Inside Columbia House's old "8 CDs for the Price of 1" deal

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It was a terrible deal for artists, I mean rightsholders, but a fantastic deal for consumers who sent their forms back consistently. Columbia and BMG printed their own CDs, and paid no royalties on free CDs, so their 8 for 1 deal only cost them the printing of the 9 and the royalties (the bulk of the cost) on the one. What you did was A) send your damn form back: I’m usually terrible at that sort of thing, but I was good about those and B) wait until they sent you a 3 for 1 deal. I forget now, but I think with shipping I calculated it out to about $7 a CD.

Mostly it was good for filling out your back catalog, but the CDs were so cheap that I felt okay with buying random bands I’d never heard before: maybe I’d read about them in Rolling Stone, maybe the album art just looked interesting. And that was a really huge thing for me to be able to do, because this was back before the Web, before Napster, so there really wasn’t any way for me to hear anything that wasn’t ClearChannel approved before buying it.


Thanks for reminding me to cancel my google play music subscription when the trial ends.


My mama warned me about this particular company when I was wee. Also, Book-of-the-Month club, where mailing a check is just easier than mailing back the book. Today, this electronic wonderland has made it that much easier to automatically rebill, and I have noticed a good many websites that work that way and sell nothing but (ahem) images.


Yup, for those who remembered to send back their cards every month, this was a fantastic deal. I cancelled and re-signed 2 or 3 times, back in pre-mp3 days of the early-to-mid 90’s. I think I only ever forgot to send back one card, and if I’m not mistaken my selection that month was a Tori Amos album that was quite good any way, so I wasn’t all that upset about it.


Science fiction book club was like this too. I did forget and was late a few time. But some of the monthly selections were pretty good and I got a good deal on books I actually wanted. Also their deal on bundling up series was good-- I still have the uplift war and the belgariad which was a lot easier to read than all the individual books.


In the rare cases I forgot to mail the card back, I’d just write “refused” on the box and throw it back in the mail. I was really proud of sticking it to the man for postage both ways. I wonder if they closed that loophole subsequently.

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I was a “member” while living in Japan and dealing with some culture shock. I’ve now lost everything but a handful of that huge CD collection, which has given me an easy excuse for pirating music on occasion–“Hey, I bought that CD back in 97, so it’s okay to grab the torrent now!” Doesn’t happen as often as it used to, and I’m sure they got more money from me than I got good music.

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Geez, maybe I was a bit of an asshole, but my friends and I would sign up, get the free CDs, then let them keep sending us the selection-of-the-month. Every time they sent it, I’d just write “return to sender” on the package and stick it back in the mailbox. It only took about 4 months or so before they’d stop sending anything. I think I’d keep getting the catalogs, but they never bothered me about having to buy my 4 discs or whatever.

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This documentary is great!

I had a friend in college who was had some huge outstanding total with Columbia House, which they just dodged because he figured out there was no repercussion to accepting all the CDs and never sending in any money.

WaPo subscription on my Kindle: $1 for six months, then $3.99 ($4) a month thereafter. I know what they’re trying to do, but fuck if I don’t actually read it enough to be okay with that.

Columbia House changed my life. In the 90s, there were many places in the US where it was actually hard to find music. Popular bands would sell out, new stuff that wasn’t “pop” wasn’t stocked, and back catalog albums were often nonexistent. With CH, they occasionally sent out their “catalog” book that a savvy shopper could keep on hand for the occasional “3 for 1” deal.

I signed up as a 14 year old and got something like 10 discs for a penny, and could only think of 8 that I actually wanted, and so in picking the “extra” discs, was exposed to new music.

Then, I filled out the forms and waited for the “buy 1 get 2 or 3 free” deals, and would, again, find myself just buying music that seemed like a “good deal” or that was back catalog work or whatever. This greatly broadened my music horizons – for example, the 2-disc Aphex Twin “Selected Ambient Works Vol 2” was highlighted and I picked it up (two discs!). I thought it was junk but kept it around, and after a few years realized what it was and listened to it anew.

There’s a reason they’re no longer in business, now that people can easily find and cross-search on the many different music platforms, but they filled a unique niche in the 90s.


For me the freedom to try things was everything. Off the top of my head I’d probably have never picked up Corrosion of Conformity or Aphex Twin for full price (which was almost always $15-17 in that place and time).

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Wasn’t Columbia House notorious for sending accounts to collection agencies when people tried these sorts of scams? And even sometimes for people that didn’t?

This scheme/scam/opportunity was going on well before CDs natch:

There was an episode of “Leave it to Beaver” in which The Beav joins a record club, never sends in the decline-cards, jams the bills in his underwear drawer, and eventually starts getting nasty letters.

There are cute scenes of Beaver in his room, dancing to the beat of his un-paid-for disks. (LPs? 45 singles? I don’t remember the episode THAT well.)

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Exactly. And the serendipity of finding good stuff among the junk, too. For me, given that Teh Intertube was still in its infancy, and I didn’t read kanji so the Japanese music stores were…less than useful, Columbia made it easy and interesting. Send a few bucks and get an absolute boatload of CDs in return. I got pretty good at sending the cancellation cards back on a regular basis, and Columbia would simply send me 5 or 20 CDs free to get me to resign. That said, I would occasionally shop at the Japanese music stores and grab three or four random discs just to see what the locals were listening to. Man I wish I still had all those discs…

I knew multiple people in college who would get their free Columbia House cds or tapes, and then send a change of address form saying they were moving to Europe. These guys had huge libraries of crappy music, and apparently no repercussions.

They briefly mention the BMG Compact Disc Club-- this was a legitimate way to scam cheap (but not free) cds in the 90s-- their plan only required you to buy one overpriced cd, and get ten “free” (of course you still paid around $2 shipping each, even if they were all in the same box), but if you waited for certain sales you could get extras for “free”, buy your regular price CD and quit the club-- I did the math and found you could essentially get 15 cds for an average of about $3.20 each, not bad for the era. Of course you could then sign back up for the club again a few months later and do it all over. But yeah, always remember to send back the postcards or else you’d get the new Kenny G cd you didn’t want, and a bill for it too.

I was with Columbia House when it was cassettes. It actually was really good for me, as I lived in a tiny Canadian town without a music store and was able to get Clash music that I would not normally be able to get.


Get your free CDs. End membership. Sign up again, Get your free CDs…

We built huge CD collections this way. As long as you remembered to send back the cards, it was a good deal.


I think part of the fun was saying FU to the collection agencies.

I think that either Columbia House didn’t report on credit reports or my friends just didn’t give a care about credit reports.

I recall my Junior Year one of my friend’s bedrooms was stacked with cassettes all the way around the perimeter of the room, with the stacks about waist height. They were color coded by country, as he had a huge collection of Brazilian music as well as Reggae, plus the American stuff.

Next year I go to a party at his house and he has the same number of CDs all stacked up in a cabinet. I’m guessing Columbia House is how he got so many so fast.