Penny Lane: Columbia House, gateway to cheap music, folds. My 12-cent purchases couldn’t save it

Former music mail-order titan Columbia House filed for bankruptcy this week. It’s amazing it’s lasted this long, actually.

It had its heyday beginning in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, offering deals like 13 cassettes for one penny. You had to pay “full price” for music later from them ($6.99 for John Lennon! Whatta deal!) but I gladly paid up.

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In 1986, for someone like me — a music-obsessed teen who couldn’t drive yet and had to rely on random trips to the mall to buy tapes at Sam Goody — this was THE BEST. The hardest part for me was picking which 12 or 13 or 15 cassettes I would pick from the little paper list, then waiting weeks for the giant delivery.

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When I got my loot, I’d pick out the ones I was dying to hear and play those first. I’d get hung up on those releases and completely ignored the B-team of tapes, the ones I was just “eh” for, but which I ordered because I needed to fill the 12-tape quota.

In retrospect, I guess it wasn’t a great deal, unless you want to collect extra music in your house you have no intention of listening to.

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I clearly didn’t know enough about music or the music business to know it was all a marketing game. First of all, only certain tapes cost 1/12 of a penny, and there was a reason for that, but I didn’t think that deeply about it. I didn’t really care at the time– the more new music I could get my hands on, the better. (For more on the business of Columbia House and how it managed to stay on top for so long, visit a story by the good folks at the A.V. Club.)

I remember ordering a King’s X tape from Columbia, but was reluctant to pick it or listen to it; I didn’t know much about them, so I hated to waste one of my 12 choices on them. They’re far gone now but at least I heard music I wouldn’t normally have been exposed to. That’s thanks to that “12 cassettes for a penny” slogan, which has now vanished from the lexicon of music sales. The only time I can get that kind of deal is when I buy the $1 brown grab-bags of random CDs no one wants at Bull Moose Music.

Columbia House peaked in 1996 with revenue of $1.4 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

I’m not sure now what other bands I chose now from Columbia House; it’s safe to say there was a LOT. Like most everyone, I eventually gave away a most of my tapes, except for the occasional Bob Marley bootlegs and some alt-rock, Brit-pop stuff.

Once I found out that Newbury Comics existed in Boston, Salem, N.H., and Peabody, Mass., I finally woke up. Besides that, I had joined the REM mail-order fan club in high school (Yes I did, and I loved it) and got all kinds of goodies. This led me to Sub Pop’s mail order and their beautiful selection of punk/grunge bands that hardly need an introduction.

After my music education expanded, I ditched Columbia House for greener pastures. It was the only logical thing to do. You could only get big-label music there, and it just couldn’t compete with the Seattle grunge/alternative craze I was enamored with at the time.

The fact that Columbia House couldn’t face that the cassette-tape biz was was drying up didn’t help them any. Toward the end of Columbia House’s musical odyssey, they were only selling DVDs. Besides that, the business was relying on third parties, having no actual employees.

So rest in peace, Columbia House. Thanks for plugging me in for mere copper.

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Filed under Cassette tapes, Columbia House, Opinion, Penny Lane, Personal memory bank

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