Deconstruction Week: The Columbia House Scam

I am a collector of things. I’m not a hoarder or anything. I don’t have rooms and rooms filled with old magazines and I don’t have to carve out walking paths through stacks of random whatnot. I’m also not big on knickknacks or collecting things that serve no purpose other than to “look pretty.” Like many other things, I tend to be a little more utilitarian. But I do enjoy the act of acquiring things and having large collections. This is especially true when it comes to media. I did it with comic books for a few years, and trading cards at the same time. I had three long boxes of comics and four big binders filled with trading cards for a while. I pared that down quite a bit a couple of moves ago. I’ve always had a large number of books, some read, many not read. I dream of having one of those giant library rooms with the rolling ladder. I used to have a large collection of movies on VHS, but eventually got rid of all of them and replaced them with a large collection of DVDs. Those were slowly turning into a large collection of Blu Rays, until I decided to go full digital. I still have a large collection of movies, but they’re mostly files on a hard drive now. My game library on Steam is pretty big, over 300 and close to 400 at this point, and my library on GOG is steadily expanding. I’ve already mentioned the vast size of my music collection, both on CD, vinyl and digital formats.

I’m not sure what it is. I really like just having them a lot of the time, just in case I feel like watching/reading/playing/listening to something in particular. Sometimes I worry that it’s the act of buying it that I enjoy more than the having it. I also wonder if having the bragging rights of “I have over *insert dauntingly large number* of this particular thing” isn’t a part of my motivation. I’m not typically one of those one-upsmanship kind of people, but I like having recognition for my achievements, and on some level having a shitload of books I guess could be called an achievement.

The problem with trying to build collections like this is that it can get really expensive. I’m a pretty successful guy now, but I wasn’t always. I try to wait for sales on games, and I go to a lot of second hand stores like Buybacks and especially Half Priced Books to bolster my collection. I’m always looking for a deal on things to stretch my dollar a little further. Back in high school, I had a scheme to grow my music collection pretty fast that worked out for me.

Once upon a time, music was not as easy to come by as it is now. There was no Spotify and no Amazon. The internet was not really a thing yet, and mp3s weren’t even invented. Streaming couldn’t be done through a 28K modem. Stores, most often found in malls, were the best source of music. Sure, department stores like K-Mart and Ames and Hills had music sections, but they were geared towards the most popular music only to maximize profits for the small size of the section. Finding heavy metal or alternative or industrial was a long shot at best. Mall shops had a better selection. Stores like Media Play and Borders were an even better solution, but the prices were high and the CDs almost never went on sale past the first week of their release.

But there were mail order options as well. The two biggest were Columbia House and BMG. To compete with the instant gratification of the mall stores, they would run some pretty decent specials, but it came at a cost. The first obvious downside that all CDs took 2-3 weeks to get to your house, and shipping and handling were an extra expense. There was no “Columbia House Prime” that got you free two-day shipping. The prices weren’t really much better than the stores, either, though they did run specials from time to time. The worst part was that you had to join their “club.” BMG wasn’t pushy. You never had to buy more CDs or cassettes to fulfill your membership requirements. Columbia House, however, did have a stipulation that you had to by a certain amount of albums within two years of signing up or they would charge you for your initial purchases. But both had pretty good bonuses to sign up. With BMG, you got either four CDs or six cassettes for the price of one upon signing up. Columbia House would offer you ten to twelve CDs or fifteen cassettes for a penny (plus shipping and handling) when you signed up. This was a pretty damned good deal, especially for a high school student looking to start his music collection, so I ended up signing up for both.

Now, every month, you would receive a catalogue from each service. Along with this catalogue was a “selection of the month” chosen for you based on your stated musical preference when you signed up (for BMG, I was able to choose “alternative,” but Columbia House didn’t have that option so I had to settle for “rock”). A little card came with your catalogue each month, and you would have to send it back to them each month, whether you were ordering something or not. If you didn’t, they would send you this “selection of the month” and charge you full price for it (no special deals applied). This is how they made money, I’m guessing. They banked on the laziness or business of the average person to continually forget to fill out the little card and send it in. Though I was both lazy and busy in high school, I was flawless at turning in my little card. Most months, I would get the catalogue out of the mailbox, quickly glance at my “selection,” and fill out my card immediately with a check in the “do not send me this trite mainstream crap this month, try again to gouge me next month” box (the selection, since it was a “new” album, was always more expensive).

Now, as a person who was looking to build a massive music library, receiving these catalogues every month was the equivalent of receiving the JC Penny Christmas Toy Catalogue twelve times a year. Much like when I received the JC Penny toy catalogue, I started circling the albums that I wanted, or that sounded pretty cool, or maybe I had heard one song off of it once and thought it was decent. My wish list grew and grew, but as a high school kid with minimal income (I did occasional work for a small local printing company called Minuteman Press on the weekends and during the summer), the list was always growing and never shrinking. But then I had an idea.

Both BMG and Columbia House had a referral bonus. Sign someone up to BMG and they send you three free CDs as a thanks for adding to their cult’s ranks. Sign someone up to Columbia House and they send you four free CDs for convincing someone to fall for their scheme. Just pay shipping and handling! I had fallen for these programs, and I was a pretty smart (though apparently materialistic) person. It stood to reason that the less intelligent acquaintances in school would fall for it as well. So I took a stab at it. I packed my most recent catalogues (minus the cards which had both been promptly mailed back in, you can shove R.E.M.’s Monster straight up your ass) from both into my backpack, along with a bunch of the forms they sent every month to do just this thing, and brought them to school. I started easy, just casually mentioning it to friends between classes. But over time, I became good at it. I was like a Fuller Brush salesman crossed with a terrier. I was tenacious. And I was effective. I told little white lies about how awesome it was (just casually mentioning the little cards), primed the pump with comments like “look how cheap this is, only one penny” and “they have such a good selection, I always find cool stuff,” and finished off with the hard sell. Wavering victims were treated with either a guilt trip (“I thought we were friends. I’m just trying to help you and me get a bunch of music”) or a caring friend (“I thought you would really appreciate me bringing this to you, since you’ve been talking about getting that one album and now you can get it and eleven other CDs for just a penny”) or, in some rare cases, a gift (“tell you what, you can have one of my free CDs, making it an even sweeter deal”). And these tactics worked! I never did this to my closest friends, I didn’t feel comfortable lying to them. But everyone else who I talked to a couple of times in class was fair game.

When all was said and done, I signed up probably twenty people to either Columbia House or BMG. In return, I received approximately fifty to sixty new CDs. I lost some to the “gift” strategy. I never received others because I fell for the “let me take it home and fill in the rest” counter from a couple of people. And I’m not sure, but I think Columbia House may have been getting wise to my plan because the I never got the last four CDs that I signed up for. I know the form got sent in, but for some reason I never received anything from it. I even had one person sign up under two different names (their’s and their made-up “brother”) to get more CDs.

After the shipment I never received, I backed off. I had amassed a large collection that I had barely listened to. I had annoyed just about everyone I could think to, and my parents were starting to wonder how I was able to get all of these new CDs. I felt a little sleazy about it, too. It was like a pyramid scheme in some ways. I knew what I was saddling these people with, but I was getting free stuff so I didn’t really care. A few months later (when I was absolutely sure no more free albums were still en route to me), I cancelled my BMG membership. A little while after that, I finally fulfilled my “purchase obligations” to Columbia House and cancelled that as well. I had other things to focus on, with college right around the corner.

Of the albums I received, many are still in my collection (you could always tell the BMG albums since they replace the bar codes with their own code). Some became classics and mainstays that I listen to even now. Some, however, did not (I’m looking at you Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record and Paw’s Dragline) and were later sold for a little extra cash when times were tight.

These mail order services were pretty good, though. I mean, the cards were annoying, but some of the specials were pretty good. They didn’t have the best selections (not a big indie scene on there, and almost no industrial or really good metal), but they were good enough. And every now and again, I found a gem I never would have found otherwise. On the back cover of Columbia House, the same month they were convinced I would want the debut album from Porno for Pyros, they featured the debut album from Deconstruction. On a whim, I added it to my list and got it for free when a girl in my class named Elena signed up. I would have never found it otherwise.


Mr. Tooduloo

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