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If you’re a Vinyl Me, Please member, you know that every month we have, in the words of Cool Material, something like our own Record Store Day. We stock our members store with exclusives and the best new releases and reissues we think you should own on vinyl. Those store purchases are bundled with our Album of the Month, and you get the joy of having a box of multiple records show up at your doorstep each month.
What you might not know is that the store is mostly the work of one Vinyl Me, Please employee: Our Head of Music & Label Relations Cameron Schaefer. Cameron spends at least 20 hours a week every week meeting with labels, going over release schedules, going over logistics with pressing plants, and trying to ensure that everything worth buying on vinyl every month somehow ends up in our member store.
We talked to Cameron about how he picks the albums for the store, what it was like in February when the store crashed from so much traffic, and what we have planned for the rest of 2016.
VMP: To start, walk me through the process of getting stuff into the store each month. How far out in advance are you planning it, and how are you deciding what to include?
Cameron: Each month, I do the store with the idea of doing at least 20-25 really good titles. I try to be cognizant of having different genres and styles, so that someone doesn’t come in to the member store as a big hip-hop fan, and see that we only have one album that sold out really fast.
As far as how far out in advance, I’m usually working 2-3 months in advance. We’re in a fortunate position where we’re getting a lot of albums in advance, so that we can do our research on stuff 2-3 months out. So, generally, it’s a mixture of me getting tons of emails from the labels, where they’ll be like, “here’s what we have out for reissues or what’s coming out this month.” Probably 70 percent of what’s in the store comes from labels reaching out and us listening and picking it up that way.
The other 30 percent is me really searching out and finding stuff that doesn’t get submitted but would be a really great fit for us.
How does the weeding out process work? How are you narrowing it down from all of the label submissions?
I have a giant queue of music that I am always trying to work through. On a normal day, I am listening to at least two new full-length albums. Some days, I block off time to go through 4-5 brand new albums in a day. For me personally, anything past that, I start losing focus and it’s not worth it (laughs).
I listen to every album at least once. It’s sometimes easier to tell what won’t work for our store than what will. It’s not really that it’s bad music or a bad album; I’ve grown along with the company, and I feel like I know exactly what will or won’t resonate with our members. Lots of times, it’s just that I know something won’t be of interest to a majority of our members. If there’s something I’m on the fence about, I just keep them in the queue, and give them a couple more spins. Or I pass them out to the rest of the staff, and get everyone’s input.
But then there’s some stuff, like the Anderson Paak album, Malibu, where I knew right away that was perfect for the store. When is this coming out on vinyl? We need to have this. In those cases all I’m doing is contacting the label, seeing when it comes out, and seeing if we can get a color variant. I’m always pushing for those deluxe versions.
If you had to sum it up neatly, what are our members into?
I would say it’s an eclectic group of people. We can have as much success selling a Maria Callas opera album as we can the new Andrew Bird album. I think most people would assume we’re the indie-centric, Pitchfork crowd, but really what I’ve found is that about 50% of our audience is into indie rock, 25% are into rap or hip-hop, and the other 25% are throughout tons of genres. But the titles that always crush for us are the jazz, blues, soul and R&B releases. Even when it’s an obscure jazz album I’m not sure people will be into, we can sell a ton of those.
It’s really people who are passionate about music, and they’re building their record collection, and all they want is the best record from every genre. They’re not necessarily just buying the genres that they are really comfortable with. Even if they’ve never heard of a blues artist, if you tell them this album is a standard of the genre, they’re pretty open to buying it.
How do exclusives come together? How do you determine what gets a limited run by us, and what just goes in the store?
On a broad level, our featured monthly albums are albums we feel that you must have in your collection. You can’t miss out on them. Then the store exclusive is something we feel we can’t make the leap to saying everyone needs to own it, but we feel like it’s a great record that you need to have. Then members store picks are a level below. Every month there will be members store picks a chunk of our members will definitely not like. And that’s ok, and some stuff is not going to be right for everyone’s collection.
So some albums we want to feature as our album of the month, but for a variety of reasons it doesn’t work out. Maybe the label is already doing a deluxe version. Or sometimes, like in the case of the Sia reissue, the label reached out to us and said they’d be reissuing the early Sia stuff, and we jumped at the opportunity for Colour the Small One because I was amazed that it had gone out of print on vinyl for so long. They asked about it the day they went to production, so in that case, a store exclusive is our only option. And the same thing sometimes happens for just store picks; I want to do them as an exclusive, but there are already many color variants or things like that. I’m just always trying to find stuff for members that is unique for our store exclusives. The challenge is trying to have a big store, but have it not be overwhelming.
I like to look at our store like the endcap of a record store. Here are 10 records that we the staff have been listening to an love, and think you should listen to, you know? The store is big enough that there’s a variety of titles, but it’s small enough that our members can research each album and make their decisions.
Have there been titles that you put in the store that you think are going to do really well but actually end up not doing like you hoped?
Sure. But honestly it’s usually the opposite; I got that Cold Heat compilation in, and didn’t think that would be a huge seller, and we ended up selling out the entire stock that the label had in. And the new D’Angelo album. We were still a pretty small company at the time, and we ended up having to scramble to get more in the store because we sold so many copies of that.
What other titles have sold crazier than you imagined?
That David Bowie box set. I had never experienced the power of someone’s passing rallying people to want to have that artist’s music firsthand like that, and I vastly underestimated that big time. Here’s this $250 box set, and I’m like, “That’s a ton of money, we’ll only carry seven of them.” And then we sold out of them in 45 seconds.
Damn. I was in Boulder this last month when the store crashed on opening day in February from so much traffic. What was that like? I know we were scrambling around worried we’d have duplicate orders or lose out on all our members buying these records.
We went from the thrill of opening to store to “The World’s Ending!” in a minute (laughs).
The mood got very solemn in the office (laughs).
People will lose their minds on not being able to check out, because they know our exclusives go so fast. So, they were reaching out to us in every venue—Twitter, Forum, email—and so that got intense.
And people should know we’re working on making sure that never happens.
We found out through this that our servers were limiting the unique connections to something like 30 at a time. We had 1000 people trying to check out at once, so you don’t need to be a math expert to know something was going to go wrong. It should never be an issue going forward.
Is there anything you really wanted to have in the store, but which has fallen through? Can you talk about any?
[Cameron cannot talk about any. But trust me when I say there were incredible albums that have fallen through.]
Wow. I can’t believe that. Answer this one if you think you can: Is there anything big you’re hoping to bring to the store this year?
As Vinyl Me, Please has grown, labels are starting to understand our value for them and their artists, so there’s a lot of doors opening to us this year. For a long time, people weren’t seeing the value in a 750 copy run of an album, but now they’ve realized how fanatical our members are, and how valuable it is to have our members be enthusiastic about their records.
There are a lot of great jazz labels that up till now have been behind a black door that we’ll have access to. I think we’ll have a good mix of the best new releases coming out in summer and fall, mixed with some awesome reissues of stuff that’s out of print. Whether that’s a classic ‘90s R&B album, or something from the dark years of vinyl, like ’98-2003, we’re gonna have a ton of stuff.
The next six months will see the best store exclusives we’ve ever had. And featured albums for that matter. It’s a great time for anyone who has just become a member.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.