After making inroads at the Emmys and Oscars, Netflix broke into the Grammy Awards this year. Of the five nominees for best comedy album, four—Dave Chappelle, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, and Sarah Silverman—were nominated for Netflix shows. To make sure they could qualify for the Grammy, Netflix used a surprising tool for a streaming video company—vinyl records.
Netflix submitted a dozen of its original stand-up comedy specials to compete as comedy albums. However, the majority of these entrants didn’t get a conventional album release. The live comedy sets, including performances by Marc Maron, Trevor Noah and Amy Schumer, aren’t available on CD or on streaming music sites such as Spotify.
Instead, Netflix released audio versions of its video specials on vinyl only. The primary purpose was to qualify for Grammy nominations. Withholding the comedy specials from other streaming sites also helped the company maintain the exclusivity of its content. A side benefit: Vinyl records are less susceptible to pirating than CDs.
The company says “all Grammy submission guidelines were followed and all of our specials are also available for streaming on Netflix.”
Netflix didn’t announce the records’ release, and they’re being sold only through Amazon in small batches. They came out on Sept. 29, the day before the Grammy eligibility period ended. Early shipments of some, including recordings of comedy superstars Dave Chappelle and Tracy Morgan, emerged without covers or track listings.
The company’s strategy for getting its big guns in the game worked. When Grammy nominations were announced recently, Netflix stand-up specials dominated the comedy album category for the first time.
Unlike the other limited Netflix album releases, Mr. Gaffigan’s special, “Cinco,” got a broad rollout on digital, CD and vinyl formats. The fifth Grammy nod went to Kevin Hart, who was nominated for “What Now?”—a recording from a comedy film released in theaters.
The Recording Academy confirms the Netflix submissions adhered to Grammy guidelines, including the dictate that “recordings must be commercially released in general distribution in the United States.”
Releasing vinyl in token amounts to qualify for Grammys was once a strategy used by some musicians who streamed their music exclusively online. Then, last year, the Recording Academy changed its rules to allow streaming-only releases to be eligible for Grammys. (Streaming Netflix videos wouldn’t be included under that rule change, hence the company’s vinyl drop.)
The Academy says there is no rule specifying how many copies of a release must be available for sale. Netflix says additional copies of some records are being pressed now, but declined to specify how many were originally printed.
More than just an unlikely intersection of new and old-school media, Netflix’s quiet foray into vinyl is an example of how the streaming media company has roiled the comedy business. In recent years, Netflix has released a steady barrage of stand-up comedy specials and recruited the industry’s biggest stars. Mr. Seinfeld, for example, brought his interview series “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” to Netflix as part of a deal that also included two video stand-up specials. The first of them, “Jerry Before Seinfeld,” premiered in September and, in vinyl form, earned the comedian his third Grammy nomination.
Netflix’s power play has put the spotlight on stand-up comedy video. However, the comedy album genre—once a vehicle for hits by Bob Newhart, Cheech & Chong and more—has also gotten a new life, thanks to the way people are listening to stand-up comedians on Spotify, Pandora and other streaming platforms. This year, 176 comedy albums have been released so far, according to Nielsen Music, ranging from a $400 box set from Weird Al Yankovic to a raunchy release by an internet star who records under the name Pink Guy. Last year there were 178 comedy releases, up from from 123 in 2015.
Few comedy fans noticed when Netflix released 12 of its comedy specials on vinyl. Mat Milinkovich, a 39-year-old foster-home coordinator in Duluth, Minn., stumbled on the Amazon listing for a record compiling both of Mr. Chappelle’s Netflix comedy specials. He immediately ordered a copy of the four-LP set for $38, picturing it as a nice addition to his collection of some 2,000 LPs.
Knowing that vinyl releases are often given deluxe treatment, with lavish cover art and liner notes, Mr. Milinkovich was surprised to receive his Chappelle album packaged only in plain white paper sleeves. “This is supposed to be an art piece, but there’s no art,” he says, adding that the records themselves feel flimsy. “They just wobble in my hand.”
He ordered a replacement copy but it, too, arrived without a cover.
Netflix worked with a company called Comedy Dynamics, an established producer of comedy specials, to make and distribute the vinyl releases.
Comedy Dynamics says the thin, cover-less records were test copies produced before artwork was complete and “should not have gone to market.” Indeed, Grammy-nominated Seinfeld and Silverman LPs purchased by The Wall Street Journal had records of standard thickness and covers with colorful art and Netflix catalog numbers.
Comedy Dynamics says fewer than 10 test copies of each title were produced, meaning that Netflix may have inadvertently contributed to an additional genre of vinyl: collector’s items.
Write to John Jurgensen at firstname.lastname@example.org@wsj.com
Appeared in the December 18, 2017, print edition as ‘Netflix’s Vinyl Plan For the Grammys.’