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In for a penny, in for Santana's Abraxas
November 14, 2011 8:47 AM   Subscribe

On June 29, 2011, the last remnant of what was once Columbia House — the mightiest mail-order record club company that ever existed — quietly shuttered for good. Other defunct facets of the 20th-century music business have been properly eulogized, but it seems that nary a tear was shed for the record club. Perhaps ... a new generation of music fans who had never known a world without the Internet couldn't grasp the marvel that was the record club in its heyday. From roughly 1955 until 2000, getting music for free meant taping a penny to a paper card and mailing it off for 12 free records — along with membership and the promise of future purchasing.

The rise and fall of the Columbia Record House club--and how we learned to steal music.
posted by Horace Rumpole (99 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm sure the scams my friends and I ran in grade school didn't help, but I have fond memories of filling out the card in the names of my dogs, getting a bunch of CDs, then selling them at school to finance my shenanigans. RIP, Columbia House, you were a young grifter's main source of income for a number of years.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:53 AM on November 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


The first 12 records were only a penny. Then they jacked up the price!

I'm trying to remember the last music I paid for. Alice Coltrane's Ptah, The El Daoud, I think. Must have been a couple of years ago.
posted by Trurl at 8:54 AM on November 14, 2011


I don't remember taping a penny to a card, but I do remember vaguely back in college days mailing off something and getting a whole bunch of CDs in return. Problem was that you had to keep buying and after getting the free 12 CDs that you wanted it was difficult to find more CDs to buy from their catalog that you didn't already have or that you didn't have and actually wanted to have.
posted by blucevalo at 8:55 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Does this mean I no longer have to worry about them coming after me for never having paid for the Sheena Easton CD that they sent me in 1988?

Whew. I'm going to be sleep well for the first time in ages tonight.
posted by CaseyB at 8:56 AM on November 14, 2011 [24 favorites]


I also remember jump-starting my CD collection circa 1994 this way.

And who can forget the shout-out from Weird Al:
But then one fateful night, Zelda said to me
She said "Sweetie pumpkin? Do you wanna join the Columbia Record Club?"
I said "Woah, hold on now, baby"
"I'm just not ready for that kinda commitment"
So we broke up and I never saw her again
But that's just the way things go

In Albuquerque
posted by jepler at 8:58 AM on November 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


It was a kind of class warfare, what with all those Eagles Greatest Hits CDs being sent all over.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:03 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


...back in college days mailing off something and getting a whole bunch of CDs in return. Problem was that you had to keep buying...

The way we college students always solved this was by moving dorms/apartments.
posted by DU at 9:03 AM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Those chiselers are gonna close without sending me my final ABBA cassette?
posted by orme at 9:05 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember signing up for Columbia House, getting my free tapes, and thinking what suckers they were because we were sure to all die in a nuclear war before I'd have to do my required purchases.
posted by COBRA! at 9:05 AM on November 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


How Many Music Formats Have You Outlived?
posted by infini at 9:06 AM on November 14, 2011


and in a few minutes we will likely be treated to silly arguments about the semantics of music downloading terminology.
posted by caddis at 9:06 AM on November 14, 2011


And time marches on. Great post, thanks!
posted by Melismata at 9:06 AM on November 14, 2011


I enjoyed the piece but there's a slight touch of hyperbole to it that leaves me with a question: was Terre Haute that dependent on the Columbia Record Company, or was merely a large employer whose loss was a significant blow?

I grew up thinking Cleveland was a mythical place - like Disneyland - because it was on Peanuts comics or some series of competition entries or something. Sadly, I think the mailorder music clubs here had some UK address that I already knew to be ordinary, but Terre Haute would totally have sounded magical to me.
posted by carbide at 9:07 AM on November 14, 2011


I finally joined Columbia House at age 13, after filling out the card bunches of times. I was so sure my picks -- which were never the CDs you really wanted, more like second or third tier -- proved Alternative Rock I was, as if somebody at Columbia House were keeping score. Receiving that box of CDs made me realize, though, that just because one likes Nada Surf's "Popular" and Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars" doesn't mean one will enjoy the entire CD. I did not yet realize admitting possession of said CDs would still be embarrassing 15 years later.
posted by changeling at 9:07 AM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


I always wondered how they could possibly be making any money. When I was a kid my dad kept getting free, unasked for CDs mailed to him but never signed up for anything or gave them any money. My best friend in high school got a lot of stuff from them somehow too but the selection available was always pretty weak. I'm sure if he goes back to look he'll find he has an epic collection of one-hit wonders.
posted by ghharr at 9:07 AM on November 14, 2011


When my parents signed up for Columbia House they would take six of the tapes and let my siblings and I choose two each. I don't know about my brother and sister, but oh my God the time I spent pouring over the selections...two tapes, that was a lot of money when you were 12 years old in 1985, and you didn't want to waste it on something crappy.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:09 AM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Columbia House (and their idiot cousin BMG) really were a crucial part of my musical upbringing that gave me access to things there was really no other way to access at that point in time. I wish I was excited about anything today as I used to be about getting one of those introductory packages.

I think I managed to "sign up" about 4 or 5 times between 1993 and 1995. It was probably a few years after that when all the legal ramifications were finally wrapped up.
posted by anazgnos at 9:09 AM on November 14, 2011


I actually got the best of both worlds: I wasn't the one who signed up for the club, my father was. And he was just too lazy to look over the catalog every month when it came to select his monthly purchase, so he always just let it default to the "club selection" and paid the bill each month anyway, figuring "well, it's probably good, so I'll like it." He usually gave whatever flavor-of-the-month record a listen, and then a week later, when he got bored with it, he gave it to me.

And that is how Columbia Record Club suckered my father into giving me an awesome record collection in high school.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:09 AM on November 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


"Stealing music" indeed.

I would argue that the Columbia House business model was exactly that: stealing. Most artists never saw a dime from those record "sales" since they were not technically sales. Most of the product moved was remaindered product (you could tell because either case/cover was often notched.)

This business model was part of the scam that was a 7-record deal offered to artists.

Good riddance to Columbia House, and good riddance to "traditional" music production behemoths. The whole thing was a decades-long pyramid scam. All these crocodile tears they shed for those poor artists would be funnier if all the millions they made selling hyper-inflated plastic discs didn't just go up their noses.

Those poor artists saw a fraction of a percent of that stupid profit. And, yes, I'm counting the huge platinum sellers in that assessment. This is what makes the whole thing so criminal.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:09 AM on November 14, 2011 [22 favorites]


Yet another impediment between the music maker and the music listener gone. Buh-bye! Your messed up mixes and different track lengths for mainstream CDs will not be forgotten.
posted by scruss at 9:10 AM on November 14, 2011


............

Those twelve .s only cost you a penny. But every month I'm going to mail you another . and bill you $11.99, forever.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:13 AM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


My cousin and a friend of mine both (separately) submitted dozens and dozens of fake names (but with the same address) to see if the scam would work, and it did. Hundreds of free CDs for $0.48.

The weird thing is that sometimes the CD you received wasn't the same recording (or mixing? or mastering?) that you'd get in a store. I know of two examples:

- Spider, Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants. The normal release has a sort of call and response in the lyrics, but the Columbia House recording is missing the response. The lyrics are just "spider spider spider".

- Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers. Several tracks are completely missing the bass line. Wtf.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:14 AM on November 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


I was a member during the LP era and I remember the records being really shitty quality, sometimes unplayable right out of the wrapper.
posted by octothorpe at 9:14 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


And of course clvrmnky, calling the people you steal from "thieves" is one of the oldest and most feeble rationalisations. Depriving someone of revenue is stealing. As always, if you don't want to pay, don't consume.
posted by epo at 9:14 AM on November 14, 2011


I did the BMG deal, which I think was pretty much the same thing as the Columbia House thing. I think in theory if you just purchased the required followups at the somewhat inflated prices, you still came out ahead, but they also depended on the "we're gonna mail you a random CD every month and you have to return it or else we'll charge you" thing. Plus, I remember BMG's discs were specially made for them and the going theory was that they were crappier printings.

There were all kinds of schemes like that back then. My parents did one that was for science books.
posted by kmz at 9:15 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Columbia Record Club was a great deal as long as you paid attention and were diligent about returning the cards right away. In the vinyl era I went through three different membership cycles - hitting my required purchases, cancelling, and then starting over again. If I remember correctly, I got the 11 for a penny, the secret BONUS title (by putting the number in the yellow box), and up to two first purchases at half price. Plus they always had new wave and weird little albums (the stuff I wanted) on sale for only a few bucks. It was a great way for a highschool freshman to build up a collection quickly. I knew the vinyl was a lower grade and sometimes you didn't get the inserts, but I was OK with that in exchange for just being able to own the music.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:15 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was cool with Columbia House. I did the math and picked out not only the ones I'd get for "free" but the ones I'd pay for before I cancelled the contract. I think it worked out to like six bucks per CD shipped, which was pretty good. You had to keep on top of them, of course, returning their little postcards with the "selection" crossed off and the "send this instead" box filled out. But yeah, I was a happy customer. Shame if it's true about the artists getting bupkis though.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:18 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember poring over those pull-out Columbia House ads when I was a kid. Time and time again, I would tape the penny into place, fill out my name and address, read all the fine print, fill out the gold box, and start choosing my 12 records...

... but I could never find twelve records I wanted even for a penny, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't want them any more once I had to pay real money for 'em.

My mom went through a book-of-the-month club debacle when I was small, which left me with a healthy skepticism of seemingly-free media.
posted by Elsa at 9:18 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Plus they always had new wave and weird little albums (the stuff I wanted) on sale for only a few bucks.

This interests and surprises me because it's the stuff I would have been looking for, too, and I can't remember ever finding enough selection to make me bite the hook. But maybe I'm older than you are; I would've been looking at Columbia House in my pre-teen and early-teen years --- say, 1980 to 1984.
posted by Elsa at 9:21 AM on November 14, 2011


I used to take the stickers, put them on cardboard, then cut them out. My Barbie had the sweetest record collection EVAAAHHHH!
posted by stormpooper at 9:24 AM on November 14, 2011 [27 favorites]


I fulfilled my agreement with Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life on 8-track and never looked back. I had no idea Columbia House lasted even this long.
posted by PapaLobo at 9:25 AM on November 14, 2011


For a weird insiders look at the Columbia Record Club you should check out a first-person documentary called "the Target Shoots First". A 22 year old employee brought his video camera to work everyday (starting on his very first day!) and for some reason was allowed to film meetings, internal discussions, and other things you'd never think a major company would allow. I couldn't find it online and I don't think it's on DVD, but I occasionally see it on cable. Not great, but worth the watch.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:26 AM on November 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Not sure why you say they're shuttered; it looks like they've just switched from music to DVDs. But the rules are essentially the same.
posted by underthehat at 9:27 AM on November 14, 2011


I think I indicated my choices with stamps. There were stamps? Weren't there? I remember stamps.

spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints Wow. That is awesome/sad that you found out the albums were sub par. Looking back, it's no surprise they would send out junky discs.
posted by hot_monster at 9:28 AM on November 14, 2011


Spider, Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants. The normal release has a sort of call and response in the lyrics, but the Columbia House recording is missing the response. The lyrics are just "spider spider spider".

If anyone still has the disc, I urge them to rip and upload this version of the song somewhere.


I was a member of both BMG and Columbia House for a while. I wish I could remember which catalog had the blurb of Pretty Hate Machine describing Trent Reznor as the "Todd Rundgren of ultra-nihilism."
posted by anthom at 9:29 AM on November 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


"And of course clvrmnky, calling the people you steal from "thieves" is one of the oldest and most feeble rationalisations. Depriving someone of revenue is stealing. As always, if you don't want to pay, don't consume."
But, who wasn't paying? Who was depriving who of what revenue?

My comment had nothing do say about any private individual stealing music, but rather a critique of the dialogue that somehow misses the tacit involvement in revenue-stealing by the very companies representing the creators.

But what if you wanted to pay? What if you wanted all the latest hits and some new-to-you and this thing comes in the mail and, hey, it's only a few bucks!

By purchasing directly from a music production company that represents the artists you might assume that some of this money is actually going to the artists. It certainly wouldn't be too much of a stretch to assume that you are paying the artist for the goods you are "consuming."

As it turns out, this was not the case. I suspect a great number of members would have been surprised at how little of their money went anywhere near an artist.

I would suggest that regardless of how you lose a potential sale, be it via Columbia House (or similar loophole side-channels) or bittorrent, you are still losing potential revenue.

That is, the dialogue that accepts the fundamental notions of file-sharing as somehow intrinsically separate from the notion of business-as-usual for the big production companies is flawed at its core. They are more aligned than received wisdom would have us believe.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:32 AM on November 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Spider, Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants. The normal release has a sort of call and response in the lyrics, but the Columbia House recording is missing the response. The lyrics are just "spider spider spider".

What? What is the point of that song without the response?

SPIDER -- He is our hero!
SPIDER -- Get rid of
SPIDER -- Step on Spider!
SPIDER -- We love you spider!
AUUUOOOOOOO--

I PROMISE NOT TO KILL YOU
posted by JHarris at 9:34 AM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Joined one of these (BMG?) in the early 90s and ended up getting a crapload of CDs for what seemed like not very much money. Every time I tried to quit, they'd offer me a bunch of free discs to stay, and if something I wanted wasn't in the monthly catalog, all I'd have to do is ask and they'd make it available to me. I remember the value & customer service as being top-notch. Ended up trading all those CDs for 78s, because if you're going to get music off of spinning discs, might as well be authentic about it.
posted by squalor at 9:34 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Elsa - My Columbia Record Club years were around 79 through 82. The ads had a batch of "highlighted" albums - often different titles on different ads. I think my initial purchase each time I signed up had titles pulled from several ads to find 11 albums I really wanted. But once you were a member they would send out catalogs that included lots of sale titles. I'm sure most people thought those were the crappiest titles, but I recall finding lots of power pop and new wave albums in those sections. Most were probably cut-out titles, but that was a perk of liking less popular music. Once I discovered independent labels and imports I stopped signing up, but it was a great way to get started on a lifelong record addiction.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 9:35 AM on November 14, 2011


Re: Trent Reznor as the "Todd Rundgren of ultra-nihilism."

That's, actually, a pretty clever and reasonably accurate comparison. Whoever wrote that originally can take the rest of the day off.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:35 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


My LP, 8-Track, CD and DVD collections all got started with Columbia House (or equivalent).

No, I didn't learn my lesson. Obviously.
posted by tommasz at 9:41 AM on November 14, 2011


Great article.

I think I indicated my choices with stamps. There were stamps? Weren't there? I remember stamps.

I remember this as well. Specifically, I remember tearing a whole page of stamps out of a magazine, licking the back of them, and stick the whole gooey mess on to printer paper.
posted by codacorolla at 9:45 AM on November 14, 2011


The tagline for the Columbia House DVD Club is "Pay for the DVDs You Want, Without the Streaming You Don't."

I can't for the life of me figure out who their target demographic is. Netflix users who are delighted to be paying more for DVD rentals with no Instant Watch? Old people who understand the internet well enough to know what streaming is, but are suspicious of it? People with no internet access who are signing up for the DVD club at the library? I just don't get it.
posted by decathecting at 9:46 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


How Many Music Formats Have You Outlived?

With the exception of piano rolls (though they were around when I was young), I have owned all of those.

And that list has a glaring omission. Reel-to-reel.
posted by eyeballkid at 9:46 AM on November 14, 2011


I remember joining Columbia House in the 1970s and getting Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Janis Joplin among my penny's worth of albums. I ordered some t-shirts and other stuff out of their catalog in addition to the requisite number of albums. I wasn't very good at returning the cards on time, so occasionally ended up with an unwanted album. A helpful postman told me the way to deal with that: Just write "Not Accepted" or something similar on the unopened package and the post office would return it to the sender, no questions asked. I did that more than a few times and don't remember any real problems, although they did send me a couple of letters asking me if I was unhappy with their service. All in all I thought it was an OK deal, but I didn't realize until now that the artists were getting screwed.
posted by TedW at 9:47 AM on November 14, 2011


Also, other than the Fruitridge Avenue address on all the Columbia House correspondance, the only other thing I knew about Terre Haute was that it was where Jody, Buffy, and Cissy were from. Come to think of it, that's still about all I know about Terre Haute.
posted by TedW at 9:58 AM on November 14, 2011


One of my membership cycles I did 12 comedy albums, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, etc. I was 12 years old and hearing Mork throw around the F word like nobody's business made me feel like the deviant that I would eventually become in my high school years.
posted by COD at 9:58 AM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I joined the Columbia Record & Tape club in, probably, 1978 or 79 and I was so thrilled with my 12 records. Al Stewart! Renaissance! I am 14 and life is sweet, except that of course I couldn't pay for the next selections and they just kept coming. In a foreshadowing of my adult life, I took to putting all the mail, the catalogs, the unpaid and mounting bills, the unopened albums - they had started sending me multi record sets of, like, Verdi and shit that cost a million dollars to my frightened eyes - and everything under my bed and ignoring it all, hoping it would go away.

Then my father found out. Everything was pulled out from under the bed and I was read a riot act that I would never forget, about how my credit rating as an adult was now permanently ruined; I would never get a mortgage or a car loan; I probably would not be accepted to college; I was a bad risk and thus had been tagged forever in the eyes of the entire world as the useless wastrel I so clearly was. "I have paid," my father finally announced, when he had wound down, which took I think three months, "Your bills. I will never do this again. Do not ever do anything so stupid again."

And I haven't. I have never again joined the Columbia Record & Tape Club and somehow, I did manage to go to college and rewreck my credit rating years later even without their help. I still have this lurking fear, though, that somewhere in some ancient database is my name with a big red flag next to it and the notation: Unreliable! Bad risk! And she never returned or even listened to the multi album Verdi set, the bitch.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:04 AM on November 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


ric ocasek
chaka khan
meatloaf
posted by fallacy of the beard at 10:09 AM on November 14, 2011


List three musical artists whose names sound like restaurant dishes.
posted by exogenous at 10:25 AM on November 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


BMG didn't have great selection, but it had many classic albums, so (like many people, I suspect) it provided me with an affordable way to migrate to CD from vinyl. The main difference between BMG and Columbia House was that, IIRC, BMG required one purchase at "regular" (ie: inflated) price in the coming year, to Columbia's required five or six albums in the coming couple of years. This not only made for a better initial deal, but quicker turnaround, if you wanted to make use of that intro deal again (probably as someone else). Plus, you could wait to make that regular purchase on one of BMG's two, three, or four-for-one deals. Add additional free albums for signing other people up, and it just made sense to sign yourself up as another customer, again and again.

At one point, I had 13 active accounts with BMG, each one after the first averaging, I think, 15 albums for the one I bought at $20 (plus shipping for all of them, mind).

It was a lot of paperwork keeping it all straight, and being young, slightly paranoid, and having too much time on my hands, I actually kept track of musical tastes for my alternate personalities and would make purchases to reflect this.

With the exception of piano rolls (though they were around when I was young), I have owned all of those.

Me, too! Reel-to-reel not really an oversight as that was a personal list of how many formats he'd outlived. (as to that, I didn't have one, but my brother-in-law did)
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:38 AM on November 14, 2011


I had -before ripping, iPods, and sticky fingered children- an utterly massive CD collection, filling an entire 6' bookshelf, not just the five shelves, but the very tippy top as well.

This is how I did it.

1. At age 14, tell my parents I want one thing, and one thing only: a CD player that can be hooked up to our aging stereo. In an uncharacteristic display, they oblige.

2. Taking the advice of both my dad and my uncle, I ignore the Columbia House ads that scream at me from Rolling Stone every month. I opt for BMG. "6 free CDs, buy 4, NOTHING MORE TO BUY EVER!" I have several hundred dollars kicking around- I babysit, work for my dad, and have grandparents who give cash at Christmas. I do the math, and take $50 to my mom. I tell her that I want to order this music, that I want to buy my 4 CDs right now, here is the cash, please write the check, $50 for 10 CDs is a really good deal, Mom, please please please. She squints at the fine print, and complies.

3. The package arrives. I still have the Prince CDs that I got in that first shipment. I also got my mom Elton John's then-new album, as a gesture of goodwill. A few weeks later, an unordered CD shows up. My aunt works for the Postal Service, so I know I'm not obligated to keep this, but I'm curious. I open it, and it's something by Patti LaBelle. Sheesh. I write a little note saying that I've fulfilled my obligation and to please stop sending me CDs because I won't be paying for them, and that it's perfectly to not pay for something you didn't order. I stick double sided tape under the flap and write "Return to Sender" on the box. I expect to never hear from them again.

4. A few weeks later, I get an envelope. Sorry, here are gift certificates for FOUR FREE CDs. Please consider rejoining. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! THIS IS SO AWESOME. I send for my four free CDs.

5. My brother, growing jealous, sends a filled out card into Columbia House. He doesn't quite realize that I have actually spent $50, money he does not have. When his package shows up, he gets flustered. I offer to help him out- I type up a letter saying that my child is only ten years old and can't be expected to honor a contract, and sign my mom's name. I send it off (we keep the CDs). Columbia House responds with an apology letter, no expectation of payment, and GIFT CERTIFICATES FOR SIX FREE CDS! We feel like we hit the lotto.

6. I do some combination of this- paying for everything right away, then quitting and allowing myself to be lured back in; using names of young cousins of neighbors, then sending outraged "parental" letters,- to both music clubs, over and over for about five years. For the few payments I must make, I get postal money orders from my sympathetic aunt. Yeah, it cost me a little bit of money, but nothing like $12-$18 per disc, which is what my less-scandalous friends were paying. I certainly spent less than $100/yr, and my brother spent nothing. We got 4-6 CDs in the mail every month, sometimes more.
posted by Leta at 10:44 AM on November 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


With the exception of piano rolls (though they were around when I was young), I have owned all of those.

Me, too! Reel-to-reel not really an oversight as that was a personal list of how many formats he'd outlived. (as to that, I didn't have one, but my brother-in-law did)


Wasn't reel to reel after piano rolls? [distinctly recall my father's Hitachi system]
posted by infini at 10:44 AM on November 14, 2011


I built my music collection the old fashioned way-- got a job at the college radio station and took home all the demos I could.
posted by slogger at 10:49 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


BAck when rocks were soft -- 1970- ish -- I joined up with an outfit called the Record | Club of | America.
Record Club of America was based in York, Pa., and operated from the late '60s to mid '70s. It was basically a discount mail-order record retailer — it wasn't affiliated with any label, but offered everything that was in the (late, lamented) Schwann Record Catalog. If you "joined," you got circulars in the mail every few weeks, but there were no monthly selections or cards to send back.

Through the end of the '60s they were great. Albums that listed for $4.98 usually sold for $2.99 and often for $2.49 or even $1.99. You'd sometimes see prices like that on a few sale items at Sears or Woolworth's, but this was on a much broader range of albums. . .

After achieving a certain amount of success, the company started cutting deals with the big labels to buy these custom pressings so they could get better wholesale prices. The "Manufactured by ..." indicated that the records weren't returnable to the record label, which lowered the label's cost (in those days, regular pressings were 100% returnable if they didn't sell — big cost to the label). They'd also forgo the shrink wrap and maybe use cheaper vinyl to shave the cost some more. But, if the records didn't sell, Record Club of America was stuck with them.

When the club went belly-up in the mid-'70s, it was stuck with about 600,000 albums. For some reason they never disposed of them and just kept them in a warehouse. . .
It doesn't sound as though RCoA was in the business of ripping off artists -- at least not directly -- but worked out ecumenical record distribution deals.

Used to get these huge catalogs of records you could buy. Prices were all over the map, but always lower than the local Camelot Records and usually lower than at The Forest ("books records tapes and paraphernalia 2032 Wayne Avenue with a large parking lot behind the store open 15 hours a day from 11am to 2am. . . ")

Among other titles, I was the first on my block to get a copy of Who's Next, thanks to RCoA. I prolly still have dozens of LPs from the 1960s and '70s with the little RCoA stamp on the back.

Probably the oddest thing from their catalog: Abbie Hoffman's one and only long player, Wake Up, America!
posted by Herodios at 10:53 AM on November 14, 2011


I opt for BMG. "6 free CDs, buy 4, NOTHING MORE TO BUY EVER!"

Not to doubt your memory, but was that BMG's deal or CH? I was never asked to buy more than one album by BMG. CH's five or six is what kept me away.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:59 AM on November 14, 2011


I was weeding out my email folder the other day and found a few from BMG. They were letting me know my Counting Crows, Tracy Chapman, and Cars cds are on the way.
posted by vagabond at 11:02 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


It is exceptionally easy to get ANOTHER 12 free CDs while managing the mailboxes at a 30-person college co-op. Given the steady influx and exodus of people from all over the globe, nobody bats an eye at packages for one Cookingham Buckindorf.
posted by Madamina at 11:03 AM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


I can't remember which one of these it was, but they switched from the old mail-in cards (which yes, I used more than once growing up) to an online form, where all you had to do was remember to go during the 4-5 day period set aside and say yes or no to the 'selection of the month'.

I didn't keep up with it so well either. I'm sure there's still at least one CD in my mom's garage still shrinkwrapped that I never intended to order...
posted by pupdog at 11:05 AM on November 14, 2011


do some combination of this- paying for everything right away, then quitting and allowing myself to be lured back in; using names of young cousins of neighbors, then sending outraged "parental" letters,- to both music clubs, over and over for about five years. For the few payments I must make, I get postal money orders from my sympathetic aunt. Yeah, it cost me a little bit of money, but nothing like $12-$18 per disc, which is what my less-scandalous friends were paying. I certainly spent less than $100/yr, and my brother spent nothing. We got 4-6 CDs in the mail every month, sometimes more.

That's a big part of how I built up my initial several-thousand disc collection in the early to mid 90s... that and, despite all the haters, for what I was looking for CH had a surprisingly good collection in the Metal/Industrial/Electro range. That's where I got all my first Front 242, KMFDM, Foetus, Prong, Ministry, Einsturzende, Kraftwerk, etc etc... also, in those burgeoning days of the intarwebz I did some scrounging on their website and found they had a MASSIVE inventory .txt file of WAAAAAY more cds than you'd see in even their full print catalogs, along with all the order codes... so the selection was far wider than it looked initially. And yeah, between figuring out the best time to bulk order ("It's buy one get two free this month! Cha-CHING!") and the fistfuls of 'free disc' coupons they gave me, I was ROLLING in albums.

I think the only notable problem I had with their cds (aside from most of them coming with the teeth mashed out of the case, but the cd went straight into a binder so i didn't care) was the one Skinny Puppy remix album I got.... The first track opened up with what sounded like a choir of hymns, and then - stayed that way. "What an... odd... remix," I thought. However, the second track was the same and then I knew something was up. With the help of some further online searching, I found that the audio on the disc was actually a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, even tho the CD art was all Puppy. Upon contacting CH about that, i got resent a correct copy of the album as well as another stack of free album coupons. I think I averaged out the math from all my orders/free piles/etc, and found that over the average, I had paid less than 2-3 dollars per disc (after shipping!) throughout my subscription. Works for me!
posted by FatherDagon at 11:09 AM on November 14, 2011


It is exceptionally easy to get ANOTHER 12 free CDs while managing the mailboxes at a 30-person college co-op.

At, I think it was, account #5, BMG sent me a polite letter apologizing for not being able to provide any more accounts to my residential address. I wrote a rather angry reply arguing it wasn't fair that our large family couldn't accomodate accounts for my brothers and sisters. Thereafter they permitted me however many accounts.

I do have a very large family, and I eventually did sign one sister up, promising to handle her reply card responsibilities with the others. It was a tight little operation by then.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:12 AM on November 14, 2011


boz scaggs
pablo cruise
jim croce
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:13 AM on November 14, 2011


boz scaggs
pablo cruise
jim croce


Name three STDs?
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:17 AM on November 14, 2011 [10 favorites]


Three things I remember about Columbia House:

1. My parents joined shortly after we moved to the new house, just before my sister came along. This is why they have played-once vinyl copies of Sports by Huey Lewis and the News and John Fogerty's Centerfield.

2. When my parents got a CD player (with a 6-disc changer!), they joined another music club. They appreciated Low Spark of High Heeled Boys and Will The Circle Be Unbroken Vol I and II, but didn't care so much for the default selections of INXS, Fine Young Cannibals or Guns 'N' Roses. I was a little more ecumenical in my tastes when I was ten—radical! Free CDs for me!

3. I can't get their damn early-90s commercial out of my head now.

Big enough to bring you all the best in entertainment!
Columbia House!
Big enough to entertain Amerrrrricaaaaa
One person at a time!
One person at a time!


If I never hear another rousing patriotic chorus in a commercial extolling the virtues of bigness again, it'll be too soon.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:42 AM on November 14, 2011


How Many Music Formats Have You Outlived?

Also, reel-to-reel. An elementary school friend's family had a reel-to-reel machine set up in their living room, connected to the receiver/amp. Most of the tapes they had seemed to be jazz recordings, if I remember correctly.
posted by aught at 11:43 AM on November 14, 2011


I still remember some of the cassettes I got when I first joined:

Journey - Escape
Foreigner - 4
Rolling Stones - Tattoo You
J. Geils Band - Love Stinks and Freeze Frame
REO Speedwagon - Hi Infidelity

Traded them all for some Iron Maiden albums a year or two later.
posted by Knappster at 11:43 AM on November 14, 2011


Receiving that box of CDs made me realize, though, that just because one likes Nada Surf's "Popular" and Dishwalla's "Counting Blue Cars" doesn't mean one will enjoy the entire CD. I did not yet realize admitting possession of said CDs would still be embarrassing 15 years later.

I got my Nada Surf CD from BMG, and felt pretty much the same way about it. However, a few years later I gave it another chance realized that the fact that none of the other songs were sarcastic King Missile ripoffs was actually a good thing. At the time Nada Surf was compared unfavorably to Weezer, and since then they have moved in a more mellow direction, but I would say High/Low is probably one of the best albums of its genre from the 90s.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2011


I was another one of those who couldn't find 12 I wanted from Columbia (no Journey? no Billy Joel? ), but could find 8 from BMG (once you filled in the "secret" box). But somehow I managed to get the sweetest deal ever: Get 6 + 2 free, buy one in a year, and they would SEND YOU 2 FREE ALBUMS A YEAR FOR LIFE. As in, forever.

My system was to try to send back the reply card in time and not get the free one before it came, but any time one came through I would return it, and every time I wrote on the card something along the lines of "I travel for work all the time and can't get cards back to you, please change my subscription so I only tell you if I DO want the selection" (I didn't tell them that the work I was traveling to was called high school, via the school bus). After a year or two, I got the catalog envelope in the mail and the "Do nothing, it will automatically be mailed to you" box was all X'd out -- I had won! From that point on, it was like winning the CD lottery. I would toss the envelopes right in the trash without even opening them, and yet once a year like clockwork, I would get a 3x5 card in the mail asking me for my two free selections, and for something like $3.50 postage, I still got two free cassettes (or one double album). This was awesome in high school and college, then less awesome when I had switched to CDs like everyone else and was still only being offered free cassettes, and even less awesome when they discontinued CDs and I would get the card offering me my 2 free cassettes and I just knew that the cool people who had chosen LP's were now getting CD's while I was stuck with stupid cassettes because my dumb 14 year old self wanted something I could play in the car... but I still filled out the card and got my 2 free albums, because dammit, it said FOR LIFE and by god I was going to get them.

A decade passed and every time I moved homes (probably every two years) I still made sure and contacted BMG to change my forwarding address, so the 2 free albums FOR LIFE would still come. And pretty soon, it paid off: They wrote saying they were sorry, they were discontinuing cassettes, and I would still get 2 free albums, but now they would be on CD (!). With another option to cancel my membership if I was disappointed, which, ha ha fuck that.

At this point I pretty much had all the albums I wanted and the BMG catalog started featuring less and less new music I liked, and more and more greatest hits compilations which I already had, and I started stalling on sending back the cards. I would get my free selection card in the mail and think "didn't I just get one of these?" - find the one from a year before, and send one in but not the other. A few years after that everything was MP3 and I couldn't even be bothered to send the cards in at all.

When I moved the last time I didn't even bother telling BMG where I went. I felt like an incredible sucker for giving up my 2 free albums FOR LIFE, but I had stopped needing them and it didn't occur to me to sell them or take them anyway. I still feel a twinge when I think about the class action lawsuit that must have resulted among other For-Lifers who had hung in there up till the end when BMG folded the club - they must have given them something, and here I am missing out like a sucker.

But I still have about 3-4 cards in my desk drawer good for 6-8 free CDs (plus postage and handling), just waiting for me to send them in if I could just decide what I want.

sigh.

/ feeling old
posted by Mchelly at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


you could tell because either case/cover was often notched.

Hm. I wonder what era you're talking about. Because I was a CH member on-and-off from the late 70s as a teen (8 tracks, then LPs) to the early 90s as a thirty-something (CDs) and I don't recall ever getting a cut out. Having worked in book and record stores, I knew what that meant and it would have pissed me off.
posted by aught at 11:49 AM on November 14, 2011


Oh yeah, and as far as my parents were concerned, they and I learned to steal music by taping. I had sooooo many Disney storybooks-on-recordtape, and they would make me mix tapes of Styx, the Boss, Bobby Darin, the J Geils Band, Creedence, Michael Jackson off the radio or presumably off of friend's records. For the longest time, the only records I owned were four 45s: Owner of a Lonely Heart, Ghostbusters, That's All, and Jack and Diane.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:52 AM on November 14, 2011


Yeah, cassettes were the era of mixed tapes, after all, wedding DJ's with briefcases full of (unlicensed) music, and copies to all your friends. Did many people actually build purchased-cassette music collections or like me, go from store bought vinyl to CDs with a lot of cassette taping in between?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Hm. I wonder what era you're talking about. Because I was a CH member on-and-off from the late 70s as a teen (8 tracks, then LPs) to the early 90s as a thirty-something (CDs) and I don't recall ever getting a cut out.

Yeah, I don't think the big shops (BMG and Columbia House) sent out notched or marked media. What they did do was print their label on the CD insert. Most of the used record stores I went to wouldn't buy any of these CDs because of that dreaded label.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:04 PM on November 14, 2011


A few more Columbia Record Club ads on flickr: 1963, 1962, 1967, and the 1970s.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 12:20 PM on November 14, 2011


Though I was a member (twice) the real annoyance about Columbia House shutting its doors is that the book clubs they're affiliated with also died, with absolutely no notice, and there's no replacement here in Canuckistan. I miss my cheap books.
posted by Palindromedary at 12:29 PM on November 14, 2011


Son of a bitch. I never did get my free CDs! Columbia House only sent one! Bastards!
posted by magstheaxe at 12:41 PM on November 14, 2011


My friend's Columbia House scam was that he would go to the library and find names and addresses of people with similar names to his in other states.

He would then sign up for 12 free tapes or LPs under their name, but at his address.

After receiving his 12 freebies, he'd submit a change of address card so that future mailing went to the person in the other state.

He never got caught, but I always thought that was kind of a dick thing to do - not so much the ripping off Columbia House as the pinning the bills on some stranger.

I imagine my old friend is currently working as an e-mail spammer.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:54 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


INRE the "thieves" comment: I signed up three times in the year I lived off-campus…and honest to God someone stole my CDs out of the building lobby each time. Columbia was understandably skeptical, but I really never received a single disc.

Of course, this served as a good counterweight to the time, years before, that I *did* welch on my end of the membership -- and only one album short of my 12-record commitment, too!
posted by wenestvedt at 12:54 PM on November 14, 2011


Now I'm curious as to what type of titles they were offering over the years, so here are a few other CRC ads via Google Books:

Popular Science Feb 1972- includes Engelbert Humperdinck, Partirdige Family, Black Sabbath, and Tom Jones!

Popular Science Jan 1974- includes Shanana, Lobo, Sergio Mendes, David Frye's "Richard Nixon: a Fantasy", John Davidson, and the New York Dolls!

Jet Jul 21, 1977- includes Helen Reddy, CW McCall, the Floaters, David Soul, Jim Nabors, and Muhammad Ali!

Working Mother Jul 1979- includes Village People, Chuck Mangione, Donna Fargo, and the Captain & Tennile!

Weekly World News Jul 14, 1981- includes Eddie Rabbit, Rita Coolidge, the Annie soundtrack, Rupert Holmes, and several Barry manilow choices!

Popular Mechanics Jan 1984 - includes Aerobic Dancing, Bonnie Tyler, Joan Rivers, and the Staying Alive soundtrack

SPIN Jan 1986 - includes Corey Hart, Cock Robin, Saga, Fat Boys, Y&T, & Sawyer Brown

I remember having no trouble finding 11 titles to sign up, but looking at some of these selections I'm wondering if I joined during times with a better selection or if I just wasn't very discerning back then.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 12:56 PM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hell, if I could get 12 CDs from the 1984 ad for a penny, I might just take them up on that offer right now. (I am disturbed, however, to learn that Barbra Streisand put out an album called Wet. I do not need that image in my head, thanks very much.)
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:13 PM on November 14, 2011


I learned a lot about what was popular among idiots from my - lemme see here - roughly eight C. House/BMG memberships, which were mailed at various times to different addresses, including my friend Mike's house. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Aah, soundtrack to 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.' How many hours of pleasure your track 'Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra' gave to me.

--wa.
posted by waxbanks at 1:14 PM on November 14, 2011


I think I indicated my choices with stamps. There were stamps? Weren't there? I remember stamps.

Yep, there were stamps. Later on (in the late 90s), I think they transitioned to stickers. And then at the bitter end I don't think there were either; you just wrote a code number down for the selection that you wanted.

But every few weeks you'd get a big envelope that would contain a booklet with descriptions of that month's offerings, generally with a page or two devoted to the "selection of the month" -- the one that you'd be sent automatically if you didn't decline it or pick something else. But then there were lots of other options, and many just had a one-sentence blurb or a few words describing each one.

That I used to buy whole albums based on only a few words worth of descriptive text seems bizarre to me now -- today I wouldn't buy an album without at least listening to all of the track previews once through on Amazon or iTunes. But I don't end up selling back nearly as many CDs to the used-record store as I used to, either.


One of the first productive things that I remember using the Internet for, was to retrieve (via a BBS with a Usenet gateway) a really sweet FAQ on music clubs. It summarized which clubs had the best selection for different types of music, and what the total cash outlay would be in order to fulfill the membership commitments for different ones. And, most importantly, it revealed that you could sign up, use the really good initial offer, complete your membership commitment quickly, quit, and then rejoin -- over, and over, and over.

E.g., in 1995 BMG would cost you a total of $46.27 (including stamps!) for 12 discs; Columbia House was a bit less of a cash outlay but cost more per disc... $39.20 to complete your membership but you only got 9 discs for that. I remember vaguely that CH had a "better" selection though, and I think they may not have made it quite so obvious that the discs were from a club, which made them easier to sell. The record stores that I went to didn't actually seem to care that much though; if the discs weren't scratched they'd give you the same crappy sum regardless of where they were from, IIRC.

I did the club thing from when I started listening to music right up until the beginning of the MP3 era. Strangely, this means that in the past year or two -- in which I've really made an effort to diversify out into independent music and buy tracks directly from artists or via low-overhead sites -- I've probably given more money to musicians than across all my heavy album-buying years.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:14 PM on November 14, 2011


I'm sure I joined the 'club' too (another corporate-purloined word like 'silo', 'Pontiac', 'tomahawk', 'cheese', 'friend', 'genuine') ...

but I remember the RCA Record Club better. Because when I 'joined the club' (and got a genuine 'member-ship' card for my genuine imitation leather wallet) for $5, I was guaranteed to be a lifetime member.

Yeah, I sure was. So it was RCA that taught me the commercial meaning of lifetime.
posted by Twang at 1:39 PM on November 14, 2011


I guess my commercial meaning of lifetime comes from the junior high school charity silent auction at which I bid on a lifetime membership to Blockbuster video. I think this meant, at the time, two free movies per week, but I sometimes wonder what they eventually did with that prize.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:53 PM on November 14, 2011


@aught: "Hm. I wonder what era you're talking about. Because I was a CH member on-and-off from the late 70s as a teen (8 tracks, then LPs) to the early 90s as a thirty-something (CDs) and I don't recall ever getting a cut out."

This was the 70s and 80s. Some of the goods would come notched, but as you point out, not all. About 1-in-10 LPs would be notched and about 40% of the CDs were notched. This was in Canada, too, so I suspect the publish/print/remainder deals were different. (Another way the corps would shaft artists -- "international" publishing was often a separate deal you had to pay for up front from your residuals.)

The notched stuff was probably returned from the big record stores, as the smaller stores were never allowed to return dogs for full refunds.

The un-notched stuff was /probably/ excess stock. Either way, artists rarely saw their fraction of a penny for those units sold.
posted by clvrmnky at 1:56 PM on November 14, 2011


I stupidly signed up for Bmg when I was maybe in junior high. My mother might have known, but maybe not. That, and I'm definitely not the detail oriented, stay on top of things type. And we were broke. So I get my CDs, and then more keep coming. Then nasty letters demanding payment. And then, yeah, collections agencies. And agency A would find out I was, like, 13, and realize I shouldn't have been able to sign a contract, and give up. Then company B would try. This went on for about a year, and then it all went away.

So all I got were some lousy CDs and a healthy terror of collections agencies.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:33 PM on November 14, 2011


I asked They Might Be Giants on Twitter about the different Spider mix and they said the following:
This person is just mistaken. It's a fully discrete stereo mix and the person just couldn't hear one channel. It's the not only from...... the exact same master, it was the same product--just shipped to Columbia. This is how urban legends are born--operator error.
posted by Brainy at 2:58 PM on November 14, 2011


I bought a used copy of Cracker's Kerosene Hat sometime in the mid-90s, after hearing "Euro-trash Girl" on my campus radio station. Unfortunately, it was a BMG copy without any of the unlisted tracks. Probably the greatest tragedy of my undergrad years.
posted by aaronetc at 3:26 PM on November 14, 2011


Durn Bronzefist, an acquaintance of mine won a "lifetime supply" of Harley-Davidson cigarettes. According to the official sweepstakes rules, a lifetime supply of Harley-Davidson cigarettes is one carton a week for ten years. If you've ever smoked a Harley, you'd know that's about right.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:53 PM on November 14, 2011


I was a BMG subscriber until they did all that oddness with changing the website to mymusic and then the sad collapse. It was a pretty good deal if you liked classical cds - every other month or so they'd have some kind of buy one get three free and I would buy a huge volume of box sets for a dollar or so a cd once you averaged out the cost.

Then when they got desperate they started throwing in free shipping, too, dropping the price even more!

I figured since most of the people who'd made the music were very dead it didn't matter how much of the recording price made it to their estate. Good times.
posted by winna at 4:07 PM on November 14, 2011


Ooh, the box sets in the final days of BMG. I forgot about those. I got Mesage in a Box (The Police) and the freaking Led Zeppelin box set as free purchases equivalent to the number of discs held. ie: buy one CD for $20 and get the Led Zep box set, and 9 to 11 other CDs, for the price of shipping. Crazy crazy crazy. And being very short on cash in those days, I didn't yet have it.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 4:13 PM on November 14, 2011


I worked at a used-CD store for a while. We never paid out more than a dollar for anything with a BMG logo on it.
posted by box at 5:12 PM on November 14, 2011


Most artists never saw a dime from those record "sales" since they were not technically sales.

repeated for truth, and it had nothing to do with whether the records had been cut out - record club sold records were not counted as sales in the boilerplate contracts of those times and the artists never saw any royalties from them

Record Club of America was based in York, Pa., and operated from the late '60s to mid '70s.

i remember them well, as they got my record collection fairly well started at good prices - unfortunately, some of the pressings were inferior - although the rest of the industry soon caught up to them

then i discovered used records and the cut-out rack
posted by pyramid termite at 5:13 PM on November 14, 2011


I worked at a used-CD store for a while. We never paid out more than a dollar for anything with a BMG logo on it.

How come?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:16 PM on November 14, 2011


I'd say it's because we never priced any BMG item higher than $2.50, but that's kinda circular.

The BMG CDs that people brought in were generally undesirable junk that we already had multiple copies of, but I don't know where to place the causes and effects there.

It was store policy when I was hired. Could've just been some kind of cooler-than-thou thing--this place definitely had some of those.
posted by box at 5:48 PM on November 14, 2011


I'm trying to remember the last music I paid for.

I'm trying to remember the last music I got paid for.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:01 PM on November 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Actually, I sold 4 CDs at a gig just the other night.

But my point stands.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:03 PM on November 14, 2011


man i remember a documentary about a guy who came to work there right after cd's started taking over and grunge was taking off. they framed it like this young guy was a genius with his innovative and grungy ad campaign, overlooking that the US was replacing all their old tapes en mass, and columbia house was a convenient and cheap way of doing so
posted by camdan at 9:37 PM on November 14, 2011


My friend signed up multiple times in college under false aliases. My favorite one he told me of was: Ima Not Payin.
posted by funkiwan at 11:44 PM on November 14, 2011


All you guys saying, "looool, you missed reel-to-reel!"

You, sirs, are not hardcore.

Sony Minidisc. I rest my case.
posted by SlyBevel at 1:32 PM on November 29, 2011


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