RIP Columbia House Record Club

If you’re–ahem–of a certain age, you might remember TV commercials like this.

And then there were the magazine ads and inserts.

CH 1

 

The Columbia House Records and Tapes Club was a way to jumpstart your record collection for next to nothing. At a time when the retail price for an album was around $6.99–about $27 in today’s money–the prospect of getting a dozen records for a penny (MSRP back then: almost $300 in today’s dollars) was insanely attractive.

And mail order and catalogue shopping was  seen as the shit back then. It was seen as the ultimate in convenience. All modern consumers were doing it. And getting that first box from loaded with fresh music was intoxicating. Instant record collection for your stereo. Instant tape collection for your Walkman.

There was, however a catch. A couple of them, actually.

CH 2

 

In exchange for your first whack of records, you had to commit to buying a certain number of albums at the Club’s going rate, which was at least equal to what you’d pay in the store. Each month, you were given a selection of titles with the instructions to chose one.

Didn’t like any of that month’s featured releases? Too bad. You were still on the hook for the charge. And the records kept coming until your commitment expired. Even then, you had to tell them that you were finished and getting out of your membership could be very, very difficult. Negative billing ruled.

 

CH3

 

Second, the physical quality of record club records could be, uh, lacking. Produced with the cooperation of all the labels, the vinyl was thinner, the packaging cheaper. And if you had a faulty pressing that resulted in skipping–which used to happen a lot in those days–the hassle of returning a record could be frustrating.

Meanwhile, the margins on the monthly selections enjoyed by the Club and its record label partners more than made up for the records given away with the initial offering.

The labels loved record clubs because it offered built-in marketing for their products. All they had to do is offer up releases and Columbia House would take care of advertising them.

CH4

 

And finally, artists weren’t so crazy about record clubs, either. Deep within most contracts was a clause that stated that no royalties would be paid on record club sales. It’s unclear whether that applied to the records sucked up in the “12-albums-for-a-penny” offerings or all records sold through record clubs.

Columbia House wasn’t the only record club…

ad-1963-capitol-record-club-magazine

 

…but they certainly grew to be the biggest. By 1996, the company had revenues of $1.6 billion. Life was good for everyone involved.

https://youtu.be/2isipkslBbg

But then along came file-sharing, Napster and iTunes. There were several attempts at restructuring the business, but nothing could stop revenues from going into a nosedive. Even diversification into DVDs couldn’t stop that.

(Sidebar: Sometime in either the late 90S or early 2000s, I reported on a story in the National Post for my Ongoing History of New Music show that said that Columbia House was going out of business. They weren’t. Boy, did I get in trouble for that.)

By 2010, Columbia House was out of the music biz entirely and stopped offering CDs. Last year’s net revenue was just $17 million, all from video releases.

Columbia House had gone from being the Spotify/Rdio of its day–it was, after all, a primitive form of curation–to a relic of the past. If you remember the company, you probably hadn’t thought about them for years.

So goodbye, Columbia House Records and Tapes Club. We thought you were already dead.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

9 thoughts on “RIP Columbia House Record Club

  • August 11, 2015 at 10:15 am
    Permalink

    Wow, this brings me back. I bought so many cassettes through Columbia House back in the late 80s. They had selection that local record stores just didn’t have. At least when it came to metal. It was always super exciting to get that package in the mail.

    Reply
  • August 11, 2015 at 12:16 pm
    Permalink

    Ditto for me. I remember taking chances with artists I did not know when selecting the 12-13 cassettes. For example, selecting Bruce Springsteen’s The River. It was the best way to start your collection.

    Reply
  • August 11, 2015 at 12:37 pm
    Permalink

    I recall receiving James Last and Bay City Rollers when I forgot to mail the card declining those months’ selections. Another bonus I scored was a small turntable/radio combo for which I had to pay $29.99 in 1973. Those were the days.

    Reply
  • August 11, 2015 at 1:19 pm
    Permalink

    Columbia House was always extremely tempting since I was a kid – and in the 90’s it wasn’t uncommon to have to pay $30 for a rare but extremely needed(!!!) imported CD single at a record store… which for a 15 year old was tough to swing. But since I had heard what a nightmare it was to get out of the ‘club’ I could never do it… plus forget getting a parent’s sign-off, since you likely needed a credit card.

    Luckily I had a friend who was in it, so I reaped the spoils of bootlegged tapes and later, burned/ripped CDs. He got some pretty cool stuff; I remember hearing stuff like Green Jellö and Thrill Kill Kult because he happened to roll the dice on some cool sounding bands – which pre-internet, was really all you had to go off of. I still listen to some of those discoveries today. At least I have that to thank them for! So long, and thanks for the memories.

    Reply
  • August 11, 2015 at 2:02 pm
    Permalink

    I was a regular Columbia House customer back in the 90s. Then I got bitten by the mp3 bug in 2002, and haven’t purchased a CD since

    Reply
  • August 11, 2015 at 2:49 pm
    Permalink

    Ironically, the last Columbia House I did was in 2001 as part of loading my 1st generation iPod.

    Reply
  • August 12, 2015 at 10:01 am
    Permalink

    Columbia House (even moreso their competitor BMG) must have thought 20 people lived at my apartment, all getting referral bonuses for each other and all with rather creative names if I do say so myself. All of my peeps honored their membership terms, mind you. It was indeed a great way to build a music collection, impressive in size if not quality. (I’m not sure I really needed Mantovani’s greatest hits.) And this article dredges up long-forgotten heartache, because I do wish it still existed … if only for the sheer sport of it!

    Reply
  • Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsColumbia House Record Club Resurrected as a Vinyl-Only Service - A Journal of Musical Things

  • Pingback: Anyone else remember the Columbia House Music Club? - Alan Cross' A Journal of Musical Things

Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.