The rise and fall of Columbia House

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Of course we knew Columbia House was a shuck. Mom shared terrible stories: how as a twelve-year-old girl she signed up for the 3421 free albums for a penny but didn’t know she’d keep getting the selection of the month. She wrote a tearful letter begging to be released from the contract. Twenty-five years later, I followed the same grievous pattern, only I got Traveling Wilburys, Ziggy Marley, Motley Crüe, and Belinda Carlisle (for my sister) albums out of the deal. Then I went in deep in 1993, wooed by a cousin who got the sign-up-a-friend-and-get-a-free-car nonsense. He explained it was a “negative” deal: return the card every month advising that I didn’t want the automatic choice (did he work for CH? He knew the jargon!). So long as I bought my required eight CDs in two years I was clear. Because I was working, I didn’t mind paying fifteen bucks plus shipping every couple months. And by 1994 Columbia House’s catalog rivaled my local indie store when it didn’t surpass it. It took six weeks to receive — a long time then, an eternity now. My first batch: Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union, The B-52’s Good Stuff, Bryan Ferry’s Boys + Girls, Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food, Digable Planets’ Reachin’. I got Wire’s The A List, The Raincoats’ debut, and Al Green’s Livin’ For You. I got Second Edition. I got Pete Rock. I got John Cale’s The Island Years during one of its frequent 99-cent deals. Until Columbmia House sputtered out of existence in 2006 or 2007, I bought the occasional item, and, boy, did things get desperate: by 2006 Columbia House, unloading its catalog, paid me to buy Steely Dan and Jay Z.

So The AV Club’s oral history of the one of the largest scams perpetuated by big business was fun and edu-ma-cational, not least of which was to learn that CH employed Sasha Frere-Jones to sit, bullshit with colleagues, lunch, and go home. Once in a while they compiled their famous menu, which, yeah, looked like an IRS codebook (I saved older ones in case I wanted a catalog item no longer being pushed). Keep in mind, younger readers, that one couldn’t Google “Mariah Carey – Emotions” and get song lists. “You think now how few resources you use to do something equivalent,” we learn. Also:

What we had in the ’90s was… what another very famous, huge record executive [said to me] in a very, very hilarious way. We went to his Fifth Avenue townhouse, gorgeous space, and he said—maybe I’ll give it away if I can do his accent properly—but he said [Affects accent.], “You know what this is? This right here? It’s stupid money. It’s CD money. That’s the kind of money that made dumb people feel smart.” You have the biggest fucking markup in retail history, and somehow in one winter, the music business—with Phillips leading the way—said, “Hey, that $7.99 album you love? Guess what? Your lucky day: You get to buy it for $18.99, it’s going to sound worse, and you have to buy fucking pieces of equipment.” And everyone said, “Great, I’d like to buy more of them please.” And so there was this incredible surplus of money. And then musicians like me [Frere-Jones played in the post-rock/punk-funk band Ui at the time. —ed.] get a day job doing very little at Columbia House, and go on tour, because those jobs existed.

PO: I will also add that’s why when Napster came along, and everybody essentially had a digital master in their home—or hundreds of digital masters in their home—that they could upload very, very easily, I cried not a single tear for those motherfuckers. All of a sudden, by thinking, “Shitty format, we’re going to mark it up 180 percent, and everybody’s going to buy them.” Well, yeah, they did, and they ripped them and decided to share those files. The thing about that CD format that I still find to be hilarious is it’s, like, they basically gave the bullets for the people to shoot them down once a new platform came along.

But then the global consortia struck back: “The royalty rates were a percentage of what even the crappy major label royalty rates were at the time. Basically, it is so Spotify, it’s a joke.” They still won.

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