Any music head who came of age in (or around) the ’80s was at some point a member of the Columbia House mail-order record club. This is how it worked: You started off getting eight CDs or 12 cassettes for a penny, and then had to buy a bunch more at some obscene markup. If you were there, you remember it well; if you weren’t, it must seem impossibly archaic.
I joined the club several times over, and I think I lived up to the terms of the agreement once. I was afraid my negligence would one day prohibit me from buying a home; I was relieved, however, by some probably inaccurate urban legend spread among my classmates claiming that you couldn’t be prosecuted for such contract infringement if you were under the age of 18 when you signed the deal. I’m still not sure if I’m on the hook for those lapsed memberships, to be honest. In any case, it appears I’ve outlived my creditors, because today, the Wall Street Journal reports that the owners of Columbia House have filed for bankruptcy.
I’m actually shocked by this — not shocked to learn that Columbia House is going out of business, but shocked to learn that Columbia House was still in business at all. The competing mail-order provider of the era — the BMG Music Service — called it quits in 2009. Interestingly, BMG obtained Columbia House in 2005, at which point Columbia House was rebranded as a mail-order DVD club.
Rolling Stone has the figures in full, but basically, the service peaked in 1996 with profits of $1.6 billion, but as of this year, it has assets worth $2 million and debts of $63 million. Seems like bankruptcy was the right call. As it happens, a couple months back, the AV Club did a great roundtable with some folks who wrote blurbs for the old Columbia House catalog (one of whom was Sasha Frere-Jones!), which is definitely worth reading.
It’s hard to call this a sad day because the old-school Columbia House that helped to fill the record libraries of a previous generation has been dead for a decade — and irrelevant for longer still — but even so, it’s sort of a bittersweet reminder. I got a lot of great albums from Columbia House. And a lot of trash, too. And there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without the music they provided to me way back when. RIP.