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Four Columbia House insiders explain the shady math behind “8 CDs for a penny”

Four Columbia House insiders explain the shady math behind 8 CDs for a penny Expert Witness The A V Club


Any music fan eager to bulk up their collection in the ’90s knew where to go to grab a ton of music on the cheap: Columbia House. Started in 1955 as a way for the record label Columbia to sell vinyl records via mail order, the club had continually adapted to and changed with the times, as new formats such as 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs emerged and influenced how consumers listened to music. Through it all, the company’s hook remained enticing: Get a sizable stack of albums for just a penny, with no money owed up front, and then just buy a few more at regular price over time to fulfill the membership agreement. Special offers along the way, like snagging discounted bonus albums after buying one at full price, made the premise even sweeter.

By the mid-’90s, too-good-to-be-true deals such as eight (or more) CDs or 12 cassettes for a penny had codified into pop culture lore. So what if these CDs were way more expensive than ones purchased in stores, after factoring in shipping? After all, gaming the system by joining under fake name(s) or addresses—or sending back unwanted albums or accidental orders by scrawling “return to sender” on the box in which they arrived—was a snap. Whether buyers were allowance-challenged, wanting to replace fusty vinyl with shiny plastic CDs, or simply not within driving distance of a store that sold music, Columbia House was clearly addressing consumer demand.

Stashed in: Curation, Music, 1990s

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I'm still amazed that the math works out to be much worse for a consumer unless they defaulted.

It's consumption as curation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, record clubs such as Columbia House (and its rival, the BMG Music Club) were an incredible driver of CD sales: In 1994, 15 percent of all discs in the U.S. sold because of these clubs, while a 2011 Boston Phoenix article, “The Rise And Fall Of The Columbia House Record Club—And How We Learned To Steal Music,” reported that 3 million of the 13 million copies sold of Hootie And The Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View were sold this way.

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