A Requiem for Columbia House, the Original Spotify

When did you become an adult? I don’t mean legally — I mean the moment at which you felt, deep in the marrow of your bones, I am a grown-up, I am my own man/woman, I make my own destiny? For some, it’s the first time they drive a car alone; some may place it at their first puff of a cigarette or belt from a bottle; maybe it’s the moment when you lost your virginity. For me, it was the moment when I went out to my mailbox, all of 12 years old, and took out a giant box of cassette tapes.

The return address was a foreign land called Terre Haute, Indiana; the sender was the Columbia House Record & Tape Club. The box was the result of an afternoon spent carefully perusing an ad in the Parade supplement of the Sunday newspaper, selecting a handful of tapes from their giant listing, carefully writing the intricate identification numbers into the designated boxes, affixing a penny to the cut-out form with a piece of Scotch tape. I put it into an envelope and dropped it in the mail, certain that there must be a stopgap that would prevent a preteen from attaining that much free music. There was not. The world was my oyster.

It was a scam, of course; the strings attached to that “eight tapes for a penny” offer was the purchase of several additional selections at full price (and they meant full price), as well the “offer” of a Selection of the Month that was sent to you automatically unless you filled out and returned the mailer declining that selection. As you might imagine, that was a chore that often slipped my 12-year-old memory, and I wasn’t alone; the company thrived for decades on their customers’ inability to pass on that selection, and the resultant forking over of ten bucks per unwanted cassette — and, later, 18 bucks per unwanted CD. But like all good scams, it must eventually come to an end, and yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that Columbia House has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, “after almost two decades of declining revenue.”

That’s putting it mildly. The company hit its peak back in 1996, with revenues of $1.4 billion (billion!); it has lost money ever since, with net revenues last year of $17 million, listing total assets of $2 million and $63 million in debts. (Apparently, their creditors aren’t really into their “buy four debts at full price, get ten for a penny” offer.) In fact, the music arm has been out of business for five years already; the remaining business was devoted to the similarly structured hook-and-sale of DVDs and Blu-rays.

I belonged to that club, too — several times over, in fact, fulfilling the membership obligation, quitting, and rejoining for more cheap intro selections. WSJ notes the DVD club’s ultimate failure, like that of the CD arm, was a case of getting lapped by technology. The licensing deals they made with both majors and indies was only to sell movies, and not to stream them; likewise, that box bursting with cheap CDs became less of a war chest once music lovers could buy (or, more often, “liberate”) entire discographies with the click of a mouse.

I’d argue that the click of a mouse was Columbia House’s undoing in another way: in 1996, the same year their revenues peaked, CH launched their company website. It offered infinitely more selections than they could pack into those magazine inserts, in addition to lengthier sales texts and snazzier graphics; they also gave customers a far simpler method of declining those Selections of the Month. Instead of filling out the card, finding a stamp (always the most difficult part of the process, in my teenage experience), and mailing the card back, you could now just log in to the site and click “decline.” Their revenues started dropping the next year.

Pages from the Columbia House catalog.

And yet, for a good long while, Columbia House was a valuable tool for both music-loving consumers and the music industry itself. Earlier this summer, the A.V. Club ran a fascinating “Expert Witness” on the club’s mid-1990s heyday, noting that 15% of all CD sales in 1994 were through record clubs like Columbia House and rival BMG, and out of the 13 million copies sold of Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View, a staggering three million were via record clubs. They boosted the industry during perhaps its most profitable period (the mark-up on those discs was so huge that the penny sales were barely a loss leader to begin with), and, as the A.V. Club notes, CH provided not only steady jobs for 3000-plus folks in that mysterious Terre Haute plant, but also early, steady gigs for the likes of music writer Sasha Frere-Jones and filmmaker Chris Wilcha. (They’re also refreshingly candid about the industry’s CD reliance coming home to roost, with Piotr Orlov noting that the high quality of those discs meant “they basically gave the bullets for the people to shoot them down once a new platform came along.”)

But more than that, Columbia House was a key enabler for those of us who, increasingly atypically, are collectors of physical media. My very first shipment included all of Madonna’s albums to date — even the Who’s That Girl soundtrack (what can I tell you, I’ve always been a completist); later “introductory shipments” from the CD club included giant swaths of the Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Miles Davis discographies, which still sit on my shelf (albeit dusty from underuse, long ago transferred to my trusty iPod Classic). Gaming the DVD club filled in holes in my library for Pam Grier movies, Hope & Crosby Road pictures, and late Billy Wilder. And the “shoot the works” spirit of the (basically, if you ignore the consequences!) free new-member order allowed us to take chances we might not take at $10 and $20 a pop; I heard my first Outkast, Radiohead, and French Kicks records via Columbia House.

That’s all much easier now, of course; you can sample a new-to-you artist on Spotify in approximately 1/78,453 of the time you would’ve had to wait for that CD to show up in the mail. But, for this old man at least, no streaming service or app can replicate the feeling of tearing open that plain brown box from Terre Haute and exploring the treasures inside.