Vinyl countdown: how do three new subscription services stack up?

A new breed of subscription record clubs has sprung up, offering vinyl albums accompanied by handwritten notes and cocktail recipes. But are they any good?

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Subscription level event: shops like Rough Trade have got some new competition Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

To some, vinyl has become a signifier of hipster pretentiousness at its most egregious. In a recent Pepsi Max advert, a man in braces, a henley shirt and black rimmed glasses purrs the line “it sounds so much better on vinyl”, before being drenched in a wheatgrass milkshake as a comeuppance for his effete declaration. In Noah Baumbach’s generational conflict comedy While We’re Young, Adam Driver’s painfully hip analog-only Iago listens to the stuff exclusively. The New Yorker recently ran a cartoon of two men staring at a stereo system with the caption: “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.” Along with beards, fixies and craft beer, vinyl has become part of the lexicon that defines the kind of “cool” that is anything but.

Now there are a group of companies committed to reclaiming the vinyl collection as an honourable pursuit rather than an ephemeral fetish or a “lifestyle choice”. They all offer subscription-based products (AKA old-school record clubs, similar to the online singles clubs), where customers sign up and trust them to deliver records worth owning to their door on a monthly basis. So how does the wax stack up? We signed up to three services to see which put style over stylus.

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Four Tet: expect his rider to feature watermelon juice. Photograph: Gary Wolstenholme/Redferns

You’ve probably seen adverts for Vinyl Me Please on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. When the advert popped up on my Facebook wall, I scoffed. The thought of a joining “the best damn record club” in the world sounded awful. Why would you want to pay someone to send you music you should be out discovering for yourself? But Vinyl Me Please’s advert mis-sells it. It’s not so much a record club as a limited edition label that you subscribe to.

Started three years ago in Chicago by Tyler Barstow and Matt Fiedler who met at a consumer product start-up in the city, the company now operates from Colorado.

The releases are impressive and feature critically lauded artists that run the genre gamut. Those who signed up in August got a limited edition gatefold of Wilco’s mid 90s album AM with a print by artist Ryder V Robison. In June, there was Hot Chip’s 2012 album In Our Heads and September sees Four Tet’s Pink released on vinyl for the first time with a 180 gram double LP. The packages themselves are gorgeous, with each release featuring a 12×12 art print and, rather eccentrically, a cocktail recipe. So alongside listening to some techno-tinged house from Four Tet the idea is you’d wash it down a Pink + Watermelon Margarita. “Listen deeply, drink slowly, enjoy!”, read the sleeve notes, which also reveals they got the idea after Four Tet told them he likes to drink watermelon juice.

Apart from the cocktail idea, which I’m still not completely convinced by, Vinyl Me Please makes sense. If you’ve got broad musical tastes, disposable income and the desire to own something relatively unique, it’s a win. The releases here are the type of one-offs you usually have to fight over at Record Store Day, but instead you know it’ll be delivered to your door rather than having to pry it out of the hands of some screaming teenager, plus you get to justify making yourself a monthly cocktail if you’ve got the skills.

How much does it cost?
Plans start at $23 (annual); $25 (three month); and $27 (month-to-month)

Who is this aimed at?
Seasoned diggers looking for something special

Avoid at all costs if …
The thought of sitting down to listen to a record with a cocktail makes your skin crawl

VNYL

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Nick Cave is as astonished as us that one of his albums is seen as dinner party fodder. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Redferns via Getty Images

Nick Alt’s service is the shoutiest, noisiest of the bunch. Everything about it feel as if it’s designed to lure millennials into the world of vinyl using the language of the internet. There’s a shocking pink colour scheme; a website that shouts “High five!” when you successfully sign up for the service; a name without vowels; and a subscription model that’s organised around hashtags. In short: if you think Snapchat is a family board game, this one is probably isn’t for you.

Alt started making software and founded a number of start-ups (a video production company) and several apps – one of which, Echograph, was bought by streaming and on-demand site Vimeo. He worked in a record store and trained as an animator in college before starting VNYL in late 2014, with the idea of curating record collections by answering this question: “If you had a friend in the music business, what would they recommend you listen to?” Those friends come in the guise of the company’s six curators, former music industry bods, who hand pick selections for customers on a monthly basis (Alt wanted to create a rental service, but a copyright law made that impossible).

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Teal’s note to me for joining Vnyl. Photograph: PR

You start by telling the service what bands you’re into (Weezer, Radiohead, Wu-Tang Clan, Jethro Tull, Neil Young, Black Flag), give them some more information about your vinyl buying habits and then pick a “vibe”. I chose #dinnerparty and waited. Three days later three brand new records: El Michels Affair’s Wu-Tang Clan covers album Enter the 37th Chamber, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call, and On An On’s And The Wave Has Two Sides – turn up alongside a handwritten note from my curator Teal.

“Picked out some #dinnerparty records based on your taste profile I think you’ll dig” she tells me from behind some Ray-Bans, and I’d like to agree, although the thought of playing Cave’s confessional love songs while trying to nail a Nigel Slater recipe and keep up some polite conversation about Orange is the New Black doesn’t sound that appetising.

The curator approach, which is used by Vnyl feels nicer than an alogrithm, but there’s a bit of me that laments: “You think I don’t already have Boatman’s Call? Pffft! You don’t know me at all, Teal. #Sinnerparty.” Trying to predict what someone will like from a handful of band names isn’t a precise science, and admittedly VNYL welcomes feedback to improve the service, but for those who’ve already got a healthy collection it feels like VYNL might go over too much old ground to be worthwhile. For those just starting out it’ll provide a fast track to essential releases with a few “vibes” chucked in as well.

How much does it cost?
Plans range from $36 (monthly) to $100 (three months)

Who is this aimed at?
#Millennials

Avoid at all costs if …
Having to say the word “vibe” makes you convulse

Prescribed Vinyl

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Temples are one of Prescribed Vinyl’s selected releases. Photograph: Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images

Daniel Toffling’s offering is the most DIY of the bunch. A one-man operation ran from his home in Boston, Toffling started off running a music blog that recommended music and two years ago made the step of setting up a record club. There’s no team of curators here trying to tap into vibes, just one guy who packs and sends all the records himself and used his background in software engineering to build his own website.

After signing up to his club, I’m sent a record by Heavenly Records psych band Temples, alongside a hand-typed letter replete with typos and an embossed seal. “Hello Vinyl Visionaries”, is how it starts, which immediately makes me feel like I’ve accidentally received a memo from a local Warhammer members club. But there’s something charming about Toffling’s approach and knowing there is one guy running the whole show makes his request at the bottom of the letter to use word-of-mouth to spread Prescribed Vinyl’s attractive.

He only sends out records on independent labels (Temples are on Fat Possom), and customers can choose from four categories: indie rock, electronica, funk/soul and hip-hop/beats. Subscribers can sign up to the “secret stash”, which is a lottery system where winners find an extra record (this month was Allah Las debut).

The drawbacks here are potentially the releases. The ethos and approach is right up the street for those who think DIY is a way of life, but those who are really up to date on their indie rock will probably know of Temples, who’ve been flipping wigs since 2012. This one feels like it’s more for those who are curious but not as interested in music as they once were. As a gateway drug for those looking for a way back it’ll probably prove quite potent, but for those who regularly top up their collections it’s more of a case of been there heard that.

How much does it cost?
One plan: $24.95 (per month)

Who is this aimed at?
Curious collectors looking for new(ish) music

Avoid it like the plague if …
The thought of getting some electronica you’ve never heard of is too much to bear

By Lanre Bakare The Guardian

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