When I was a kid, I’d look over magazines and the Sunday paper, noting the trappings of what I’d imagine would make a perfect adult life. The lighter side of me would dream of building a country estate based on model homes depicted in the real estate ads. I’d imagine driving home up a winding lane in a MG convertible, wearing some smart outfit from Penney’s in a mail-order only color, eager to set up the filet mignon for dinner. The part of me that secretly rooted for Darth Vader plotted what kind of vices I’d choose in later days, so I also dreamed of owning a penthouse where I’d smoke Benson and Hedges and sip Riunite while listening to a hoarde of albums from the Columbia Record and Tape Club.
I was able to forego the indulgence of nicotine and alcohol for several more years, but I fell prey to Columbia House as soon as I felt I could write my address as well as an adult would. When I was 12, I taped a penny to the order form, checked off the box that declared I was at least 18 years old and waited for my box of tunes. By the time I actually smoked a Benson and Hedges (which tasted like minty dust instead of something worthy of Remington Steele, by the way), I had signed up for the deal four times, at least once under an assumed name. I was able to pay for these tapes and CD’s first with allowance money and later with minimum wage pay until the recoil of this scheme would hit me: the forgotten selection of the month billed at full retail. A collection agency pursued my alias by the time I was 14.
This scheme did not portend a life of crime. I did an online search on this topic and discovered that this scam was so widespread that the company factored such losses into its business model.
I will close this post with a few links to some articles on Columbia House:
- Four Columbia House insiders explain the shady math behind “8 CD’s for a penny” – A lengthy interview with prior employees of the company, including Chris Wilcha who made a documentary about his Columbia House days called The Target Shoots First. Dense with all kinds of trivia about the company and insight into the music industry.
- How a Mail-Order Music Scam Taught Me to Steal – Explores how consumer fraud with this company was an omen of future disintegration within the music industry.
- Man Admits Fraud in Joining CD Clubs Thousand of Times – How was this man not exhausted by ordering 26,554 albums, when he could duplicate no titles within a single invoice?
- Columbia House is Back and Getting Into Vinyl, Here’s How to Scam Them for Free Records – Explains the rip off for a new generation. Only the ads on this article lead me to doubt this piece is a satire. The world was a kinder place when I was growing up. Nowadays I wouldn’t doubt that some corporation would love to rebuild Marshalsea debtor’s prison just to imprison teenagers who dared to owe them money.
- Terre Haute remembers Columbia House after bankruptcy – When this business became obsolete, its downfall translated into the loss of thousands of Rust Belt manufacturing and distribution jobs.