Julien Fournier is co-founder of independent Belgian electronic label Vlek. In our latest edition, we asked him to discuss the David Vs Goliath-like struggle his imprint has been fighting against our national postal service’s ridiculously steep charges, especially for 7 to 12″ packages, and the innovative solution it came up with. In a bid to further the cause and join the struggle, we republish the heavy-hitting piece in its entirety here.
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When we release a record we usually issue around 300 or 400 copies. We work together with a distributor in Germany, Kompakt. Normally they take about half of the copies and distribute them to the shops. We make one delivery to Kompakt and everything is taken care of. For us at Vlek it’s really important to work with them in terms of market access and visibility. When we make promotion for a record in Germany or in the US, it’s essential that people there can go to a local store and buy the music. When you’re with Kompakt, it’s also much easier to get featured on important websites like Boomkat. But as this system adds its chunk of intermediates, it costs. The return we have on the price per record is rather small. Let’s say that if a record retails at 12 or 13 euros, then we make something between 3 and 5 euros. It’s the same for everyone. As we don’t produce large amounts, it’s hard to make some money this way, or at least to make enough to cover our production expenses. That’s why we’ve relied from the start on a second sales strategy: targeting individuals who, for example, might have already downloaded our catalogue from bandcamp. They can order records directly from us. It’s a method that would theoretically bring us some more money, because we don’t need to pay the distributor. But the Belgian post’s fees make it impossible! When you take into account how much it costs us in terms of postal charges to deliver a vinyl to a buyer outside of Belgium, it just makes no sense. Depending on the weight, it costs between nine and 12 euros to send a record. Our record sleeves are quite thick because we don’t want to use cheap cardboard, which also adds to the total weight. At one point, one package could weigh up to 180 grams, which cost 12 euros to send abroad. It’s ridiculous. This means customers pay double the amount for their record as we factor the shipping rates into the total price so as to not lose money and I’m sure it puts a lot of them off. Plus, it’s also difficult in terms of marketing: how do you communicate all the different prices depending on where you live to the buyers?
A few years ago we got into contact with another small Belgian label based in Eupen, close to the German border, and learned that they were sending all their records via Germany. Believe it or not, the Deutsche Post only charges 3,50 euros to send a vinyl, to any country, even to the US. Here, you already pay six or seven euros to deliver one inside the Belgian borders which is why in Brussels we use a bike delivery service instead. I gave this a lot of thought and remembered that I had a friend living in Berlin who knew Vlek well and followed us quite a lot. So I asked him if he would be up for helping us dispatching our online orders. I already knew that sending a big box of records over there doesn’t cost that much – about 50 euros only for 50 records. Luckily he was up for it. So every time we have a release, we send him 50 copies and when someone orders a record on our bandcamp, it’s him who receives the email with the order details. We gave him a stock of boxes, stickers and everything he needs, and once a week he packs the ordered records up and brings them to a post office in Berlin. And, even when factoring in the cut he gets for doing this plus the transport from Belgium to Berlin, we’re still more competitive than when going through bpost. It’s just nuts. With 12 records sold, we’ve already brought in enough to recoup the cost of shipping a box of 50 records over from Brussels to Berlin. Seriously, forget the Belgian post. We tried to get a special price or some kind of reduction because we have a lot of deliveries but that didn’t work out either. The Berlin system also enabled us to introduce a much easier, customer-friendly price system based on inches: a Vlek record now costs 1 euro per inch, no matter where you’re based. And that’s working out quite well because it all balances out in the end. But if my friend in Berlin ever decides to leave, we’re in the shit. It’s looking good though, because he just bought a flat there. Nonetheless it’s a really shaky system. All Belgian labels complain about this situation. It’s hard to find a distribution company these days because they’re suffering from the crisis in the music industry. So a lot of small labels which have to do everything themselves. But if the postal prices are that high, it’s not possible for them. Not everyone has a friend in Germany who feels like taking care of all this, and I can’t organise it for everyone. There’s definitely a great need here, and if someone was up to using this as a business opportunity and launch himself in this area, I’m sure there would be a lot of Belgian labels that would happily collaborate.