And yet, for a good long while, Columbia House was a valuable tool for both music-loving consumers and the music industry itself. Earlier this summer, the A.V. Club ran a fascinating “Expert Witness” on the club’s mid-1990s heyday, noting that 15% of all CD sales in 1994 were through record clubs like Columbia House and rival BMG, and out of the 13 million copies sold of Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View, a staggering three million were via record clubs. They boosted the industry during perhaps its most profitable period (the mark-up on those discs was so huge that the penny sales were barely a loss leader to begin with), and, as the A.V. Club notes, CH provided not only steady jobs for 3000-plus folks in that mysterious Terre Haute plant, but also early, steady gigs for the likes of music writer Sasha Frere-Jones and filmmaker Chris Wilcha. (They’re also refreshingly candid about the industry’s CD reliance coming home to roost, with Piotr Orlov noting that the high quality of those discs meant “they basically gave the bullets for the people to shoot them down once a new platform came along.”)
But more than that, Columbia House was a key enabler for those of us who, increasingly atypically, are collectors of physical media. My very first shipment included all of Madonna’s albums to date — even the Who’s That Girl soundtrack (what can I tell you, I’ve always been a completist); later “introductory shipments” from the CD club included giant swaths of the Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Miles Davis discographies, which still sit on my shelf (albeit dusty from underuse, long ago transferred to my trusty iPod Classic). Gaming the DVD club filled in holes in my library for Pam Grier movies, Hope & Crosby Road pictures, and late Billy Wilder. And the “shoot the works” spirit of the (basically, if you ignore the consequences!) free new-member order allowed us to take chances we might not take at $10 and $20 a pop; I heard my first Outkast, Radiohead, and French Kicks records via Columbia House.
That’s all much easier now, of course; you can sample a new-to-you artist on Spotify in approximately 1/78,453 of the time you would’ve had to wait for that CD to show up in the mail. But, for this old man at least, no streaming service or app can replicate the feeling of tearing open that plain brown box from Terre Haute and exploring the treasures inside.