The Wacky, Wiggly, Razor-Thin World of the Flexi Disc

Savoring the playable records once found on cereal boxes, inside magazines and at fast food counters

Oliver Wang
Mar 26, 2015 · 8 min read

By Oliver Wang

Everyone remembers their first flexi disc. For collector Michael Cumella, it was finding an Archies record embedded onto the back of his Sugar Pops cereal box.

“I did that whole thing with Sugar Pops,” Cumella says, “cutting out the record and playing it. Man, it was just weird. It was a defining moment for me.”

For Matt Welch of reissue label Get On Down!, it was an issue of Grand Royal magazine that included “a flexi of Biz Markie singing ‘Benny & The Jets.’”

“Unfortunately, I took it out,” Welch says, “and have now learned that magazine’s worth a lot more with the record still attached.”

Popular in the 1970s, and made using a special laminate secured to cereal cartons, kids (and record connoisseurs) would cut these flexis from the back of the box

For me, it was my 1988 high school yearbook, which packaged a flexi disc containing marching band songs, plus a year-in-review medley with a snippet from LL Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali.” I remember that the 808 kick drums sounded unusually good for a razor-thin piece of plastic.

The flexi disc, in some form or other, dates back almost as far as the phonograph itself. Throughout its history, the flexi has served myriad purposes: as a short-lived retail format, a promotional device, a one-trick gimmick, and a disposable novelty. Yet if the past 100 years have taught us anything, it’s that flexis may be flimsy, but they’re far from forgettable.

Broadly speaking, a “flexi” refers to any kind of record imprinted onto a thin/flexible medium: a cereal box side, a wiggly magazine insert, a hanky box lid. On WFMU’s Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records, curator Cumella documents the strange, wondrous potpourri of forms that flexis have taken on over the years. There’s a “California Dream Barbie” record by the Beach Boys, a “Sounds of Korea” disc that Korean War-era servicemen could mail home, and the remarkable Bhutanese record stamps that could be used as legal postage.

Cumella surmises that the flexi fascinates us partially because, “folks can’t believe sound could come from something like this. It’s an alien concept to a new generation who have never seen them, and nostalgia for those who have.” As he notes, the physical limitations of the flexi is part of its appeal. Most can only play a couple of minutes of sound, thus he says, they “demand you to be present. Most would put them on and stand there over the record as it plays and give it full attention. It feels more personal.”

The first flexis were, in fact, intended to be very personal. European inventors took out patents on “talking postcards,” as early as 1905 and the idea was that one could record a message onto phonograph grooves imprinted in resin-covered postcard. That message could then be mailed to a friend who could play it back on a turntable.

In the early 1900s, “talking postcard” flexi discs allowed friends to mail audio recordings to one another

The birth of the record industry in the early 20th century made the flexi an appealing, inexpensive alternative to the heavy, brittle 78. In the 1930s, the Durium company used their namesake acetate in creating enormously popular cardboard records — the “Hit of the Week” series — that sold for only a few nickels at newsstands. However, the format wasn’t cheap enough to survive the Depression, thus ending what was perhaps the flexi’s one shining retail moment.

When the post-WWII boom brought back the overall recording industry, flexis entered into a second golden age. This time though, companies weren’t as concerned with selling them as they were with exploiting their basic — wait for it — flexibility as a promotional device. They were cheap to make and easy to ship, a double bonus for anyone who wanted a quick way to get an audio message out to the masses.

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The examples are legion: the Beatles sent out hundreds of thousands of special Christmas flexi discs to their fan clubs. Broadway theaters experimented with playbills that included recordings of soundtrack songs. Mad magazine created single-sided “Mad Mystery Sound” flexis with eight parallel grooves that allowed you to drop the stylus anywhere and end up with a different story.

And of course, there’s the crowd favorite: cereal box records, which first appeared on the side of a Wheaties box in the 1950s and continued to be produced through the 1980s. Made using a special laminate that could be secured to cereal cartons, their charm had much to do with their incongruity: one doesn’t normally expect to be able to cut a playable Monkees record off the back of a Honeycomb box. By design, most flexis were meant to be novelties and true to the term, here was a truly novel creation. David Read of the Vancouver label, Vinyl Record Guru, points out, “having a record on a cereal box was a lot cooler [than] having a toy in a box. It just seems like the perfect format for something like that.”

While Los Angeles’s Rainbo Records produced most of the newer cereal box records, no company ruled the flexi market like Deerfield, IL’s Eva-tone. Their patented “soundsheets” — thin and wiggly — more or less defined what a flexi looked like for generations of Americans. However, the very fact that soundsheets were so thin and light also made them difficult to play at times: turntable platters wouldn’t stick to them. Many of Eva-tone’s records had to come with instructions to “place coin here if disc slips.”

Eva-tone had the industrial capacity to churn out soundsheets at a staggering volume. In 1979, they printed over 10 million humpback whale song records for National Geographic, and ten years later they helped McDonalds produce 80 million flexis for one of the great giveaway gimmicks in history. 79,999,999 copies of McDonalds’s soundsheet featured a mangled version of the chain’s “menu song,” but one single record had the song in its entirety. Find it and you’d win $1,000,000 instantly. Top that Willa Wonka.

Outside of retail chains, music-related magazines and ‘zines created a small cottage industry by pairing flexi discs with their publications. Flexipop appeared out of the UK in 1980, billing itself as “the world’s first singing magazine,” and boasting that each issue would include “an exclusive track from a major chart act taped to the cover.” In an era before SoundCloud links and Vevo videos, flexis made smart, intuitive sense. They were an affordably easy way for artists and labels to bypass the cost and politics of radio programming, marketing new records directly to fans instead.

However, the love affair with flexis only lasted as long as most households actually owned record players. The rise of compact discs not only decimated the phonograph industry, but the CD itself offered vast, practical improvements over flexis: they were just as portable but could hold far more music and offered superior durability and sound quality. Over the course of the 90s, the flexi industry cratered until, in 2000, Eva-tone announced they would stop producing soundsheets. The flexi had finally been silenced.

The manufacturing vacuum hardly went unnoticed. Canadian pressing plant Vinyl Record Guru specializes in small-run releases. Read recalls clients asking, “right from the get-go, ‘could I get a flexi disc done?’ Eva-Tone shut their doors a month or two prior. Terrible timing, you know? But the demand never really went away.”

One of the 79 million losing flexis from 1989's infamous McDonald’s sweepstakes. If the classroom of kids on the recording finished the song successfully, the disc holder would win $1 million

Sometime during that hiatus, Matt Jones, sales manager for the San Francisco label Pirates Press, was talking with his girlfriend’s father, an engineer, about what it’d take to bring them back. “He said, ‘Well, they’re not really that hard to make. You’ve got to do this, this, and that.’ We started experimenting and prototyping another machine to make these things.”

Pirates Press began producing flexi discs again in 2010, quickly ascending to the position that Eva-tone once held. However, unlike their industrial-scale predecessor, Pirates takes a boutique approach that prioritizes creative uses over mass quantities. Jack White’s Third Man Records hired them to produce just 1000 postcard records that were literally distributed by balloon (talk about “release” events). Third Man and other clients have been knowledgable enough to request some of the more obscure flexi formats from history such as the old Russian bootleg “bone records,” made from discarded x-ray film.

Jack White’s Third Man Records used innovative approaches for releasing flexi discs, such as “balloon distribution” and printing them on real X-rays

Pirates Press founder Eric Mueller chuckles, “the real problem is that to make X-ray flexis, you use real X-rays, and nowadays, X-rays really aren’t being used very much. We had a lady who got into a motorcycle accident and had 10 years worth of X-rays that she had been saving in a closet, and then gave us that for [a flexi for] her band.”

Boston-based Get On Down! has used Pirates on several occasions, including last year’s postcard reissue of Run DMC’s’ “Christmas In Hollis.” Get On Down!’s Welch says that “people have actually emailed us little videos of them doing DJ routines with the flexis, doing doubles and stuff like that, which is pretty cool.” Ironically, as the ubiquity of digital music has made files and streams feel disposable, the flexi disc has become more of a keepsake.

We’re not likely to see anyone making ten million flexis of whale ballads again, but at a time where record fetishism feels at an all-time high — even if sales are not — the flexi is well-positioned to reap the benefits. Their desirability has always resided in that novelty factor, in the power of a flexi to surprise us, delight us, with their strange shapes and content. After all, a “gimmick” is expressly designed to catch your attention, to make a mark in your memory and there’s decades of evidence that flexis have succeeded in doing just that.

As Pirates’ Jones points out: “You’d never have a kid pull out a magazine from their closet and show you an ad that was put in six months ago. But a flexi is something that people would put with their other records and pull out once in a while and play.”

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Flexi disc images (and spiritual guidance) provided by Michael Cumella’s
Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records

Follow Oliver Wang on Instagram @soulsides
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