Columbia House offered you Incredible Deals™ when you signed up: you’d get a bunch of free albums for a penny, and in turn you promised to buy a set number of albums over the coming year. (To make things easy for you, Columbia House would automatically send you some albums unless you told them not to.) Mail-order convenience was big back then, and the idea of a subscription music service that came to your door was pretty appealing. But times change and mediums mutate, and now Columbia House has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Columbia House, my nostalgic heart will miss you. You taught me how much fun it was to buy music, and you taught me to avoid mail-order offers at all costs. In a way, you were the good and the bad of capitalism, all wrapped up in one shiny TV Guide ad.
Columbia House was such a strange thing, and is there anyone out there over the age of 35 who didn’t try it (or try to scam it) at least once in your teenage years? Or who isn’t amazed that it was still around until just now?
Is it a coincidence that, after not entering our thoughts for years, Columbia House was a recent topic of social media conversation, when this excellent article came out exactly two months ago on The A.V. Club? :
Filmmaker Chris Wilcha captured what it was like working at Columbia House during this boom time in a low-key, first-person documentary called The Target Shoots First. Incredibly, few people seemed to bat an eye at the camera, which allowed Wilcha to capture the weird tension between the freewheeling creative department and responsibility-burdened marketing team, the old-guard music executives and the younger employees versed in the nascent alternative music culture, and a corporate environment not quite sure what to do with the next generation.
Twenty years after it was filmed, what’s incredible about Wilcha’s documentary is how the experience of working at Columbia House informs (and, at times, even parallels) the modern media landscape.
The article becomes a fascinating roundtable discussion between the filmmaker and three of his Columbia House co-workers. There’s a lot of talk about the culture at this red-headed stepchild of the music industry, as well as attempting to decipher the nuts-and-bolts of how “8 CDs for a penny” could actually be so profitable. It’s a long read but highly recommended.
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