-a-vowel cutesily/trendily VNYL (motto: “hand-curated vinyl records delivered to your door”), the service, founded by software/app developer Nick Alt, promised early backers that they would receive their initial shipments in February and the general public in March. As Rolling Stone reported at the time,

For a monthly fee, members of the just-launched venture VNYL can choose from a list of categories, called “#Vibes,” and receive records in the mail much in the same way they used to receive Twin Peaks Season 1 DVDs at home before streaming services. Although it is not set up like Netflix, in the sense that members select the records they want, VNYL still caters to subscribers. Once a member has selected a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance) the company will send three albums curated to fit the “vibe” by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.”

Founder Alt added, “The real magic that I can bring to this is the community aspect. People who listen to vinyl are not connected [the way online users are] unless they go to a record store, so why can’t we bridge that for people who are really into listening to vinyl.”

Fair enough. Yours truly — who has passionately collected vinyl records since the late ‘60s, from LPs to 45s to 78s to even the stray 5” single or flexidisc (ask me sometime about the 10” flexi of Australian indie bands I curated, er, compiled in the ‘80s for rock mag The Bob) — quickly became a backer of the Kickstarter campaign for VNYL, not only feeling seduced by the possibilities but also sensing a great story about what it means to be a collector and lover of records. I pledged, put in my credit card info, then sat back and waited, having been guaranteed three free months’ worth of records (translation: nine LPs), after which I could maintain my official subscription or cancel any time.

As an aside, there’s a good discussion about the numerous online record sub services currently operating over at The Record Collectors Guild. Titled, succinctly, “Review of Vinyl Subscription Services,” it’s mostly positive in tone, basically describing VNYL, Prescribed Vinyl, Feedbands, Vinyl Me Please and Turntable Kitchen in terms of what you get for your dough. It also hands out praise for the brick and mortar record stores that still exist, enthusing, “Enter a museum of 12″ square canvases displaying amazing artworks, each unique to the album they represent. Have a funny conversation with the cynical hipster latte sipping record store employee. Learn something, share something, find new music, re-discover old goodies, buy a brand new record, or buy 5 obscure used ones, it’s all part of the experience.”

***

Part of that experience: Alt mentioned magic. Ask any practicing magician, and he’ll tell you that “magic” comprises a series of illusions that feed off observers’ need or willingness to believe what they are seeing or being told, irrespective of the objective facts.

It was May 13 of this year and my first box from VNYL arrived, postmarked April 29 and shipped via Media Mail from Venice, Calif. (The full address: 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA 90291-3314.) If you are doing the math, you have probably noticed that there’s been a slight delay from the original estimation of when backers and charter subscribers would receive their initial shipments. Intriguingly, in looking at my account profile at VNYL now, it says that I joined on April 5, but it was in early January that I made my Kickstarter pledge. But that’s no problem: the VNYL folks have kept all of us regularly updated, including at least one notification of a slight delay. So far, so good.

Worth noting: backers received an email indicating they needed to officially register and fill out a brief online questionnaire about our musical tastes in order that the VNYL staff might better “curate” our selections—for example, what categories of music we did and did not like, or the URL of our Spotify account/playlist or similar streaming services we utilize. The former was easy enough, and I faithfully documented my likes, which include indie and alternative rock, punk, classic rock, blues, singer-songwriter and more, but not classical, opera, rap and several others. The streaming-service question, however, was pointless: I don’t have a Spotify account for myself, only one that I maintain for BLURT. For that matter I don’t even need a streaming service: I have 10,000 friggin’ records in my collection and another 5,000 CDs. (Full disclosure: I’m in the process of dumping the CDs because their value is rapidly declining; nowadays you can barely get 50 cents a pop for ‘em. Meanwhile, the LPs and 45s are appreciating at roughly the same rate. Hey, Bob Lefsetz, maybe you have a blog post about this soon, hmmm?) And each time I tried to ignore that section of the questionnaire I was blocked from proceeding farther, so finally I just plugged in the URL for BLURT’s Spotify list so I could be done with it.

Canned Heat cookbook

I remained optimistic, and I had checked a box that suggested my initial VNYL three-LP shipment could fall under the general category of #work—I think other categories were #lazysaturday, #danceparty, #betweenthesheets and, uh, #cooking. The latter momentarily made me think of that album Canned Heat Cookbook that I used to own, and how cool it might be to have it again, but because I do most of my listening here at work—oh, did I mention that BLURT shares offices with Raleigh, NC, record store Schoolkids Records, and that I am spinning platters all day long?—it made sense to select that “work” hashtag for my category of preferred LPs for my first shipment.

“Magic” is clearly a relative term. I suppose you could charitably say that my first VNYL batch of goodies made me feel like being on the receiving end of a slick Three-card Monte operation.

Allow me to detail what I just tugged from my pink-interior VNYL box (displayed at the top and below), which also included a nice note from my personal hand-curator, Teal, who had affixed a photo of her smiling for the camera and clutching my records: “Hey Fred, Hope you like the records I chose for you. Love this Pablo Cruise album. Enjoy! – Teal”

 

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Pablo Cruise – Worlds Away (1978, A&M); hashtag #work, $12 value)

Toto – Hydra (1974, Columbia) ditto

Leon & Mary Russell – Make Love to the Music (1977, Paradise) ditto

 

Did you get that? Toto, Leon/Mary Russell, and Pablo Fucking Cruise. Gee, thanks, Teal.

If there is a single record store owner out there reading this right now who has any of the above listed albums in stock and they are NOT in the 99-cent bins, please tell me. Recall that I myself work in a record store, and I have worked in record stores on and off for, cumulatively speaking, nearly 20 years, for extended stints during the ‘70s, the ‘90s and, of course, the past three years during the contemporary vinyl explosion. So I know a little about vinyl. But—Lefsetz mode on here—VNYL values them at $12 apiece, at least that’s what a sticker on each plastic sleeve indicates. Jesus. There’s not a person on the planet who would pay that much for ‘em. They are titles we can barely give away at our store, sitting there in the junk bins alongside the Dan Fogelberg, Loggins & Messina, Poco, George Benson and Eddie Money albums. For $12, we have Dylan, Stones, Neil Young, Reprise-era Kinks, DEVO and the stray early Elvis Costello albums.

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Now let’s be fair: back in the day there were undoubtedly folks who cherished those LPs. The Pablo Cruise album even featured the mega-hit “Love Will Find A Way”; although the Toto album, the band’s second, was a relative flop, commercially speaking (chart monster Toto IV was still three years away), and by the time Leon Russell’s record was released, the songwriter’s hitmaking days were long behind him.

(Caveat emptor: that bassline in the Pablo Cruise song will stick in your head and keep you awake at 4:30 a.m. unless you immediately play some Twisted Sister after it finishes.)

But while each artist had its share of devoted fans, they’ve all since moved on, and it’s unfortunate but true that none of those albums have stood the proverbial test of time. Records from the same general era by, I dunno, Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, KISS, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell have, however, and proof resides right here in my record store: when I get in used records by those artists, they don’t stay in the bins for long (Zep and Floyd are typically gone within 24 hours, in fact). See my above comments about our 99-cent bin….

Pink Floyd

As a side note, I will mention that the records were in outstanding condition, both the sleeves and the actual vinyl. That’s a plus, although it should be a given that VNYL won’t send out platters that look like they’ve been trashed, or that are excessively noisy or even skip.

Bottom line: while I am still interested to see what my next two VNYL shipments will yield, 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. I posted a shortened account of my experience to the popular Steve Hoffman forums; below is typical of the numerous comments made.

 

Ha, well….I thought the idea was odd anyway.

Well, it’s not like first impressions count, or anything.

My guess is VNYL owns a record store a found a new way to get rid of that old, dusty stock.

I can only imagine weeks of dollar bin raids but who knows.

 

Indeed, if VNYL expects to make its subscription business a success, it’s going to have to do a lot better than trawl bargain bins and hit thrift stores in search of “product” for the subscribers. (Intriguingly, on the VNYL Twitter page the following info has been added: “New record store at 1136 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice CA.”) It will also have to conduct some serious seminars in “hand curation” for its employees in charge of making selections for customers. Otherwise the negative word-of-mouth is gonna kill ‘em.

Strike one, VNYL. Three strikes, and yer out. To be… continued?

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POSTSCRIPT: Literally as we were preparing this article to post, the good folks over at Stereogum published their own piece entitled “VNYL Sliding: Why The ‘Netflix For Vinyl’ Service Is Such A Mess”. In it, writer Michael Nelson made some observations similar to ours, particularly along the lines of my 99-cent-bin complaints:

“VNYL subscriber Rob Baird talked to Stereogum for this story. For his #vibe, Baird told us, he chose the hashtag #lazysaturday, ‘based on [VNYL’s] Spotify playlist, which contained artists like Iron & Wine, Jack Johnson, Sufjan Stevens, Father John Misty, and Norah Jones, who I listen to regularly and are part of my record collection.’ Baird also shared with us a link to his Discogs profile. This not only helps to give you, the reader, an idea what he listens to; it was ostensibly consulted by VNYL personnel in order to help hand-curate musical selections based on his #vibe…. His first VNYL shipment included old releases from Jefferson Airplane, Dan Fogelberg, and England Dan & John Ford Coley.”

A number of the reader comments following the story took a similar tack, like this one:

“Damn! I thought this sounded like a cool idea and almost signed up. I ultimately decided to cheap out – and now I am so glad I did. I make enough questionable vintage record purchases without needing to pay $24 a month to get Pablo Cruise, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins delivered to my door.”

Most of the Stereogum story, however, concerned an entirely different matter, that of whether or not VNYL would be violating the Record Rental Amendment Of 1984. It appears that VNYL became aware of this at some point and had to make some small changes in its operating model in order not to run afoul of the law. Writer Nelson delves pretty handily into this and it’s well-worth reading carefully.

He also talked with founder Nick Alt directly, who discussed that as well as some of the complaints that were starting to come in from subscribers. Among his quotes:

“VNYL was Kickstarted as a ‘Hand Curated Music Discovery’ project. I wanted to prove you could build the best human-curated music platform there is. After the campaign, I reached out to all our Kickstarter backers and asked them to fill out a questionnaire about VNYL and their own music experiences. I was really curious — what were they listening to? What genres do they like? What don’t they like? We’re all being sold these digital streaming services, but VNYL is about doing something anti-algorithm and focused on how people experience and actually listen to music.

“I also asked members why they backed VNYL. The vast majority (over 80%) chose to back us because they wanted to grow their vinyl collection, try a human curated service, and because they wanted to support vinyl as a medium. For a majority of our backers, the Netflix rental model just wasn’t the draw and actually created the most apprehension. Since we’re constantly making decisions around what the best user experience is for VNYL, it made sense to us to allow our backers and future members keep records they receive from us and pay us no additional costs…

“It fucking sucks when we disappoint our members. We honestly feel incredibly sad when a member doesn’t like what we sent. That sucks for them and also for us. It’s like you just spent all this time planning out what you think is an awesome surprise gift idea for someone and then they can’t mask the look of disappointment when they open it up right in front of you. It’s completely deflating. Unfortunately, this comes with the territory of being a human curated service.

“With time, VNYL will only improve. As shitty as it feels when someone doesn’t like our choices, when we do get it right, it’s a total rush. There’s nothing more rewarding for me or our curators when we see someone tweet or Instagram their open box of vinyl and are debating which one to spin first.”

Well, only “time” will tell, Nick. But judging from the growing snowball that is the court of public opinion, there’s not a whole lot of time to improve and “get it right.” Remember what I said about “negative word of mouth” at the end of my original article? It’s already started, and in a big way.

UPDATE, 5/16: Watch this video that Stereogum found by a, shall we say, less than pleased VNYL subscriber posted about his #danceparty selections:

UPDATE, 5/20: Another unhappy backer has posted a story about his experience at The Faculty of Thinking Blog. The writer’s conclusion: “VNYL charges $24 a month for 3 records via mail currently valued at less than $3 a record. Most of what you receive is not great and will feel more like a yard sale or goodwill or dollar bin find. If you’re into it, cool. You cannot return these records if you don’t like them. Very little about what you include in your profile, musical taste or “vibe” will influence what records you get. The records chosen are “hand curated” and possibly even with care, but from an extremely limited and low quality pool. There is nowhere to see the list of records that your selections are being curated from. Absolutely not worth the subscription unless you are trying to build a novelty library of quality over quantity. You are losing money in this current build.”

UPDATE, 5/20: Here is the first (to my knowledge) complaint about VNYL filed with California’s Better Business Bureau. It reads, in part: “When VNYL initiated a Kickstarter campaign (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nickalt/vnyl-hand-curated-vinyl-records/video_share) in December 2014, it billed itself as the “Netflix of LPs.” As described by magazine Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/new-record-service-vnyl-distributes-lps-like-netflix-20150109), VNYL offered a subscription service that: allows member to select a hash tag classification (#lazysunday or #danceparty, for instance). Once completed, “the company will send three albums curated to fit the ‘vibe’ by the VNYL staff. The service costs $15 a month and allows members to spend as much time with the records as they would like, keeping the ones they love and sending the duds back using pre-paid shipping. The cost of keeping an album will run between $8 to $12.” I participated in the Kickstarter campaign and chose 3 months of service in late December 2015.On or about March 25, I tried to select vibes that had been promised on the Kickstarter campaign. I found that at least two vibes, #gamenight and #rainyday, were not being offered as promised. Nick Alt, creator and owner, noted that those vibes might be added at a later date. On April 25, I contacted Nick Alt again after receiving three albums that were not to my taste. They arrived with no prepaid return envelope, and I asked him how I could best return them. I also asked him to cancel my membership. He did not respond to repeated emails and Facebook queries until May 9th. His response, in part: “Those records yours to keep for no cost…but you dont have to do anything to get them back to us.”At this stage, I feel like the Kickstarter campaign was a bait and switch, an opportunity for VNYL to collect money and use it to open a brick and mortar record store as opposed to service members properly.Mine is not the only complaint.”

John B. Moore: Crazy & the Brains: The Interview

Crazy and the Brains

JBM checking in with his latest column on all things punk, “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

I DON’T WANNA GROW UP / JOHN B. MOORE

By John B. Moore

They already had a vocalist and a xylophone, so starting a punk rock/anti-folk band was just a given.

On their first full length, Let Me Go, New York/New Jersey four-piece Crazy & The Brains bring to mind everyone from The Black Lips The Dead Milkmen (though frontman and guitarist Chris Urban readily cops to not listening to these Philly punks).

With witty lyrics, a quirky, but impressive punk rock sound, these Anti-Folk acolytes even managed to snag scene mate and former Moldy Peaches member Adam Green to share the mic on this record. Urban was cool enough to talk recently about the band, the record and learning his songs in French.

 

So let’s start out with how the band first got together.

Well basically mine and Jeff’s (Rubin) band broke up. We had been playing in that band since high school and had no intention of ever stopping but our singer quit very unexpectedly. We were left kinda confused and didn’t know what to do. We both knew we still needed to play music but we didn’t have any equipment. Jeff was starting college for music and took his xylophone from high school to practice on. He studied classical percussion performance so he pretty much needed to learn how to play every instrument ever. We knew we didn’t wanna just pick up right where we left off with our first band (which was pretty much a straight forward punk band in the sense that it was loud distorted guitars, bass and drums). All we had between the two of us was my acoustic guitar and his very shitty drum set and then his xylophone which he just used for school. I don’t remember why or who but one day one of us was like “fuck it, let’s try and make some songs using this thing”. Jeff was practicing on it non-stop anyway, it was always around so we just decided to try it out. The things we were coming up with sounded cool to us and we just started developing our own style I guess. After a while playing like that we decided we wanted to be louder. Jeff met Brett (Miller) at school one night and brought him to one of our shows. I’m guessing Brett liked it because he’s been in our band ever since. I don’t think we even asked him to join. One day he was just behind me playing bass drinking a 40oz with his brother Lawrence behind him playing drums and doing Tim and Eric jokes.

How did you get Adam Green to sing on this one?

I first met him at the Sidewalk Cafe in New York. Then one night he was at a show we played in Brooklyn and he told us he liked our music and hooked us up with a cool show opening up for Har Mar Superstar and Ted Leo. After that, I don’t really know, we would see him around at a lot of different things. We know some of the same people. One day I just decided to ask him to be on a song and he was down. I’ve always really liked songs that featured other artists. Collaborating on music is such a cool thing to me. Every time I see an artist I like has a song featuring someone else that’s the first song I listen to on the album. We were throwing around a lot of ideas on who to ask, what song to do, or who would even wanna be on a song of ours… but I don’t know it just kinda came together. We’re gonna try to perform it live together for sure.

This album reminded me a lot of the great Dead Milkmen records. Were you guys fans of the band?

To be honest I didn’t really come up on them too much. I mean I respect them a lot; I think they’re definitely an awesome band. I understand the comparison. They have that punk spirit, a lot of energy and their own style but stylistically I think we are very different. Todd (Wolenski) who runs Baldy Longhair Records is a huge fan of them I think that’s one of the things that turned him on to us. A lot of people who like our music tell me they are fans of them too, I think that’s cool.

That being said, do you have any influenced that would surprise people?

The Anti-Folk scene had a HUGE influence on this music. When we started this we had no idea what we were really doing or if there was even a place for guitar and xylophone music. We would go to these Anti-Folk open mics and wait six hours for our number to be called to play our song. We watched so many artists perform all types of crazy shit from spoken word poets, to folk singers, to people singing opera, to rappers, to dudes banging on drums and yelling. There was really good amazing music and also really fucking awful music, but all of it was extremely inspiring. Other than that obviously Punk and all its different sounds and its energy and attitude. Jeff is really inspired by classical music and piano players like Ray Manzarek and Ray Charles. Early 60’s soul and girl groups definitely influence us. The Miller brothers love a lot of 70’s hard rock n’ roll like Black Sabbath and The Stooges, and I know a lot of that stuff has an influence on their playing. Lastly, standup comedy has a huge influence on my songwriting and I also think the music too. I don’t know how to explain it but if you listen closely you can hear Andrew Dice Clay in Brett’s bass playing.

Do you guys plan to tour much behind this album?

Hell yes. We’re going to Canada this August but before that we are gonna play shows all around the East Coast. We just came back from Ohio a few days ago and we also plan to go back to the West Coast. We’re gonna bring this record to as many people as we possibly can. If you’re having a party hit us up! We will play!

What’s next for you guys? 

Europe! I want a girl to teach me how to sing “Snacks” in French!