I wish I could remember my inaugural order from Columbia House. I'm pretty sure the dozen CDs I picked up for a penny included Pearl Jam's Vs., Counting Crows' August and Everything After, Cypress Hill's Black Sunday and Billy Joel's classic two-volume Greatest Hits.
Eclectic haul, right? Well, hey, this was 1993, and I had just gotten my first boombox with a CD player. I had to kick-start my collection somewhere. The irresistible allure of Columbia House was that you could do that for a cost that fit any tween's budget.
So what if you had to buy a few more drastically marked-up albums to fulfill your Columbia House contract? Bills are for parents. Escaping the contract is their problem. Your mission is to blast Insane in the Brain at max volume. And let me tell you, ese: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
Now that I write about music for a living, with a collection of CDs and digital albums in the hundreds, I'm a little verklempt at the news that Columbia House this week filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, another reminder that today's music industry is unrecognizable from the one that thrived in 1993.
In its heyday, Columbia House saw profits of $1.4 billion a year as music fans as deal-hungry as me flooded the company with pennies (and, later, actual, sizeable checks). In the years before the World Wide Web went wide, it wasn't just the easiest way to get Mariah Carey's Music Box or Hootie and the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View; it was the easiest way for everyone to replace their scratchy vinyl records and cassettes with shining new compact discs.
As Chris Wilcha put it in a recent interview with The A.V. Club: "Basically they had convinced everyone to re-buy their record collection again at double the price."
Wilcha worked for Columbia House in the '90s and later directed a documentary about the experience, The Target Shoots First.
"The whole business was premised on this concept called negative option," Wilcha told the A.V. Club. "Which just sounds so creepy and draconian and weird, but the idea that if you don't say no, we're going to send you s---. It's going to fill your mailbox, and we're going to keep sending it unless you panic and beat us back. That was how the money was getting generated."
What a racket. And you wonder how the record industry ended up in a tailspin.
Karma, as they say, is a killer, and now Columbia House paid the ultimate price. Facing competition from iTunes and other digital retailers, the company abandoned the music business ship in 2010, and has since focused on selling DVDs by mail. But in the age of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, who'd want to own a dozen Nic Cage movies for a penny? (Okay, fine, I absolutely would. But that's neither here nor there.)
People too young to remember Columbia House will be astonished that a business model that treats consumers with such predatory disregard ever existed. Music these days is all about streaming. Instead of a dozen CDs for a penny, for $10, you get more songs than you could listen to in a lifetime. Taylor Swift and Prince might have issues with streaming services, but for consumers, at least, that's probably a fairer deal.
And sure, I listen to Spotify and iTunes and Amazon Prime, too. But as a child of the '80s and '90s, I'll always have a soft spot for CDs. I'll never be able to stop poring over dollar bins at used record stores, looking for the pocket-change deal of a lifetime.
You can still find a lot of Pearl Jam, Counting Crows, Cypress Hill and Billy Joel LPs in those bins, you know. You just can't get a dozen for a penny. With the death of Columbia House, those days are long gone.
Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.