Ads #40: Columbia Record and Tape Club

In 1981, my parents finally gave in, and my dumb ass joined the Columbia House Record and Tape Club. I'd been asking for years to no avail.  It seemed like the biggest bargain in town - 13 albums for a penny.... where do I sign!  All I had to do was agree to buy 8 more later on - what a sweet deal!  After my parents relented, I spent hours poring over the vast selection, carefully choosing each record as if my very life depended on it. I still remember the records that came in a nice big box three weeks later:

Stars on 45
At the time I actually thought I was going to get a Beatles greatest hits LP; instead, I got a Beatles medley sung by a cover band to a disco beat.

The Bee Gees - Spirits Having Flown
Yes, I know it was released in 1979; but in '81 I was evidently still wantin' some "Tragedy".

Styx - Paradise Theater
My friend and I would lay in his room, crank up the volume and listen to this LP over and over.... as if this was Sgt. Pepper or Miles Davis.  How embarrassing.

Queen - The Game
Now here was a good purchase.  Sadly, I would trade it for a Depeche Mode cassette tape five years later.  Not one of my proudest moments.

Air Supply - The One That You Love
I'd love to tell you I bought a Sex Pistols or Sabbath LP, but I'm all about honesty here, folks.

Steve Martin - Wild and Crazy Guy
"Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia. King Tut."  You remember it.  You liked it too, I know you did.

click to enlarge

I'll stop there. You get the point.  Anyway, once you get the 13 records for a buck, they keep sending you this form you have to fill out month after month.  If you don't decline the featured album for that month, they mail it to you, along with the bill.

I wasn't exactly the reliable sort, back then.  So, I inevitably kept getting stuck with the month's shitty selection.  It was painful having to shell out hard earned money for a Pat Benetar album I would never listen to.

1966 record ad

Even worse, cassette tapes were now the thing, and vinyl was being phased out.  I wanted cassettes, and learning nothing from my previous business venture with Columbia House, I once again fell under their spell.   I still remember the cassettes I purchased for a mere penny.
Phil Collins - Face Value
AC/DC - Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
Asia - Asia
Men at Work - Business as Usual
The Who - It's Hard
The Cars - Shake It Up
Stray Cats - Built for Speed
Fleetwood Mac - Mirage
The Police - Ghost in the Machine
Survivor - Eye of the Tiger
J. Geils Band - Freeze Frame
I don't recall the rest - maybe Billy Squire or Thriller.  Once again, unwanted tapes kept coming in the mail (Marty Robbins' Greatest Hits comes to mind) and I kept paying for them.  Even worse, these tapes didn't even look real - they were plain white with a microscopic little picture on the front.  No liner notes, no fold out collages, nothing.  I was accustomed to the bold brilliant days of LP cover art; these were dark times for vinyl lovers indeed.

And thus ends the long sordid story of my dalliance with Columbia House.  I'd be interested to hear if anyone else had similar experiences.  If you remember what you ordered for a penny (or dollar), I'd be interested to hear.


  1. I fell for the Columbia House offer multiple times. It wasn't a bad deal as long as you sent your card back in the mail to keep from getting the music you didn't want. Some of the tapes I got included:

    Cheap Trick-Dream Police
    Devo-Freedom of Choice
    J.Geils-Freeze Frame
    Saga-Worlds Apart

  2. When I see those record club ads from the 60's-early 70's, there's actually quite a few albums I'd buy. Many of those albums I have on CD! There was a much better selection of jazz, easy listening, and classical back then. It's also weird to see albums from The Who or Led Zeppelin next to ones by Andy Williams or Mantovani!

  3. Whoa, so long ago. I can see the stack of records in my mind, but can't make them all out. Here's what I think some of them were:

    Steve Martin - Comedy Is Not Pretty
    Chuck Mangione - Main Squeeze or Fun and Games
    Spyro Gyra - Catching the Sun
    Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard of Oz
    Robin Williams - Reality… What a Concept

  4. My best friend joined too. One month they sent him a Donna Summer disco LP. We had a band and played Kiss and Van Halen, so this was a direct insult to music. He obliterated it with a sword, put it back into the box, and returned it.

  5. Great comments!
    Tom - Great choices (I'd forgotten all about Saga). You sure there wasn't an Air Supply or Huey Lewis purchase in there somewhere?

    CLM - Yes, the seventies were a weird and wonderful time. To see Black Sabbath side by side with Engelbert Humperdink is just plain awesome.

    Armpit - Had your friend forgotten about the Kiss "Dynasty" album? "I Was Made For Loving You".... a disco classic. Not much separation between Paul Stanley and Donna Summer back then.

  6. I tried it with BMG, twenty years later from your experience. For $12.99 one could get 11 CDs. I took that opportunity to get a box-set: surprizingly, they just went simply by the number of CDs in a box. So a $70 set of 5 CDs cost basically 6 bucks. After that I used it mainly to get oldies (Elvis, Helen "I'm A Woman", Bread... the best CD being a Depeche Mode compilation).

  7. Ah sweet memories! I did this once, back in the early 70s (without my parents permission, I had no idea how I was going to pay for it). I thought if I picked a Frank Sinatra album for my dad he'd be forgiving when that box of LPs came, such is the logic of a 12 year old...

    I can't remember the album titles, but one was Alice Cooper "School's Out" that came in a nifty album that looked like a beaten up school desk--and the record came in a pair of paper panties, I kid you not! The others were a couple Partridge Family, Olivia Newton John & a Bill Cosby one that me and my older brother played to death. I KNOW I didn't meet the 'contract obligations' to it, but I did mail those cards back religiously ("No thanks") For all I know I still owe Columbia House 8 albums :)

  8. Revell used to use the same pitch, but for model kits.

    In the introductory mailing I got a bunch of really cool Rat Fink models, a modeling kit with an xacto knife, and a bunch of glue.

    Months later, I was paying full retail plus shipping for crap like the Soyuz space capsule, which was basically three pieces that looked like a trash can with a cone on top.

  9. I also joined the Columbia House bandwagon. This is where I received the cherished "Weird Al Yankovic in 3-D" album of 1984. The tracks on this album included:

    "Eat It"
    "The Brady Bunch"
    "I Lost on Jeopardy"
    "Polkas on 45" (polka medley to songs like "Smoke on the Water", "Hey Jude" and "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" just to name a few)
    "Mr. Popeil" (a tribute to inventor Samuel Popeil and his son Ron)

    I still have this tape. By the way, this album was certified platinum.

    Other albums I bought for a penny:
    The Cars - Hearbeat City
    Whodini - Escape
    Van Halen - 1984
    Jacko - Thriller
    Springsteen - Born in the USA
    Culture Club - Colour by Numbers (Yes, I admit it)
    Huey Lewis - Sports
    Lionel Richie - Can't Slow Down
    Cyndi Lauper - She's So Unusual
    The Footloose Soundtrack

  10. For me, Columbia House (and later BMG) were NOT a fail. Of course I was in the Army with a steady income (or in college with a steady income from the Army college money) and I bought albums every month, so it was only once or twice that I ever got an album I didn't want. I don't remember the exact albums, but I had most of them you and everyone else has mentioned. Huey Lewis (4 or 5 of his), Scorpions, John Cougar Mellencamp, Queen, Night Ranger (I had THREE of theirs!), REM, Styx (I had ALL of theirs), etc.

  11. Craig: Hell, I forgot about the model club thing! I did that too and got some good ones. The only clunker I recall was some sailing ship, like the Santa Maria or something. It wasn't a badly produced model, just boring and had all that rigging you had to do with thread. My "tool kit" came with lemon scented glue that sucked and really shitty paints.

  12. THEN after I got married, we did the Columbia House video thing! When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, Crossing Delancy, Willow, Maltese Falcon, and some others.

  13. I always wanted to join these record clubs as a kid but we moved around a lot so that would have been a problem with delivery. I really don't understand why this is a "fail" since from what I've read in the comments the record really did live up to it's promise of giving you 13 records for $1, that's a pretty sweet deal. Even if you factor in the additional 8 records you have to buy.
    Also, let's not forget The Science Fiction Book Club which still exists today.

  14. Luis: Well, they could be considered somewhat of a a failURE because they often were not the same as the original release. They'd be missing artwork or included posters and stuff, or the vinyl pressed from an inferior master, tapes duped from dupes of dupes (increased tape hiss, decreased dynamic range and frequency range).

  15. armpit studios: I think it depended on when you were in the club. I bet the '60s were great. I joined in probably 1978, when it was on its last legs, so I started getting crap models almost instantly.

  16. I was a member of Columbia House in the late 1990s. I as a fairly responsible adult but would still forget to send back the card. You can always return the unwanted item which I always did. After I completed my membership agreement, they kicked me out because I had returned so many unwanted shipments. A year or so later I got a mailing from them saying they wanted me back! I figured all was forgiven. Vowing to myself that I would always return the card, I made my choices (which I don't remember) and sent back the card. In response they sent me a letter saying, in effect, oh, sorry, we don't really want you back.

  17. I was in Columbia for records in the late 60s, RCA for eight tracks, and back with Columbia for CDs. One constant was always having the best intentions of getting the reply card sent back on time. Then, of course, when my little package arrived in the mail, I swore I'd start it next month! Never did learn my lesson, but as a whole I think I probably ended up with some good music that fit my budget at the time.

  18. Sounds familiar. I still have some records that came from Columbia House.

    I also have some BMG cds. I use to get them used at the place I bought cds.

  19. I recall Columbia then later joined BMG and then later yet Comumbia Video VHS tapes. Given I was in a rural community it was a great way to get stuff..

    My first albums I got as (LP):
    Laura Branigan - Self Control
    Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams
    Billy Idol - Rebel Yell
    Police - Synchronicity
    Foreigner - Records

    I think soon after I was buying tapes to fulfill my contract.

    I eventually learned that the selection was pretty restricted to one or two label's catalogs, having depleted what I wanted from what they had to offer made me leave more then anything...

  20. I grew up in Terre Haute, the home of Columbia House. They sold stock to their employees at low prices during monthly sales. Every used record store in town was packed with still-shrink wrapped cassettes and LPS from those sales.

  21. I remember that if you paid for your first obligated record along with your initial shipment (a ninth album or tape), you got #10 for free.

    Those ads were insane. Does anyone else remember the ones where each little album cover was on a perforated sticker, like a giant sheet of tiny stamps? You were supposed to de-perforate the 8 stamps of the selections you wanted and stick them to the order card.

  22. I remember these clubs as well.My two older brothers & I all joined at one time.I belonged to the Columbia Record Club several times and yes,I still have many of those records. The first time for me was in 1975.Coolest LP from my initial batch: Jethro Tull's WarChild.Most embarrassing? Barry Manilow's second LP.I also joined again in the early 80's and then in the late 80's. By then I was mostly collecting cassettes.And who can forget the "Did We Cross in the Mail?" letters one would get if you were behind on paying for a shipment.

  23. Oh Yeah - but there's nothing like the thrill of getting a box in the mail, with 13 shrink-wrapped brand new LP's in the mail - even if one of them was the 5th Dimension Up Up and Away!

  24. I joined something similar in the early 90's. I'm pretty sure I had most of the Weird Al catalogue. I found a big box of my husband's mixtapes from college and wished I had hung on to my cassette collection.

  25. How did I miss this post?? My mom and dad bought into this first around '74 I think. I remember some of the ones they bought: Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; The Association 'Windy'; One called 1000 Strings (classical); some more classical stuff, I don't know what else. I fell into th e'trap' several times - in the late '80's in HS it was Boston, Journey, several Madonna albums, Bon Jovi (Shoot me I'm from Jersey),Dire Straights Brothers in Arms, Led Zeppelin 1, 2, 3, 4 and whatever others, Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, that's just off the top of my head. I always wondered why they NEVER carried Pink Floyd.

  26. OMG! This so jarred my memory. I had forgotten about the Columbia House offer. Hahaha. I begged mom to let me order them and she swore it was a scam and said no. Mom was usually right so I didn't pout too much. But a friend of mind fell for it and got stuck having to buy a tape or two every month.

  27. Three words (okay, four counting the ampersand): "Beck, Bogert, & Appice."

    13 albums, and that's the only one I can remember.

  28. You know, it worked out okay for me, eventually. Sure I'd forget to return the card sometimes, but whenever they sent me something I didn't want, I just wrote "return to sender" on the package and put it back in the mail box.

    Once you fulfilled your obligation, furthermore, there were great bargains to found routinely within the catalog they'd send every month.

    I never noticed a degradation in the sound quality, but I was dismayed by the cheap packaging of the cassettes. I wanted the inserts, artwork and lyrics, dammit!

  29. RobinsonMay 18, 2011

    Ah yes...Columbia House i was a Bright Eyed (And not so bright) 12 Year old in 1982 Selections:

    Huey Lewis & The News: "Picture This"
    Styx: "Paradise Theatre"
    Phil Collins: "Face Value"
    Foreigner: "4"
    Foreigner: "Head Games"
    Billy Squire: "Don't Say No"
    Journey: "Escape"
    38 Special: "Wild eyed Southern boys"
    Asia: "Asia"
    REO Speedwagon:"Hi Infedility"
    Genesis: "Abacab"
    Hall & Oates: "Private Eyes"

    Yep...all 8-TRACKS folks...still have them. the very next year, they phased them out.

  30. I joined in 1981 and got 11 records for a penny. I joined again in about 1988 and got casettes. Does ANYONE still have any of the monthly columbia house catalogs? These are super rare now as no one kept them and I really want to read them for research.
    Here is what I remember picking:
    In 1981 I picked the albums that had ranked the highest in the rolling stone magazines year end top 100 albums chart. This included
    REO SPEEDWAGON ?? maybe
    In 1988 I picked titles such as

  31. AnonymousJuly 07, 2011

    What a cool site. I joined CH in the winter of 79 - 80 and the ones i remember getting were:
    Styx - Pieces Of Eight
    Billy Joel - 52nd Street
    Fleetwood Mac - Tusk
    The Cars
    The Cars - Candy O
    ARS - Champagne Jam
    Led Zeppelin (ZOSO or IV or whatever the hell
    Earth Wind & Fire - Best Of Vol 1
    ELO - Discovery

    These were 8-tracks, which i regretted after about a month and started getting records. I have great memories of getting records in the mail! Some of the standouts:

    Fleetwood Mac - Future Games
    Kansas - Two For The Show
    Rush - Moving Pictures
    Rush - A Farewell To Kings
    Black Sabbath - We Sold Our Soul For Rock n Roll
    Queen - Greatest Hits
    Buckingham Nicks
    Styx - Crystal Ball
    Styx - Serpent
    Styx - Cornerstone (that one baffles me now - i still love Styx but that album was the first big nail in their coffin)
    and .... about 5 years previous my mom was in the club and told me to pick a couple records (yes, vinyl!) and my choices (drumroll)

    Bay City Rollers - Dedication
    Donna Summer - Live & More

    ah - youth... wtf!

  32. I did the Columbia thing three times, I believe, and BMG at least once. No regrets. It was a great deal if you did it right. :)

  33. I did it right and it was great but you did have to pay attention to it. I really miss this. I wish you could buy vinyl this way now. I'd be all over it.

  34. Ha... just trolling and this brought back memories. My buddies and I in the early 90's would sign up with columbia, get our free CD's, buy maybe one or two of the obligatory CD's and then move to a different apartment. I think at one time we each had like three accounts each with Columbia and BMG. We'd just change our names a little (John Smith vs. Jon Smyth) and the address (Suite 301 vs. Apt. 301.) I must still have 200 of the free CD's I got and maybe 20 that I paid for.

  35. My ex brother in law did the same thing with CDs in the mid 90s. He couldn't understand why signing up his cat as a "friend" was not okay.

  36. I have to wonder... after all the bullplop that trickled down following the file sharing debate of the digital age, HOW WERE THESE ARTISTS JUSTLY COMPENSATED FOR THE WHOLESALE MASS LIQUIDATION OF THEIR CATALOGS??? If labels and artists can now make a case over people getting their music free via file sharing, how did they justify giving the same works away for a penny (one digit up from FREE)? I smell deep, dark trouble.

    Anyways... me? I reckon I abused Columbia House three or four times as a juvenile. My first selections in the mid 80's were all vinyl, and included the following...

    AC/DC - Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap
    Led Zeppelin II & IV
    Joan Jett - I Love Rock & Roll

    and... (gasp!)

    Billy Joel's Glass Houses!

  37. Was in 2 Columbia house and 2 bmg at the same time. If you took the special every month like buy one get three free you could get tons of music. After I reached the required 8 purchased at full price, I would write to them and cancel my subscription. A month later they would write and ask me to re join. I would get another 13 cd's for a penny. I probably did this ten time

  38. Does anyone remember getting small record tokens in the mail with the Columbia House offerings? This would have been the mid to late 60's. The "record label" on these miniature records would say either "YES" or "No Thank You." Thinking they may have come in a Columbia House mailing but not sure.

    1. Yup, I think it was the monthly mailing things they, and I remember them from the late '70s or early '80s.

  39. I think I was a member of columbia record 10 times... In the late 80's and also 90's... Often I didn't respect the contract and just stop returning my monthly card and didn't pay them and I had some problems with collection agency! Lol

    The quality of the LP's was inferior to the regular ones, they never use the master tapes for the mass production and also used cheap vinyl quality so the sound was most of the time noisy and hissy!!! The cassette was very cheap made with no lyrics and the tape often didn't resist after 10 playing!!! The cd's was ok, often they didn't had the original artwork but the sound was about the same as the regular release...

    I was also a member of BMG canada record club... It was the same with them, but their CD's was somewhat cheaper than the regular one...

    I can name a few lp's I had for free from columbia record...

    Rush - Moving Pictures

    Styx - Paradise theater (original one had a laser special effect print on the LP side B but the columbia record didn't had that...)

    Ozzy - Speak of the devil

    Genesis - Foxtrot and Selling England by the pound reissue ( very cheap, no lyrics, not gatefold like the original or the reissues from Atlantic records in the 80's)

    On cassette I had

    Asia - Asia
    Black Sabbath - The eternal idol
    Genesis - A trick of the tail
    Yes - The yes album
    Pink Floyd - Animals

    And I had at least more than 200 cd's from both columbia and BMG canada... Columbia record was very good to sale CD who wasn't remastered... I remember that I bought all the Led Zeppelin albums in cd's, and 1 month later at HMV they recieve the new remaster of all the Led Zep albums! Same for the Genesis albums on cd, I bought them not remastered from columbia house and 2 months later they had them in the remastered version at HMV...

    Overall the quality of their lp's, cassettes and cd from the 80's, 90's are inferior quality but hey I had them for almost free!!! Better than nothing... Even if buy the newer ones since then and that I sold for almost nothing all off my columbia records to a used record store...

  40. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I think the masses fell for this time and time again as well. You brought back the same memories. Throughout my lifetime I did it a few times....you would think I would've learned. The last time I did the deal with Columbia House I had moved without a forwarding my mail. I was never to receive another selection. Safe to say, I wasn't heartbroken.