If you were a music lover anytime between the 60s and early 90s, you may remember the flexi disc, or soundsheet as it was called in the US. The paper-thin, flexible, hardy vinyl sheets were cheap and versatile alternatives to full-weight 45s. They could most often be found in music magazines as bonus giveaways, promoting artists’ singles in a clever marketing tactic. But what else were the wavy flexis used for, and where did they go?
Flexible disc, flexible uses
The flexi disc was first conceptualized in the 50s in Britain, but didn’t really become a thing until American company Eva-Tone Incorporated mass-produced them in 1962. They were mostly used for band promos, magazine giveaways, and children’s albums due to their durability and low costs, but a few imaginative outlets took them to difference places.
The Beatles sent out flexi discs to members of the Official Beatles Fan Club over several Christmases containing greetings and songs, much to the delight of collectors. Eventually the releases were all compiled onto one big holiday heavy-weight available for purchase, but the flexi discs could be shipped out to Fan Club mailboxes without fear of breaking.
In 1968, Tricky Dick poured plenty of campaign dollars into producing soundsheet recordings of one of his speeches. Entitled Nixon’s the One, over a million voters in key states received Nixon’s presidential propaganda. It clearly worked – Richard Nixon was elected to the Oval Office later that year. Don’t bother digging through your attics though, they’re hardly worth anything.
The late 80s saw a very cunning marketing tactic employed by McDonald’s using flexi discs for a contest. Using the novelty hit “Life Is a Rock” as inspiration, the restaurant rewrote the lightning-fast lyrics to include treasured menu items. Managing to make it through the lyrics without messing up was quite the feat, and McDonald’s took advantage of that: only a single flexi disc slipped into America’s newspapers actually had the entire attempt recreated successfully, and won the listener $1 million. 78 million other copies, on the other hand, had a stumble or hiccup somewhere along the way. The contest actually caused quite a stir as people seriously doubted the existence of a winning attempt; almost all of them sounded, in some way, like the version below:
What went wrong?
There were a couple issues with the flexi disc that ended up spelling its eventual demise. The flimsy, thin material meant that surface scratches were much more common. And, because of the significantly lesser resistance to a record needle than a full-weight vinyl, flexi discs would often skip, drag and create annoying surface noises, or simply disintegrate. That’s right – it wasn’t uncommon for a soundsheet to only survive a dozen or so plays before being unusable. In the end they simply weren’t reliable enough for prolonged usage, and didn’t sound good enough for professional applications like at radio stations or clubs. And of course, the introduction of the CD didn’t help at all.
Why are flexis not gone completely?
The immediate answer is nostalgia, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Flexi discs actually proved to be invaluable to listeners in Soviet Russia, for whom Western rock music was banned throughout the regime in the 80s and 90s. The flexible vinyl could not only be smuggled and hidden easier than heavy-weights, but was even made of similar materials as hospital X-ray sheets. Sure enough, bootleggers and smugglers began hiding forbidden music in plain sight using these X-rays. Flexi discs became an important part of Eastern music culture, and carried them a bit farther than their expiry dates elsewhere in the world.
And as mentioned earlier, nostalgia and a tad of utility helped keep the flexi alive. Death metal mag Decibel started featuring soundsheets in their issues in 2011, and copies started flying off the shelves. A few labels saw the usefulness of flexis once again and began offering them as promos, including companies like Third Man, Side One Dummy, and Domino. A few other magazines have caught on in the meantime as well. But, one of the sole producers of flexis in the States, San Francisco’s Pirate Press, had to move their production operations to the Czech Republic in 2013 to lower costs. Despite claiming to make between 400,000 and 600,000 soundsheets a year, it seems the flexible vinyl format isn’t quite selling the same – but still refuses to die.