A Columbia House retrospective

Tommy Andres Aug 11, 2015

Filmed Entertainment Inc., the parent of mail-order music company Columbia House, filed for bankruptcy Monday — a move it’s blaming on the changing pace of technology. Back in the ’90s, Columbia House was known for its “eight CDs a penny” slogan. 

Before Columbia House and BMG, I was listening to the “Aladdin” soundtrack on repeat. Sure, they may have been scams, but for a 13-year-old kid without a record store within biking distance and limited lawn-mowing money, the mail services were a window to the world. So what if that world was packed full of crappy ’90s music? It was all we had. And we liked it.

I can still remember that beautiful catalog showing up at our house, the fine print no match for the colorful squares full of artists I’d thought I’d heard my older brother mutter. It was like a game. Each album a tiny sticker that you pulled off and stuck on the card. I’d spend hours selecting them. Some were sure things, like Green Day’s “Dookie,” but others were artistic roulette. Seven Mary Three? They’ve got to have another song besides “Cumbersome.” Oh, how wrong we were.

When those bubble mailers would show up, it was like Christmas, only instead of wrapping paper it appeared Santa had gotten a great deal on bulk manila. Thankfully, my parents both taught elementary school, so I would get home first, able to check the mailbox without fear of being found out. That’s because along with an invoice, those envelopes came with something else. A secret.

My parents were crazy. They were teachers, but they were somehow ignoring the simple math of it all. Eight CDs for one penny, that’s a hell of a deal no matter how you slice it! But no matter how many times I asked, they said no. I wanted to get into Columbia House, but I was stuck in the Andres house with these fools. I couldn’t stand back and let them make such bad decisions. They had to see first hand what a mistake they were making. So I signed them up. Both of them. And my brother too. Heck, he had a name and address, which seemed to be the only requirement.

The mail services and I had a three-year affair. Columbia House made $1.4 billion at its peak in 1996, but they only made $100.04 off of me. I was diligent about sending back the automatic albums I never wanted and cancelling my subscriptions, claiming I wasn’t satisfied. But I was satisfied. Oh, I was. I got 36 CDs from BMG and Columbia. Enough to buy one of those CD books that I toted around so people could see just how cool I was.

I believe the CDs were $25 a piece, which would mean I got eight CDs for $25.01, four times. That means I got 32 CDs for $100.04, which comes out to $3.13 per CD. Not a great business plan, Columbia House. (By the way, if you want to understand how Columbia House and BMG made money, read this.)

Sure Fastball only had one good song, but the Sublime album was choice through and through. I kissed my first girl to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash,” took my first drive to Collective Soul’s “Gel.” Those CDs were the background to my teenage years, and if that book hadn’t gotten stolen from my car, I’d probably still be listening to them.

So here’s to the original on-demand entertainment source.

I smashed all the albums I got from BMG and Columbia House (who by the way merged into one company a while back) into a montage (yes, I remember them). Think you can name them all?

  1. Marcy Playground – “Marcy Playground”
  2. Dog’s Eye View – “Happy Nowhere”
  3. Live – “Throwing Copper”
  4. No Doubt – “Tragic Kingdom”
  5. Toadies – “Rubberneck”
  6. Filter – “Short Bus”
  7. Collective Soul – “Collective Soul” 
  8. Beastie Boys – “Ill Communication”
  9. Rage Against the Machine – “Evil Empire”
  10. Smash Mouth – “Fush Yu Mang”
  11. Alanis Morissette – “Jagged Little Pill”
  12. Butthole Surfers – “Electriclarryland”
  13. Goo Goo Dolls – “A Boy Named Goo”
  14. Semisonic – “Feeling Strangely Fine”
  15. The Verve Pipe – “Villains”
  16. Radiohead – “The Bends”
  17. Red Hot Chili Peppers – “One Hot Minute”
  18. Wallflowers – “Bringing Down the Horse”
  19. Barenaked Ladies – “Born on a Pirate Ship”
  20. Sublime – “Sublime”
  21. Matchbox 20 – “Yourself or Someone Like You”
  22. Tori Amos – “Boys for Pele”
  23. Hootie & the Blowfish – “Cracked Rear View”
  24. The Offspring – “Americana”
  25. Green Day – “Dookie”
  26. Soundgarden – “Superunknown”
  27. Stone Temple Pilots – “Tiny Music… Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop”
  28. Bush – “Sixteen Stone”
  29. Dave Matthews Band – “Crash”
  30. The Smashing Pumpkins – “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”
  31. Oasis – “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”
  32. Soul Coughing – “El Oso”

Correction: A previous version of this story briefly misspelled the name of the Smashing Pumpkins album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” The text has been corrected.

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