It's Thin, It's Plastic, It's Back: Flexi Discs Find New Fans In the '60s, the cheap music format was stocked in vending machines and embossed on cereal boxes. Now, magazines like Decibel and bands like Deerhoof are reviving the once-dead flexi disc.
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It's Thin, It's Plastic, It's Back: Flexi Discs Find New Fans

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It's Thin, It's Plastic, It's Back: Flexi Discs Find New Fans

It's Thin, It's Plastic, It's Back: Flexi Discs Find New Fans

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/400369975/400573643" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Today is Record Store Day. The annual event celebrates brick-and-mortar retailers. As you've probably heard, their stock in trade has increasingly become vinyl, a medium that seemed all but obsolete until just a few years ago. Well, now there is another old-school music format that's drawing attention from fans old and new, as Allyson McCabe reports.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: They're called flexi disks - low-fi recordings made on thin plastic or coated paper, and they first started appearing commercially in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...Sight and Sound, exclusive process that combines fine printing on paper with fidelity sound reproduction on the very same paper.

MCCABE: Cheap and easily distributed, flexi discs were sold at newsstands, stocked in vending machines, inserted into books and magazines and even embossed on cereal boxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Everything's Archie. Archie's here...

MCCABE: The Beatles's annual Christmas greetings were sent to fan club members from 1963 to 1969 on flexi disc.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES "CHRISTMAS RECORD")

JOHN LENNON: Hello, this is John speaking with his voice. We're all very happy to be able to talk to you like this on this little bit of plastic.

MCCABE: National Geographic's flexi discs of whale songs had an initial production run of 11 million in 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC "SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE")

MICHAEL CUMELLA: I think a lot of people do think of flexis as music-driven.

MCCABE: Michael Cumella collects flexi discs and curates an online museum of these and other oddities. He says flexi discs were often more memorable than the products they promoted.

CUMELLA: Like, here's a record that came with Snowdrift - I think this is like, lard. But the top of the can had this Johnny Cash record on it. Right. Johnny Cash record, "It Ain't Me Babe." Complimentary record when you buy this can of Snowdrift. Not sure if it was either lard or laundry detergent. I forget.

MCCABE: Flexi discs remained popular until the early 1990s, but production declined with the advent of CDs and other digital formats. Flexi discs were obsolete by decade's end, but interest in them never completely waned, especially among music fans whose tastes are a little less mainstream.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAPALM DEATH SONG, "LEGACY WAS YESTERDAY")

ALBERT MUDRIAN: In the metal community especially, there's a fascination with the tangible aspect of things.

MCCABE: That's Albert Mudrian, the editor of Decibel, an extreme heavy metal magazine with a circulation of over 50,000.

MUDRIAN: Metal fans - like, hardcore metal fans - really like to collect stuff. When their favorite band puts out a record, they want every version of that record. They want it in all formats. They want every color of the vinyl that's produced. They want to get as much as they can.

MCCABE: Mudrian wanted to give it to them, by including exclusive flexi discs in each issue of his magazine. But finding a manufacturer wasn't easy. About eight years ago, he tracked down Pirates Press, where employee Matt Jones, who also runs a small indie label, had been trying to revive the format.

MATT JONES: We looked into the last people that made them, which was a company named Eva-Tone. And we're like, do you guys still have these machines? And evidently, they had sold them for scrap. But, you know, luckily we're in the age of information. The original patents are still online. And we took that and worked with the engineers and came up with something that worked.

MCCABE: The flexi disc press they built went into production five years ago and Decibel magazine became Pirates's first major client. The company has since manufactured flexi discs for indie labels and major artists, including Foo Fighters and Jack White. His limited-edition flexi disc, which was launched as a promo inside helium balloons, later fetched more than $4,000 on eBay.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEERHOOF SONG, "LAST FAD")

MCCABE: When the avant-pop band Deerhoof released its latest album last fall, it also included a flexi book version with music and art. Out on tour, drummer Greg Saunier observes that the band's fans view flexi books as more than promotional novelties.

GREG SAUNIER: As I'm working at the merch table and meeting people who come to our show, there's something about this format that seems both impermanent and artistic, that seems to fit with a certain kind of personality. They're not necessarily a collector in perpetuity, it's more like they're interested in possibilities and ideas and sources of inspiration. And it's OK if sometimes those sources wear out and remain only as a (laughter) memory of what it should have sounded like.

MCCABE: While flexi books like Deerhoof's go for nearly double the price of vinyl albums, one to two-song flexi discs are now routinely included with LPs as free bonuses. Labels send them out to record stores and radio stations as promos, and bands take them out on tour as giveaways. Pirates Press President Eric Mueller explains that while traditional print advertising has declined in the music industry...

ERIC MUELLER: Everybody loves free stuff. Having that be a record these days is amazing because vinyl's popular and nobody's going to give away a real seven-inch. But to give away a flexi is way more valuable and makes a much bigger impact than any print ad could. It's something somebody's going to put on their wall and play and share with their friends.

MCCABE: As demand for flexi discs grows, Pirates expects to press close to 2 million this year. One of them may even wind up on a turntable or a cereal box near you. For NPR News I'm Allyson McCabe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And kids, if you enjoy good music and good cereal, here's an offer you won't want to miss. Now you can get all the Monkees's greatest hits free on Post Alpha-Bits, Honey Combs and Frosted Rice Krinkles. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MONKEES")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) Hey, hey, we're the Monkees.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Twelve great songs - four on Alpha-Bits, four on Honey Combs, four on new Rice Krinkles. One song free on each box. The Monkees's greatest hits, free from those music lovers at Post.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MONKEES")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) Go wherever we want to. Do what we like to do. We don't have time to get restless. There's always something new. Hey, hey, we're the Monkees.

WERTHEIMER: Our theme, written by BJ Leiderman, currently not available on flexi disc. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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