Hello, and thanks for spending some time with Michael’s Record Collection today. This week’s issue is a bit late but I was waiting for something to arrive. More on that below.
Today I want to talk about record subscription services. Specifically, let’s talk about VNYL, a service I’m trying out.
Shortly after getting back into vinyl, I considered unique ways to build my collection. As someone who isn’t interested in simply picking up a vinyl version of the CDs I already own — a number well over a thousand, meaning it would be unbearably expensive and something for which I lack the storage capacity — I figured most of my titles would come from browsing record stores or ordering the titles that interest me from the internet.
However, I soon came across a multitude of subscription services. There are similarities between the various services, but they all share some of the same basic characteristics. The primary one is that they all send you a shipment every month with a predetermined number of records. Some of these allow the subscriber to select from a few featured monthly titles. Others have a variation by which you can swap out a monthly title (if you don’t like it) for something in their store. Still others “curate” your selection(s) each month. This last type of service typically asks you to fill out a questionnaire about your musical tastes and perhaps link your Spotify, Last.fm, Tidal, Apple Music, and/or Discogs accounts to your subscription to give the curators some ideas of your listening habits and what you may already own.
I think of these services as the closest thing we have today to the old Columbia House or BMG Music services, where you pay a penny for a dozen albums and then have to buy a certain number in the next three years. I built up pretty good cassette and CD collections with those services and kind of miss building my collection that way. In college, I once got a BMG package in the mail in the morning and blew off my classes that day to stay home listening to music. I’m not proud of that, but I offer it up here as an example of how excited I was to get those shipments.
Because I’m not simply adding vinyl versions of all the music I already own, I felt like the curated route was the way to go. I like surprises and I was curious to see how someone would look at my musical tastes and decide what I might be interested in. I wanted a service that offered a month-to-month subscription tier, so that I could quickly cancel if it became apparent that the curators simply “didn’t get me.”
If you’re like me, there are probably some bands that people would assume you’d like because you like other bands in the genre, or there might be bands you like but there are runs of albums in their catalog — perhaps early or late in their career — that hold no interest. In other words, there are pitfalls to looking at my collection and choosing something I might like.
For example, someone might look at all the classic hard rock in my collection and conclude that I’d probably like more albums by The Who. I own exactly one — Who’s Next. I like a lot of songs by The Who, and they seem on the surface like a band I’d love, but I’ve heard the majority of their albums in their entirety and have concluded I’m good with just the hits. That’s why I love Who’s Next. Nearly every song on that record was a classic FM radio staple.
There are also bands that changed their sound over the years, so while I love Fleetwood Mac, I don’t find their earlier, bluesy stuff with Peter Green essential. I only occasionally listen to blues, so I wouldn’t play those records often. Again, I do like a song or two here or there from that era, but I wouldn’t need a full album.
And then there’s Spotify. Someone browsing my recent listening history might get the wrong idea about what I like. I have been exploring a lot of unfamiliar artists on Spotify in recent months. I’ll randomly think, “Oh, I have been meaning to check out Laura Nyro,” and then spend a couple of days listening to her catalog. In the end, I felt she had some great songs but overall her music isn’t something to which I’d regularly listen, but anyone looking at my listening history might not know that and assume I was really into her music.
So, it was with great curiosity that I eventually signed up for a subscription with VNYL to receive one curated album per month. VNYL, like other services, has different tiers, where you can receive one record per month or three. You typically sign up for a set number of months with their triple album service and pay for it in advance, so it can be pricey to start up, even if it’s slightly cheaper in the long run. VNYL offers monthly selections it calls “vibes” and each month. These correspond to a featured selection and you can choose one of those or a curated offering that they select based on your taste. I got a good introductory deal of $14.99 per month for one album, and since it was inexpensive, I took the plunge.
I signed up in March, filling out their survey questions and connecting my Spotify, Discogs, and Last.fm accounts so they could get a look at my listening habits and the titles in my collection. I expected my first selection to arrive in mid-April, figuring I’d have plenty of time to cancel if they got my curated pick hilariously wrong and sent me a rap album or an Iron Maiden selection from the Blaze Bayley era.
On April 19, I got an email that my first order had shipped and I was eager to receive my first surprise. I thought it would be fun to write about the VNYL experience and settled on that being my topic for this week’s newsletter. (Hence, the tardiness.)
I clicked on the tracking number after reading the email and learned that the shipping label had been prepared, but the U.S. Postal Service had not yet received the package from VNYL. This didn’t raise any alarm bells, as I’d only just gotten the email and I assumed it would arrive at the post office in a day or so.
I was wrong.
Day after day, I clicked the tracking number only to see the same message telling me that the shipping label had been created but nothing had arrived with the USPS. Six days after getting that email, sufficient time had passed that I was charged for my second monthly shipment. The next day — a week after receiving the email — I broke down and sent an email to VNYL’s customer service department to ask what the delay was about and to explain that I had been informed during VNYL’s sign-up process that I’d have the opportunity to try the service for the first month before committing to a second month.
I got the standard autoreply that my inquiry had been placed in a queue for resolution and that they would try to respond within 24 hours, however, it could take two to five business days to respond due to a high volume of inquiries and a reduced staff. Wait, what?
Three more (business) days went by and I got no response. However, that third day after my email, the package magically arrived at the post office! But now, if I hated their selection, I was still on the hook for a second one regardless if I canceled immediately or not. This was irritatingly bad customer service and soured my view of the company.
The morning I started writing this issue of MRC, I finally got a reply from VNYL’s customer service acknowledging my complaint. The email I got was generally dismissive, as the customer service rep noted that it looked like my order was on its way and I should be receiving it soon. There was very much a “well, I guess everything worked out!” tone in the email and there was no acknowledgement that they’d sent the order late, so I couldn’t decide whether to stay in or get out. The record arrived the same day.
So, how did VNYL do at choosing my specially curated album selection?
Pretty good, actually. The record they sent me was Leave the Radio On, a 2015 release by Fernando Viciconte, an Argentinian musician who had relocated to Portland, Oregon in the 1990s. The handwritten note from my curator, Holly, revealed nothing about how she arrived at the title. She simply said “looked at your collection” and then it was on to a description of Fernando (on the album cover it’s simply “Fernando”). Peter Buck of R.E.M. played various types of guitar and mandolin on the album, so it’s possible Holly saw that I was an R.E.M. fan.
I had never heard of this artist and I was curious, so I played it right away. I found it to be enjoyable indie rock. Much of it is a bit mellow — not a problem, but it does require a certain mood. I found eight of the 11 songs to be at least “good” (one of those “very good”) and three of them were pretty average. Not bad for a first listen. I particularly liked album opener “Save Me,” and the last two songs on the first side: “So Loud,” and “Friends and Enemies.” It’s a bit muddy on the production side but it sounds good and it will be interesting to see if my opinion of the album improves or degrades over repeated listens.
Hopefully, my second month will not have the customer service issues that I experienced with my first shipment. Because the experience would have been highly enjoyable without the added wait and lack of communication.
Overall, it would be overstating things a bit to say that I recommend VNYL to anyone. The company has obvious customer service issues and the pick they sent me I would rate about a B- to a B in terms of the record being in my musical wheelhouse. I do, however, look forward to my May shipment to see if they can zero in on something that will really wow me enough to continue. Because there are other services out there I’d like to try, such as Black Box Record Club or Vinyl Me Please.
Do you belong to a subscription service? If so, which one do you have? Do you like it? What are the pros and cons? Let me know. In the meantime, check out my unboxing video, which was hastily thrown together and edited with the skill of a guy who has never edited video before and is using substandard tools (because all of that is true).