Mail Order Vinyl – A Columbia House Revival?

Anyone that grew up in the U.S. in the 90s probably remembers Columbia House’s seemingly unbelievable mail order deal where you could buy 8-12 CDs for a penny. Perhaps you even tried it out. I know I did, and it was awesome until a month later automatic shipments of "club" priced CDs plus shipping and handling started rolling in with stuff I didn’t want thereby depleting my already depleted adolescent savings account.

The business model for Columbia House is known as negative option billing, which basically means once you sign up for a club membership, you’ll start getting monthly shipments unless you expressly tell the company you don’t want what they’re sending you, but no matter what you do, you still get stuck with a seemingly hefty bill.

To some people, this type of business model may seem unethical, founded in trickery and fine print. In fact, negative option billing is illegal in places like Ontario, Canada. Despite how you feel about the business model, it’s undeniable that Columbia House sparked a flame in the music industry and made it fun to get CDs (and originally vinyl and 8-track tapes) in the mail, even though you eventually had to get out of the sucky situation.

When artists began releasing their albums on vinyl again, which started around 2007 at the dawn of the vinyl revival, it was no surprise a few companies tried to rekindle that flame and relive the magic of mail order music. Companies like Vinyl Me Please (VMP) and VNYL are subscription services that send their members new vinyl records each month thanks to personalized curators plus other perks.

For instance, VMP offers four different categories of music its members can choose from, like classics, hip hop, essentials and country. VNYL asks their subscribers to “choose a #vibe every month”, which helps their curators narrow down the genres of music and ultimately the album they pick and send. To assist with building member profiles, these companies leverage data from popular digital music platforms, such as Spotify, Soundcloud and Discogs, in addition to the information you give them, in a concerted effort to satisfy their customers.

While many mail order record clubs exist (see the table below), and each one offers something slightly different, they’re all fundamentally the same. The personalized approach to picking the right record for each member is a nice touch and a fun way to change things up when it comes to buying vinyl.

The question is, Is it worth it?

On the surface, mail order vinyl record subscriptions seem like a good way for newbs and seasoned vets alike to expand their collections in various ways. It’s a cool way to access new albums picked by pros who get the inner you, and it makes one special day each month extra special when the mail gets delivered and your new, shiny LP arrives.

Unlike Columbia House, subscribers to today’s record clubs don’t get a bunch of albums shipped up front for practically nothing. Instead, members pay monthly, quarterly or annual fees, depending on their willingness to commit and interest in modest discounts. Prices vary and can spike when pairings are involved, like LPs plus wine, food or coffee, but for straight vinyl subscriptions, prices typically land in the mid-$30 per month range.

While new albums can certainly cost that much, particularly for special editions, colored vinyl, etc., most new records only cost about $20 a piece. Spending almost twice that much each month for a new album could seem like a high price to pay, especially if you get something you don’t like and won’t listen to after the first spin, or if you’re shipped a record you already have.

Does it take more than one bad experience to call it quits, or are vinyl record club members willing to bite more than one bullet to see what the next month brings? As with everything in life, I’m sure it varies, but I’ll raise my hand and be the first to say that I’d be out if I got a record that stunk or a copy of something I already had.

What would you do? Feel free to leave a comment to let me know.

More importantly, what if Columbia House magically resurfaced their 8-12 LPs for $0.01? Would you take the bait, despite knowing their negative option billing business model and defunct flimflam? Without a second thought, I would.

Here's a a quick look at current mail order vinyl record clubs for your pleasure.

Vinyl Me, PleaseU.S.$33/month1 deluxe edition LP + international shipping
VNYLU.S.$80/quarter9 LPs per quarter
Wax and StampU.K.£27/month2 new or obscure LPs + free shipping in U.K. + international shipping
Vinyl MoonU.S.$34/month1 LP w/cool box + extras and free shipping in U.S.
The RetroU.K.£25/month1 LP subscribers are "guaranteed" to love
Stylus VinylU.K.£45/month1 LP + bottle of wine to pair OR replace wine w/1 more LP
Vinyl WingsU.K.$56/monthPick 2 out of 3 jazz, soul, rock or blues LPs
Turntable KitchenU.S.$25/month1 7" single, a digital mixtape and seasonal recipe w/1-2 premium ingredients, or "Sound Delicious" LP + coffee pairing
Vinyl BoxU.K.£44/month3 LPs; great value for building your collection; shipping outside U.K. extra
Third Man VaultsU.S.$65/quarterJack White, yes Jack White's record club; each quarter receive package of limited edition vinyl
Flying VinylU.K.£20/month5 7" records + the occasional bonuses, e.g., polaroids, art prints, stickers; expected to reopen in 2022

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