Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

The Horrors And Pleasures Of The Columbia House Music Club In Six Albums

Nostalgia for the cultural touchstones of the 1990s, according to the Times, is a real-life, actual thing. Of course, they’re thinking in terms of Nickelodeon programs like "Doug" and "All That." I would hasten to add that any good reminiscence of the pre-Lewinsky Clinton years requires a recognition that Columbia House Music Club was both a blessing and a curse for many a nascent music fan. It was for me. My membership fell somewhere between 1993 and 1996, pre-high school, pre-love of record stores. It was through Columbia House’s mail-order catalogs that I received all the Nirvana, Soundgarden and Belly albums I could get my hands on.

Of course, the club had been around for decades by the time I came aboard; from records through 8-tracks and cassettes to, by the time I joined, CDs. (It exists now only in a DVD incarnation.) During its reign, the Columbia House Music Club was, I'm fairly certain, instrumental in introducing several generations of American teens to the concept of anxiety. For those unfamiliar with the club, you signed up to get "12 CDs for the price of 1!" After that the setup required you to explicitly say no, every month, to certain CDs that would be sent by mail if you weren’t quick enough. The Federal Trade Commission calls this a Prenotification Negative Option Plan, which sounds like the name for an announcement in which you say, “I’d like to announce that I’m exercising my option to make no announcement.” You could order anything you liked from Columbia House, but there was always a stable of undesirables to avoid if you could—or accidentally keep and pay for if you forgot to mail back the form in time.

It was my first memorable encounter with anxiety, which now rules my life like an impeccably dressed dictator wearing nice sunglasses. By a certain date, I would have to say, “No, please do not send me Enya’s The Memory of Trees,” even if I knew nothing about Enya one way or the other. As a budding consumer, trying to learn how to BUY BUY BUY, I wasn’t properly equipped to say NO PLEASE GOD NO. And then, when that Enya CD finally came, I would have to spend a significant percentage of my total financial holdings on an album that I could not return. It was too much stress. I can clearly remember receiving, without realizing it would happen because I had not checked the right box, a number of heavy-metal CDs that I’ve long since misplaced.

Here are some albums that serve for me as reminders of the high and low points of the accidental consumerism that was "12 CDs for the price of 1."


Obligatory. I still have this thing somewhere, but I never really listened to it. Honest! If I was going to caption this band photograph, it would read: “Hey, anyone wearing a surprisingly beautiful sweater—look over there!”

Deliverance—Corrosion of Conformity

I remember there was a picture of the band in one of the Columbia House catalogs. They had long hair, but it was clearly not the flowingly sensitive, yet masculine hair of Candlebox. Corrosion of Conformity had metal hair. Looking at this cover, I remember noticing that an image of a speaker inside what appeared to be a sunflower framed by mirror-image lizards caressing it with their tongues was not really an obvious metaphor for anything and pretty cluttered, pictorially speaking. I didn’t actually use the word "pictorially" back then, though. And probably not "metaphor," either.


I didn’t buy this record, but given my musical interests at the time (and my cool acquaintances who recommended Betty), I think Helmet would have been a superb purchase. I wonder if the colorized look of this cover reminded me too much of the Smashing Pumpkins’ aesthetic circa Siamese Dream. As a young boy, though, I think the chasteness of the woman on the cover struck me as kind of wiener-y, like a class photo. Maybe I didn’t know what irony was. Sorry, Helmet.

Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid—Collective Soul

Simultaneously the greatest CD purchase of my early adolescence and proof that I still hadn’t conformed to the electrifying approval for Nirvana that seemed to rule among my grunge-oriented peers. When Collective Soul’s next album came out, I tried to play it at a youth group gathering at my church, but was denounced by a stern 15- or 16-year old girl who informed me that, while Collective Soul’s first album (the one above) was definitely Christian, their second album was not Jesus-approved. I remember feeling really offended. I mean, come on—that second album had that song about not committing suicide! She was clearly trying to kill me.

Slippery When Wet—Bon Jovi

My memories of the early- to mid-'90s are dominated by one overarching pop-culture theory: the '80s sucked. Super uncool, according to all my peers. I remember that we thought this with real conviction. Regardless, when, at the age of 12 or 13, you’re offered 12 CDs for the price of 1, you realize pretty quickly that you don’t know shit about music, good or bad. So you pick Bon Jovi as filler; it’s a band name you recognize. Then you get the record and look at the album booklet’s pictures of attractive women wearing midriff-bearing t-shirts while washing cars—and then you realize the implications of the album title. And then you maybe feel a little uncomfortable, as though you’re holding something that could magically turn into forbidden pornography at any second.

Hungry for Stink—L7

Even at the time, I knew I wasn’t cool enough for this record. Sensitive 13-year-old boys who have just recently become aware that tucking turtlenecks into sweatpants looks awful are definitely not hungry for stink.

Related: Nostalgia Is Not New

Michael H. Rowe likes a couple Enya songs a lot, but still isn't hungry for stink.

35 Comments / Post A Comment

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I was forced to share the 12 CD allotment with my family, but my first picks were Jagged Little Pill, Tragic Kingdom, and What's the Story Morning Glory. I still listen to all of them.

crescentmelissa (#10,702)

@boyofdestiny me too! Wow that brought me right back, for real. But I also got Aretha franklin's greatest hits. Not sure what all this means.

aegallagher (#19,259)

And that's how I ended up with Jesus Jones' "Doubt."

migraineheadache (#1,866)

@aegallagher I think I bought that in a store on purpose and was disappointed that it wasn't as techno as I expected it would be.

@aegallagher And that's how I ended up with Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians's "Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars." "What I am" was not available in Cassingle at my local record store.

becky@twitter (#14,213)

@HeyThatsMyBike i know what i know if you know what i mean.

@becky@twitter Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box.

becky@twitter (#14,213)

@HeyThatsMyBike religion is the smile on a dog.

i was a member of "ALTERNATIVE VIDEO MONTHLY" which was a similar program except you got a VHS tape every month with like twelve videos of 'alternative' bands.

i did discover a lot of cool music that way, though, like ween and school of fish, two bands that obviously have a ton in common (being alternative)

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Also, isn't it weird that GMC's current (or at least recent) TV ad campaign features "The World I Know"?

C_Webb (#855)

I do remember that when I tried to sell these accidentally purchased CDs back to the local record store for beer money, they were inevitably full up on those titles because everyone else mailed the card back late, too.

@C_Webb Yeah imagine my surprise when no one would buy that Spin Doctors CD when I needed money the most?!

jfruh (#713)

This is how I ended up with Taylor Dane on CD! Oh, the shame. (Betty is a pretty good album, by the way!)

Art Yucko (#1,321)
ComradePsmith (#4,477)

@Art Yucko I thought this was going to be about Monaco.

oxla (#12,069)

hootie and the blowfish + raygun-y design = most craptacullar '90s thing ever, true or false?

C_Webb (#855)

@oxla That song was somewhat better if you sang it as "Hold My Hootie," but not much.

Pop Socket (#187)

There is an episode of Leave It To Beaver where the Beav joins a record club and just hides all the records he gets until it becomes too much. Somehow a lesson is learned.

freetzy (#7,018)


bangs (#19,284)

I distinctly remember the point in my life when I realized baggy t-shirts shouldn't be tucked into jeans. I think I was in jr. high… I had a similar epiphany this spring when I realized all the dresses I had bought in the last year required belts.

whoneedslight (#758)

I ended up with a Manhattan Transfer CD. I couldn't even bring myself to attempt gifting it to a parent, the whole experience was that embarrassing.

sophiah (#13,210)

I only got the first 12 CDs before canceling, because I waited until 1999 when I was heading off to college to join, but I'm sad I can't remember exactly what I ordered! The ones I can remember are Tom Petty's Greatest Hits, Beck's Odelay (the only CD of the original 12 I still own), some Soul Coughing album because they had a song on the X-Files movie soundtrack (shhhhutup), and a Jean-Michel Jarre album they sent by mistake. My world was not rocked.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

After paying for one or two involuntary purchases, I started writing "REFUSED – RETURN TO SENDER" on the little boxes and sticking them back on the mail. It worked.

Corrosion of Conformity! I saw them once in the late 80s. One of my first real shows, and the first one where I still had a ringing in my ears more than 24 hours later.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

I think I got the "No Alternative" various artists CD (among others) from the competing BMG Music Club. That one made me slightly less uncool.

Jared (#1,227)

@whizzard Yes! The right CD comp or Soundtrack at the right time made all the difference. I mean, everyone and their little brothers bought Singles and then Pulp Fiction, but if you were adventurous enough for No Alternative or Till the End of the World, that was a really good start.

tiny dancer (#1,774)

@whizzard Here's a name you cannot forget. Her name is Glynis, yeah.

ample pie (#16,622)

So this is where I talk about the time our puppy got angry at the mail (this happens, regularly) and chewed up the envelope containing the MAIL BACK OR ELSE card, so my mom put the bits of the MAIL BACK OR ELSE card into a plastic bag and sent it back with a note.

Then we got a mailbox to hang outside the house.

ennaenirehtac (#11,592)

Desperate to fill my 12-CD quota, I randomly picked The Smiths' "The Queen is Dead" because I liked the picture of the girl on the cover. It worked out well for me, although I probably had a gloomier adolescence than I otherwise would have. Also, years earlier my dad was introduced to Bob Dylan through the Columbia House Music Club. Moral: Occasionally scams work in one's favor?

petejayhawk (#1,249)

I don't remember all of them, but this is definitely how I ended up with my Fine Young Cannibals and Def Leppard cassettes.

Swass LikeMe (#1,317)

Ahh – this 15(?) year old boy was totally Hungry for Stink. Was so thrilled to see them at Palooza 94. Those riot grrl bands were something else. Always had a thing for Babes in Toyland, too.

babakgolshahi (#18,104)

Interesting retrospective. I can't really relate per se but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

oneneatcat (#19,466)

I somehow got my parents to sign on for this, and it would give me super-anxity every month, since I usually didn't have 1)a stamp or a clue on how to find one to send the stupid card back, 2)any sort of money to pay for a CD if one did come in. It was one of those "ohh, this is fun licking all these stamps of albums and sticking them on this paper activity", but my parents should have never let me actually join.

I was super uncool- I got Enya on purpose. I still love my Roxette CD though!

thundacunt (#10,611)

hmmm…the only ones i can remember were house of pain, jump around. wreckx n effecx rump shaker, jodeci forever my lady tevin campbell and hi-5…clearly i had way different music tastes then you guysss!!!

jhjhjhj (#7,025)

christ no i never did this – after some unfortunate back page of Betty and Veronica's Double Digests orders ("Four fifty in shipping for hairbands and a pencil eraser?!? Jesus, Meredith.") i was never allowed to ask my parents to get me a money order for anything ever to this day.

That said: Tell It To My Heart is still a great dance jam.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

Back in the day, 'ran' a rooming house, i.e. collected rent at big old mansion used as SRO. Fellow who claimed to be a former inhabitant came by once a week to pick up huge stash of record club, tape club, book club, etc., mailings that had accumulated during the week under a number of different but similar names. No doubt many 12-CDs-for-the-price-of-zero. Detective types finally came around. I didn't know nothing but on next visit I told the guy it was time to cool it and he never came back. Next time the cops came I gave them his current pile. They didn't look too happy. They never came back either. After awhile the records, books, tapes, and bills stopped coming. I put what remained in a large box and put it in the basement where the stuff is probably gathering dust, mold and mouse droppings to this very day.

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