If you’re under 30, it’s probably hard to imagine a world where access to music isn’t fast and plenty. But before Napster, iTunes, Amazon or Spotify, you had to go out and buy an album to hear it, or find someone who had it. Or wait by the radio or TV until the single got played. So you had a tendency to seriously think about what albums you’d get. And apart from blowing your birthday money on a buying binge at HMV (been there, done that), you’d usually get one album at a time.
But from time to time (OK, very often), you’d come upon an ad in a magazine that promised an El Dorado of music purchases: the Columbia House record club. For a penny (and early ads had a spot where you could glue an actual penny to order), you could get up to 12 cassettes or records! 12!!!!! And all you had to do, was promise to buy a certain number of releases at regular price, whatever that was. But by the time you’d get to that part, all you could focus on was TWELVE ALBUMS FOR A FREAKING PENNY. I’d spend hours gazing at the selection, trying to come up with the perfect list of 12 albums that would fill holes in my collection but also let me explore music that looked like it’d be cool.
You could also buy at the same time your first selection at a reduced price, thus lowering your obligation, but as a kid depending on pocket money to buy albums, I felt that took away some of the fun. Because you weren’t paying a penny anymore, weren’t you? It sort of went against the concept. But if you did, you were allowed two more cassettes or one more CD: decisions, decisions! As I grew older (I enrolled multiple times over the years), I had a better grasp of the concept of economy of scale, and I’d maximise my purchase upfront to lower the commitment.
Because that commitment was a bitch. Regular price at Columbia House was ridiculously expensive (and you had to add shipping on top!). You ended up paying back a chunk of your 12 CDs for a penny over the course of your enrollment. You’d have to buy at regular prices 7 cassettes or 5 CDs over the course of the next 3 years. The club practiced “Negative Option Billing”, meaning that with every catalog, you had a card to send back inside of 14 days or you’d be sent the “selection of the month” automatically. I got stuck with a few of those until I realized I could just write “return to sender” on the box, put it back in the mailbox, and they’d take it back and not charge me. Some of the shit I got sent because I didn’t send back the card…
But of course the ultimate incentive to fulfill your obligations was that once you were done, you could do it all over again. Yes, 12 more cassettes baby! My first go was probably around early 1985. I got all of Ozzy’s early albums, Mötley Crüe’s “Shout at the Devil”, Judas Priest’s “Defenders of the Faith”, Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” and many more on cassettes. I have so many memories of playing these albums: the whole world of music was there to be discovered, and now I could search it 12 albums at a time! I must have enrolled 3 or 4 times over the years.
A lot of people didn’t bother with the requirements though, and just ignored them after receiving their intro package. This often led these teenagers to become acquainted with the role of Collection Agents, and the concept of Credit Rating, which usually ended with the parent writing a check to cover their teen’s disregard for their obligations. Others took defrauding the club to a competitive level. I once played in a band where the drummer had subscribed at least 20 times, under fake names, fake addresses (he’d have the packages “mistakenly” sent his neighbours). And he never got caught. Let’s just say that Columbia House’s security measures were a little lenient.
At some point in the 90’s, they accounted for 15% of all album sales, and until mail order really took off on the Internet, they were a really profitable business. I assume that, like their ancestor the “Book of the Month” club, they were a great deal for people in rural regions without access to a large selection of albums. But how could they make money?
First of all, Columbia House manufactured their own LPs/Tapes/Cassettes, using masters leased from the labels. This allowed them to skimp on packaging and, allegedly, quality, although I must say I’ve never seen any difference in the albums I acquired through them. They also decided unilaterally in the beginning that they’d pay only 75% of the usual royalty rate, and alleged that by continuing to do business with them, the labels had implicitly agreed to that rate. Ain’t that great? They just decided the law applied differently to them… and the labels went along with it! And those 12 albums for a penny? Promotional material, therefore nothing was paid to the artists and labels.
In the early 1990’s, Columbia House faced a new competitor in the BMG Music Club. They were extremely aggressive on prices, and the commitment was only for one album, but they would delay sending you some of the free albums until you’d bought that full price album. But their pricing was so aggressive that I never bothered cancelling and re-joining. 3 for 1 sales quickly became a regular occurrence, and soon 4 for 1 sales started appearing semi-regularly. They also had huge sales on boxsets: buying an artist’s entire opus was often cheaper than buying the 12 track Greatest Hits album! I wanted Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, so I ended up with the boxset covering their entire career instead of the higher priced best of album. I wanted to discover Emerson, Lake & Palmer? I bought the boxset. Interestingly, I hated it so much that I sold it to someone who couldn’t believe how cheaply I was selling it to him. Fact is: I actually made a profit on it.
Both clubs lingered on in increasing anonymity: BMG ceased operating in 2009, while Columbia House limped on until 2011 (it still lives on as a DVD club though). Both had outlived their usefulness. Both for about 50 years, record clubs were the stuff dreams were made of. Or more accurately: the stuff budding record collections were built on.
He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage