Nick Alt recalls his teenage years in Ohio fondly. He worked at a record store but was also a patron of other record stores in Toledo. It was pretty typical to visit the same record store weekly to find and listen to new releases.
“People would develop a trusted relationship with the record store clerk. If they were doing their job, people trusted them to make recommendations. That’s how we discovered media in those days.”
For those who weren’t of age in “those days,” Nick is referring to the 90s, before there were MP3s and streaming music.
Fast forward to present day Los Angeles, Nick runs VNYL, a monthly subscription-based record service that stays true to the trusted relationship between the record store clerk and the listener.
“I knew that I wanted to do something where the human connection was not lost. I wanted a connection with the person on the other end who was making the recommendation, and giving me insights into new music.”
Nick does not take this relationship lightly. While VNYL uses data-driven technology on the backend, every box is sent out with a hand-written note that explains why those records were chosen for that subscriber based on his or her unique likes and preferences. It’s information their customers have offered during the signup process, ranging from the artists they follow on Spotify to their Instagram profile.
“That’s the glue that holds the whole experience together.”
No broken records, only broken music discovery
“There a huge problem with music discovery for both the artist and the listener. The artists who have, say, under 100,000 listens a month on Spotify — they don’t have many opportunities to be discovered other than the normal things like an insane amount of touring, self-promotion, or hustle to get on people’s radar. This is a very unique opportunity for them to arrive directly at a customer’s doorstep and have an album presented in its entirety to a new listener in a very unique fashion.”
Today, Nick finds pride in VNYL’s ability to create the element of surprise and delight, and will ship more than 500k units in 2018 alone. They are able to present a lot of new music to listeners on a scalable and consistent basis, without losing that valuable human connection — serving both artist and listeners in a thoughtful way.
“There’s a lot of music creators out there that deserve to reach a proper audience. There are so many enthusiastic listeners that would pay for their product, if only they knew it was available.” To date, VNYL has featured more than 5,000 artists in their boxes.
When it comes to running the business day-to-day, he admits he’s skipped a beat on occasion. “It’s really easy to become distracted with things that are not necessarily going to keep you true to who you’re doing it for — which is the listener and the artist. We spent on a lot of time on opportunities in the past — opportunities that didn’t ultimately benefit listener or creator. If you’re not constantly asking yourself, ‘Does this line up with the vision?’, it’s easy to lose sight of the goal. We’ve since become more sound in the vision of the product, and what our value is inside the big ecosystem of music.”
What’s love got to do with it?
VNYL’s predictive methodology is able to accurately estimate how many units of a particular record they will need before making that purchase. But it’s not so groovy when you have unused inventory sitting on the shelf.
“Every once in a while, I’ll get enamored with a release that I think is amazing. And we will make the mistake of thinking that we can definitely move this many units of this artist and despite our best efforts, we’re wrong. It will end up being on the shelf than much longer than we expected — that doesn’t help the artist, it doesn’t help us as a business. From a retailer’s perspective, you’re always going to have duds. It’s especially frustrating for us because we built the tools to prevent this type of thing from happening.”
The long play of the VNYL business
VNYL is fiercely dedicated to making the customer experience and product superb as it can be. But the core promise has less to do with the physical product itself — the record — but rather their commitment to serving the artist and the listener in innovative ways. These days, Nick is busy exploring newer and more interesting ways for people to listen to music. He’s willing to bet that people don’t want to experience a new release while sitting in front of their screens.
He’s started conversations with VCs and consumer electronics partners to look at different modes of music interaction and discoverability. “The opportunity is continuously ours to explore.”