#523: Columbia House

GETTING MORE TALE #523: Columbia House

How many of you were members of the Columbia House music club?  Tapes or CDs?

The concept was simple.  Get 12 tapes or records for one penny.  Then agree to buy “X” more at “regular club prices” within a year.  They would usually offer all sorts of incentives, such as getting your first regularly priced item for half price.  Their “regular club prices” were fairly high, but if you played your cards right you could make joining the club worthwhile.

Every few weeks after signing up, Columbia House would send you a catalogue and an order form.  The order system was controversial, because it required a negative response if you didn’t want to buy something.  When you signed up, you could pick your favourite genre of music (I chose “metal”).  Each time a catalogue came out, your selected genre would have a “selection of the month”, usually a new release but not always.   If you did not respond with an order form expressing that you didn’t want it, they would automatically mail you the “selection of the month” and bill you for it too.  (The Columbia Record Club system was worked into a sub-plot of the movie A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers.)

For many people this wasn’t a problem.  Our parents let my sister and I sign up when I was in grade 11.  We split the membership and free tapes 50/50.  We paid for everything ourselves and diligently sent in our order forms each time.  We were both already massive music fans, so we poured over every single page.  Most times, one of us ended up buying something, if not the selection of the month itself.

I can still remember every album I received in that first shipment. Seven tapes.  These tapes went into immediate and constant rotation, which is why I remember them all so well today.

  1. Leatherwolf – Leatherwolf
  2. Motley Crue – Girls, Girls, Girls
  3. Hurricane – Over the Edge
  4. Stryper – To Hell With the Devil
  5. Stryper – In God We Trust
  6. White Lion – Pride
  7. Sammy Hagar – VOA

Our musical world opened up in a massive way, and not just because of the new music we were listening to.  The catalogues introduced us to names and album covers that we’d not experienced yet.  What is this Bitches Brew thing?  Why did Deep Purple albums have so few songs?  Did Iron Maiden copy their Maiden Japan from Purple’s Made In Japan?  Holy crap, Hank Williams Jr. has three greatest hits albums?

Everything was absorbed.  Five years later, when I started at the Record Store, my boss was surprised that I knew who most of the artists were, what sections they should go in, and even what record labels they were on.

“I read the Columbia House catalogue cover to cover every month,” was my answer!

The catalogue provided knowledge, and pictures to cut out for locker or wall.  We made the most of that catalogue every time.  It was rare when pictures were not cut out!

I was even able to acquire things that might have been considered rarities back then.  I had never seen Leatherwolf stocked in a store, but Columbia House had it.  When vinyl was being discontinued, I was still able to get Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind (1991) on LP.  They had most of the Savatage albums.

It all sounds wonderful, but Columbia House had flaws too.  The biggest one was horrendous quality control.  They licensed and manufactured the tapes themselves, which were simply not as good quality wise as the ones you could find in a store.  They would be warbling within weeks (if not right out of the case) and the J-cards were sometimes shoddy, with printing not lining up with fold lines, or just they’d just start falling apart along perforations.  They also didn’t carry certain record labels.  While they had everything Warner Bros and Columbia Records, they had nothing from EMI.  Finally, bands made next to nothing on albums that were sold through Columbia House.  Some bands such as the Tragically Hip refused to sell their music via Columbia House.  We didn’t know all of this as kids, of course.  I started to pick up on the quality issues when they seemed to take a serious dive around 1991.

The key to not getting ripped off by Columbia House was to order smart.  The 12 free tapes sounds like a great deal, but when you balance in buying the rest of your selections at full price, most people ended up on the losing side.  Get in and get out, buying the bare minimum.  That was the way to do it.  Of course, we didn’t.  We just enjoyed the convenience and stayed members for years!  No regrets since this led directly to a 12 year career in the Record Store!

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41 comments

  1. I signed up when I was 15, actually it was a joint venture with my Mom. You’re right about the suspect quality of the tapes. Most of the cassettes I bought through Columbia wore out in a few short years and not because I played them to death. Vinyl fared better though, I still have many of those albums.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to know it wasn’t just me. I had several that were defective right out of the box. Lynch Mob’s first one was. Had to return so many right out of the box. And the CD cases always arrived shattered in the mail.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We had Britannia Music over here, same deal. It’s how I accidentally got into Marillion and the Velvet Underground. It was a complete racket, I always used to think of them like the mob!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I blame those lists for my current addiction to buying music. As a kid I used highlight everything I would get if I had the money and these days the ratio seems to have turned upside down. I have a feeling I enjoyed music more when I owned less.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point KK. This is something I’ve been struggling with! I have too much.

      When I was a kid, I would get a new tape from Columbia House, and I would play it three times straight before I listened to anything else. Then I’d put it in “rotation” with my favourites. But now I have so many albums that I haven’t even played yet. It’s hard to spend the kind of time with an album like I used to as a kid. Also two hours of homework meant I could listen to three albums at night.

      Like

  4. Yup, as Mr 1537 mentioned, we had the Britannia Music Club. I can’t remember the deal, but it was something like 5 for the price of 1. Had to buy another at least another 3 over the year or something, so that’s what I done. Can’t really remember what I got, to be honest.

    I think there’s a genuinely good idea in all these things. Especially if record labels set it up as a collaborative effort. Return enthusiasm for a physical product and get engagement with music fans happening on a very real level.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Back in 1988 I joined Columbia House about 6 times in a year and built my cds up fast! Of course I had a full time job to make it easier to do this but man i remember one batch had Plant Now and Zen…Fleetwood Mac Greatest hits of course ones I would check out that were iffy was stuff like Tangier ……so if it was sheeiiit no biggie ….

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post, Mike. Seems like there were variants of this around the world. Though I never joined one in Aus because the value for money was suspect, once when I was in the States in the early 90s, a friend offered to join me up so I’d get the cheap CDs and then ‘un-join’ after I’d left. Despite this sounding rather dodgy, being a greedy bastard I said ‘Yes’ immediately. I got the 6 CDs* and for all I know, she’s still receiving in the monthly selection**.

    * The only one I remember was Bonnie Raitt ‘Road Tested’.
    ** I’m much more honourable now, of course.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Road Tested came out shortly after I started at the record store. I think Brian Adams did a guest shot on that one.

      The one or two times they sent me the monthly selection when I declined, I sent them right back with no issue. Hopefully your friend did too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks for bringing back great memories. I did Columbia House several times. Each Sunday, the newspaper would have some deal from Columbia House. I would sit and calculate out how much it would cost per tape (eventually switched to CD) with buying only the bare minimum. Whenever it worked out in my favor I would sign up and then immediately cancel once bare minimum. If I stuck with this method it was awesome. Never noticed any quality issues though. That part is interesting. Awesome post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to see the ads for Columbia House in magazines all the time. Magazines, TV Guide, all those places. My sister and I would pour over the albums even before we joined. “Would buy it, wouldn’t, would, wouldn’t…” we’d go through the list!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Man, I got permission from my folks to sign up when I was about ten years old. A lot of my early tapes came from there. I never ordered LPs, right enough. Huh.

    Anyway, never had a quality issue with warbling or j cards. You mention tapes warbling every time but I’ve only ever had one tape screw up, and that was Rattle And Hum, but that was because I went through a phase where I played it so damn much it made sense for it to eventually die.

    As for the catalogues, oh yes. I never had to share with my sister (she didn’t always join in) so I got all the tapes for me. I’d do the bare minimum to get out of the contract, then wait a while and sign up again!

    When I switched my tapes to CDs, in high school, I still used the service. But again, only the bare minimum to be abe to get out and go back in again.

    I also did this with BMG a couple of times – you didn’t mention them, they had a service very similar.

    So the question is: we know what 7 tapes you got. What did your sister get for her half? ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mr Books strikes again!

      Well we know my sis got Robert Plant Now and Zen. She doesn’t remember this stuff anymore, but I think she may have got two Glass Tiger tapes too.

      I do know that at one point she bought Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em on vinyl. She also had Kylie Minogue on vinyl.

      Man we ordered some shite!

      Like

      1. No one suspects the Spanish Books-quisition! ;)

        Glass Tiger, hells yes. Man, I just got a CD of Now & Zen today! Kismet.

        MC Hammer, though. Oh man. Kylie. Rick Astley. Vanilla Ice. Milli Vanilli. Soooo much crap. Ah, the 80s…

        Liked by 1 person

  9. My step-mom joined the tape club.

    In 1987, when I got my CD player, Columbia House’s offer on CD’s wasn’t nearly as good as the cassette offer.

    A friend turned me on to “RCA Music Club”, renamed BMG soon after I joined. The “full price” title commitment of both clubs changed over the years, but Columbia House’s was always more.

    BMG continued to offer deals after completion of the commitment, but no deal was ever as good as the initial offer, and I quit and rejoined multiple times. Also, the offered free titles to someone who gave a reference, so at one time “William” referred “Willie” with a PO Box.

    And “free” wasn’t exactly free. There was a fairly hefty shipping and handling charge. Still, it was a much less expensive than at retail stores.

    I did Columbia House too. I noticed titles in their ads not available from BMG, so they got my business once.

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  10. I loved CH. Reading those magazines… I always got vinyl don’t remember any problems except for only one scratch I can remember Jimi Hendrix Smash Hits. Right in the middle of Foxy Lady…AwwFoxyAww FoxyAww FoxyAwwFoxy…Good times!!! The only thing I hated was the manufactured by CH stickers they put on some albums…It was a coup when you got a clean one!!!

    Like

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