Brow Beat

Columbia House Offered Eight CDs for a Penny, but Its Life Lessons Were Priceless

Aug. 10, 2015 marked the demise of one of the most storied pieces of late-20th-century cultural detritus, the mail-order CD club. The owners of Columbia House filed for bankruptcy on Monday, and several generations of American youth sighed with relief at the revelation that their debts were forgiven. During the 1980s and 1990s Columbia House and its primary competitor, BMG—the two companies actually merged in 2005, and BMG shuttered its music club in 2009—ran hustles so effective they managed to outgrift even the most shameless tween-aged grifter. I know this because I was one of them, and because it happened to me.

I did a lot of breathtakingly stupid things while I was in middle school. There was the time a friend and I smoked stolen cigars in my parents’ kitchen while home alone on a “half day” from school, not even bothering to open the windows. There was the time I purchased an adult video by mail and had it delivered to a house on my paper route where I knew the customers were out of town, committing several felonies in the process even though the movie failed to show up. (Note to residents: If it ever did, you’re welcome.) There was the time I shoplifted an expensive “pocket massager” from Brookstone simply because a friend dared me to, both of us unaware that we were 12-year-old boys stealing a vibrator. And these are just three episodes on which I’m fairly certain the statute of limitations has expired.

But one of my more illustrious turns involved one of these music clubs. (I’m pretty sure it was Columbia House, but it might have been BMG, and my parents—more on that later—can’t remember either.) By the time I hit sixth grade I was already obsessed with music, trading mixtapes with friends, doing my best to wear out the “high speed dubbing” function on my Sony boombox, buying whatever I could afford whenever I could find time to make a trip to Sam Goody, Newbury Comics, Strawberries, or, on the most special of occasions, Tower Records or HMV.

But of course I couldn’t drive, and despite the paper route, funds were limited, which is why Columbia House and BMG quickly started to appear like dueling Promised Lands. In the back of Parade magazine most weeks there was a blaring ad that promised eight CDs for the price of one, or 12 CDs for a penny, or some similarly impossibly great deal, followed by a lot of sotto voce fine print explaining how you were actually on the hook to purchase [x] amount of product at an extortionate markup, shipped to you at fees that suggested a warehouse located on Jupiter. But the most devious part of this hustle—the reason Columbia House and BMG deigned to call themselves “clubs”—is that each month they’d send you a CD you hadn’t asked for, unless you mailed them back a card within 10 days saying you didn’t want the CD, which, let’s face it, requires some foresight and organization that is well outside the wheelhouse of an average middle schooler. It all had a sort of brutal elegance, superficially simple yet deceptively complex. (Making things worse, the clubs were notorious for changing fine-print rules without informing customers they’d done so.)

I didn’t sign up until eighth grade, and in hindsight it’s amazing that it didn’t happen sooner. My hesitation was partly due to the fact that my parents had expressly forbidden it, but also because there was so much to choose from. I spent months just filling out and re–filling out the order form, refining my selections. When I finally sent one in, it was a typically early-’90s combination of grunge and hip-hop (Pearl Jam, Cypress Hill, Alice in Chains), heavier on the former because buying hip-hop from music clubs was always a crapshoot. There was a lot they just didn’t stock, and you always ran the risk of ending up with a “clean” version of, say, The Chronic, rightly ensuring that no one at your school would ever talk to you again.  

From there things deteriorated rapidly and predictably. I received the first CDs I’d asked for (only some of them, because you got the rest after you’d fulfilled the terms of the agreement) and then basically forgot about the whole thing. I missed filling out one of the cards, and was promptly sent some CD I didn’t want. I didn’t pay for it (I didn’t even have a checking account), and suddenly I was in violation of the whole agreement, meaning I owed not just the full price of the CD I hadn’t wanted but the full price of all the CDs that I had, plus a byzantine variety of exorbitant penalties and fees.

I didn’t know what to do, so I chose the traditional heroic path of 13-year-olds and did nothing. I started getting threatening letters, and I hid them. I can’t remember how exactly my parents found out about all this, but when they did, they were even more displeased with me than the music club was. My father got on the phone with the club and talked them down from some of the more outrageous penalties, basically telling them that, while I’d certainly messed up, 13-year-olds can’t actually sign contracts, and that it was shady business on their end that they had nothing in place to preclude this from happening. (He’s a lawyer.) I paid what I’d originally “agreed” to owe, and they terminated my membership. I held on to the CDs they’d already sent me, although not for long—I sold most of them the next year, after I’d turned 14 and decided I didn’t really like grunge anymore. (It was 1994.)

At this point the music clubs seem like such a relic that it’s tempting to think of them alongside other vaguely prehistoric absurdities like the Clapper, or Time-Life Sounds of the 70s, or those AOL CD-ROMs that came with magazines. But there was something thrilling about those gaudy ads, an early glimpse into a world of music that seemed too good to be true. It was, but it also wasn’t—just a couple years after my music club debacle I’d discover record shopping proper, and go on to spend a disproportionate amount of high school in Boston-area record stores like Cheapo and Disc Diggers and Stereo Jack’s and the great Skippy White’s, digging through crates and striking up conversations with oddball employees whose meticulous connoisseurship was close to the polar opposite of the music club model.

That all feels like a lifetime and a world ago, and like the music clubs, a lot of those stores are gone, too. There’s a great new book called How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt, a history of music piracy in the Internet age full of names like Napster and Kazaa and Limewire, obsolete words themselves that were probably more responsible for slaying the phony dream of “12 CDs for a penny” than anything. But stepping back to eulogize the music clubs today, it all feels like one giant shadow history of music collecting, of the outrageously stupid and probably immoral lengths kids will go to in order to hear cool things. Columbia House and BMG are gone, and the 13-year-olds who got swindled by them are gone, too. But we’ve really all just evolved, the grifters and the grifted, whichever of us was which to begin with.