Spotlight: Vinyl Me, Please CEO Matt Fiedler on Building a Record Club That Does What Spotify Can't
"We want to work with artists that we are freaking out about and are fanboys and girls of ourselves."
Over the past decade or so, the revival of vinyl records has proved a bright spot in a music industry looking to regain its footing. With vinyl sales growing more than tenfold over this timeframe, it has proven fertile ground for the subscription-based record club Vinyl Me, Please to build its business.
Celebrating the company's fifth anniversary this year, as well as its millionth record shipped, CEO and co-founder Matt Fiedler maintains that a "genuine passion for music" has been key to Vinyl Me, Please's success in the marketplace.
"We want to work with artists that we are freaking out about and are fanboys and girls of ourselves," he says. "And I think that that's really come through in our product, it comes through in our marketing, it comes through in the way that we built the club over time, that people just want to be a part of it because they see how excited we get about certain records that they can't help but be excited about them as well."
Fiedler also points to the concept's communal aspect as another key to its appeal, and says tapping into that fandom it shares with its customers is a major reason why this club is succeeding where so many others have failed. Over the years, it has grown beyond a monthly vinyl record subscription to include an online store, editorial, podcast and monthly events around the country. It has yielded dividends too. According to Fiedler, Vinyl Me, Please currently has about 30,000 active subscriptions from 25,000 active members across 40 countries around the world, all of whom receive one curated monthly "essential" record, which spans genres with new releases and reissues, as well as some who have enrolled in more genre-specific offerings. The Denver-based company with 20 full-time employees has grown about 40 percent since 2015, with this year trending the same so far. Last year, it shipped out about 430,000 records over the course of the year with a gross revenue Fiedler says is at several million dollars a year.
With a sense of pride, Fiedler explains the whole operation has been "bootstrapped" without any outside financing until recently, with a new round of funding that will help Vinyl Me, Please "grow into the next phase of the company," he says. "But literally from zero to that, we've been about break-even the whole time. Just by nature of cash flow and being self-funded, we've had to have some sort of profitability built into the business along the way."
Fiedler launched Vinyl Me, Please with his co-founder Tyler Barstow in 2013 while living in Chicago, having built the concept while working nights and weekends, covering their costs with about $1,500 on a credit card. He had recently graduated from Belmont University in Nashville, where he studied music business and entrepreneurship and had arrived at the decision he wanted to work with music without actually working in the music industry. The first month, they had just about 12 members onboard who were mostly friends and family, shipping them out copies of Langhorne Slim & The Law's The Way We Move that they bought on wholesale. "And the whole idea was just, 'Let's make something as cool as it can be,'" he says, hoping the service would be strong enough to spread through word-of-mouth.
"That's what kind of led the majority of our growth over time," he says. "Now that we have bigger budgets, we have more money to work with, we have more technological capabilities, which make that all easier. But the nuts and bolts, we're trying to create a remarkable service for our members and our customers, and we're trying to do that in such a way that helps them discover themselves through music and discover a kind of the breadth of what's available through music.
In late 2013, Fiedler was offered a new job at a tech startup in Boulder, Colorado, so he relocated with his wife and continued to work on Vinyl Me, Please on the side with Barstow remotely. By mid-2014, the staff had grown to four and they all decided to quit their other jobs and moved the entire operation to Colorado.
Operating outside of a major music market has been a mixed blessing, Fiedler says. On the one hand, he and his staff may miss out on the social aspects that can build close industry relationships. But on the flip side, he says it helps keep their pursuit more "genuine" where people won't assume they're under the influence of a major label or the like. "And so it's given us a little bit of clout to where we can be mysterious and be a little bit of a stealthy company that's making big waves, but like in Denver," he says.
As Vinyl Me, Please grew, Fiedler says one of the company's major hurdles was finding records to feature with a subscription base in the hundreds that did not yet have the buying power to command its own pressings. (A standard minimum -- at least at a price point that makes sense -- for vinyl manufacturing is 500 units.) But once they hit the 500-member mark, he says, people in the industry began taking notice, and opportunities to work with bigger artists and execute bigger projects have followed.
"What we're realizing more and more is that we built this really interesting distribution channel and we built it around a highly engaged audience with trust and loyalty inside of curation," says Fiedler. "We've proven ourselves as storytellers through content and being able to find these stories that are unique and put them in front of people, give them context, and then ultimately lead that to a product that is exclusive to Vinyl Me, Please. So there's this interesting marketing product distribution life-cycle that we've stumbled upon, and the future is about doing more of that and continuing to cater to the idea of the super fan. ... And then the flip side becomes, what else can we do to serve artists? What else can we do to make their story more impactful? What else can we do to help them launch their career or build their career or reactivate a fan base that maybe is dormant or something like that? And so there's this interesting kind of equilibrium that we're trying to find where on one side we have to serve our customers, we have to serve the superfans, we want to build something specific to them. And if we can do that, if we create value for those people, then of course we can create value on the artist side."
Part of that equation is the Vinyl Me, Please Rising program that highlights developing acts and supports them throughout their careers, which Fiedler says has been a big "credibility builder" for the company. (One notable artist has been Moses Sumney, whose 2016 debut EP Lamentations received special editorial and marketing support and then last year his debut LP, Aromanticism, was featured as an essential album.) Artists appreciate Vinyl Me, Please putting its brand behind supporting their careers, while the discovery aspect resonates with fans. At the end of the day, Fiedler says this is the sort of thing people come to Vinyl Me, Please for: to discover new music as part of a community with similarly adventurous taste.
"Spotify algorithms, that whole thing, it's amazing, but really what it does at the end of the day is it provides you more of what you already know you like," says Fiedler. "And so it doesn't allow for these serendipitous discovery experiences and it doesn't allow for a kind of a randomness to creep in where you're like, I never would've picked this up or I never would have considered this previously, but now here I am and I can't put it down."
When you're coming up, stay curious. Stay humble. Approach every opportunity as an opportunity to learn something new. These traits will carry you way further than anything you "do."
I've learned leadership is hardly about being the loudest person the in the room. It's about getting people to subscribe to your vision and motivating them to want to act on behalf of it. You do this by enrolling people in your process, telling stories and getting them to see the world the same way you see it.
The best advice I've received is "Every time you double, everything breaks." This applies to everything... Your team, your customer base, your budgets, etc. The systems and processes you have today will not work when you're twice the size. Simple. Realizing that and proactively planning for those breakpoints helps you identify bottlenecks before they become glaring issues.
I am learning the world is not black or white. What we think we know about the world is simply a representation of the experiences we've had. Those are singular, and often unique to us. We're all still learning so much about the world that it's impossible to think in absolutes. What is true today may be proven wrong tomorrow. The lesson? Make the best decisions you can with the information you have and assume you'll be wrong (and then adapt).
It's good to have distractions. So much of leadership lives in the abstract. There's rarely a clear "to do" list. At times that stresses me out. I'm a doer. I like completing tasks. Always living in the abstract leaves me feeling incomplete and like I'm failing at being productive. I've started invested in hobbies (i.e. distractions) that give me an outlet to work with my hands. They give me clear tasks to complete which recharges my mind and helps me find balance between the tangible and the abstract.
Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.