Friday, August 28, 2015

Remembering the Columbia Record Club

It is often when institutions, artifacts, or practices become entirely -- or at least effectively -- defunct that we come to realize or reconsider what they had meant.  The busier our lives get, the more useful such distinct moments become as markers memorializing the meaning of the past within the ongoing present.

For me -- and for many of my generation, those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s -- the news earlier this month that the long-moribund Columbia Record Club had filed for bankruptcy was such a moment.  As the news filtered into social media networks, many of us reminisced together, some recounting how many times they had joined the club.  For my part -- and that's mostly what this post will be about below -- I was reminded of how taking advantage of the club's offer played such an important role early on in building my metal collection.

The Columbia Record Club, Then and Now

One of the best lines I've seen in the online literature discussing the Columbia Record Club is this (from an excellent piece in Live@Leeds):
Up until the end of the 1990s, children grew up corresponding with two seemingly fantastical postal addresses: little kids sent letters to Santa at the North Pole, and teenagers joined Columbia House and sent letters to Terre Haute, Indiana.
The club originated still one generation back from my own, starting in 1955, and had taken off by the 1960s, but really began saturating the pages of magazines with their seemingly omnipresent advertisements from the late 1970s on and well through the 1980s.

The premise was a seemingly very simple one: pay one penny, pick out 7 (or 9 or 11 or however many that particular offer listed) albums, and they'd ship them to you straight away (in the early 180s, that meant several weeks).  Of course, you did thereby agree to purchase a given number of other club albums at their inflated prices, and if you didn't stay on top of the selection of the month, making sure to mail them back the card on which it was listed, you'd end up with that record -- or tape -- or CD, and have to pay for it as well.  (Here's an interesting inside view of how their model -- "negative option billing" worked.)

I joined twice myself -- once in 1984, in my freshman year of high school,  and once a decade later, in 1994 after I'd finished college.  My younger sister joined as well not long after I did.  Both of us took our hauls in the form of LP records.  As our time went on with the club, we unsurprisingly ended up mismanaging matters and getting stuck with quite a few less preferable records -- and with mounting bills.  Fortunately, our mother eventually stepped in, paid a bit of the outstanding balance, and then wrote a stiffly worded letter to the club calling into question their business practices.  And that was that.

In the 1990s, I stayed on top of these matters much more effectively, and actually managed not only to finish out the club obligations incurred by taking their initial deal, but even to make out quite well by taking advantage of special offers along the way.  That time, of course, it was CDs, and by then, my musical tastes had moved away from metal (though I was listening to a few newer acts like Tool and Alice in Chains).

After finishing up with that particular incarnation of the Columbia Record Club, they dropped off of my radar -- and gradually, it seems, they did so for practically everyone else.  The music market changed drastically going into the 2000s, and it becomes more and more difficult to see how any business set up along their lines was going to stay afloat.  In fact, the club ended up getting bought out by another similar club, BMG Direct Marketing, and ended its days owned by Direct Brands, Inc -- who closed the music club itself, but used the shell of the once-massive company, and its by now age-old approach to hawk DVDs.  In fact, it is Direct Brands itself that has recently gone bankrupt -- the record club long since died off.

Building My Metal Collection

In a few earlier blog entries, I've narrated portions of the story of how I progressively got more and more into classic heavy metal -- some of it as a kid long before we knew metal was a "thing." Throughout my high school years, through my Army days, and for a good part of my college time, I identified as a metalhead.  Early on in my freshman year at CMH (where, incidentally, my metalhead now-wife, Andi, and I first crossed paths -- there's a whole complicated and interesting story there, trust me!), I drastically expanded the small metal collection I went into that year with.  By joining the Columbia Record Club, early on that freshman year I effectively more than doubled the size of the repertoire of metal I was listening to, sharing with others, and getting excited over practically every day.

As I reflect upon it, by the time I sent away for the Columbia club LPs, I had a very limited collection, partly on album and partly on cassette tapes.
  • KISS, Destroyer -- a Valentine's Day present of several years back, from my mother.
  • Def Leppard, Pyromania -- a cassette I think I won in a contest.
  • Van Halen, 1984 -- a copy recorded for me on cassette by my middle school friend, Walter
  • Iron Maiden, Piece of Mind -- a 14th birthday present
  • Dio, Holy Diver -- the very first metal album I bought on my own, the second week of school
When I sent in my penny and my list of selections, what did I get?  On the whole some pretty classic metal -- the sorts of music I really needed to hear, and to own for myself, at that time -- along with a few missteps as well.  Here's what I can remember ordering:
  • Judas Priest, Defenders of the Faith
  • Black Sabbath, Born Again
  • RATT, Out of the Cellar
  • Motley Crue, Shout at the Devil 
  • Ozzy Osbourne, Bark at the Moon
  • Krokus, The Blitz
  • Quiet Riot, Metal Health
  • Twisted Sister, Stay Hungry
  • Sammy Hagar, VOA
  • Molly Hatchet, The Deed Is Done
Ok. . .  the last one, really not metal -- more southern rock, as I discovered.  And, Hagar's VOA. . .  well, it's not anything I'd recommend to someone who wanted to know anything about metal's ongoing development, let alone high points.  But the rest of it -- even the oft-panned Born Again -- is all great stuff! 

The Blitz
and Stay Hungry have aged a little less well than some of the others, but counting those two into the list we have 8 classic metal albums added to the five I already owned.  I quickly recorded all of them (except the Hagar and Hatchet) onto cassette tapes, which I played constantly on my boom box.  Quite an excellent set of acquisitions, now that I think about it.

How Did I Have Any Idea What To Order?

As I thought back and remembered which albums I'd selected, at first, I ran into something a bit like the classical Meno paradox.  That one runs like more or less like this:  How can you engage in inquiry after something you don't already know?  If you know it, after all, there's no seeking needed -- you've already got it.  But if you don't know it, how do you have any idea what you're looking for?  In that case, you can't seek it at all.  So by that logic, seeking, inquiry, even learning becomes an impossibility.

As a budding metalhead, how would one take advantage of the type of offer that the Columbia Record Club advertised?  After all, what presents itself upon the pages of their offers is primarily just a set of album titles and group names.  There are quite literally hundreds of possible choices, seemingly in random order.  And, although once one joined, it was possible to select metal as one's main interest, that was in no way reflected in the array of popular albums spanning at least a dozen genres listed in columns and rows.

Before really knowing much about the community, the movement, or the music itself of classic heavy metal, how would one know what groups to look for, whose names to recognize and get excited about?  How would one know which albums to choose as initial selections?  It's a bit like the Meno paradox -- one has to know enough about what one is looking for to have any chance of being able to find it, but when what we are talking about is a process of such discovery, it would be simple, perhaps unavoidable to go astray -- would it not?

Today, of course, we have all sorts of workarounds for this, websites and platforms based upon algorithms and massive cataloging projects -- Pandora was my first personal exposure to this sort of thing, in the late 2000s -- but back then, any sort of "if you like that. . .  you ought to check out this" happened through the mediation of human beings, or older media.  One might also, of course, simply entrust oneself to the judgement of another, follow their recommendations like imperatives -- but then, of course, you need such a judicious friend or at least critic to rely upon.

When I think about the question -- how did I have any idea what to order? -- I realize that I got my ideas about that from three main sources.  Notice that I don't ask how I knew what to order, or talk about possessing knowledge -- since with this sort of matter, knowledge has to come later, really has to be a product of experience or even of being earned.

One main source was what I heard on the radio, particularly WQFM out of Milwaukee (and if I remember right, WRKR out of Racine, before they went soft).  I remember exactly where I was -- or rather where we were in the car -- when I first heard RATT's "Round and Round," and thought "Whatever that is, I have to get that!"  There were so many bands whose songs and styles I first got to know experientially listening to -- and sometimes recording from -- the radio.

Another major source for my inklings about what to select -- particularly for heavier bands that I wasn't hearing that much on the radio at that particular time, like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest -- was the duo of metal/rock magazines I'd pick up in the supermarket or the drug store, as we ran our errands -- Circus and Hit Parader.  In their pages, I encountered what was for quite some time the only identifiable literature dealing with metal.  Not all that brilliant, of course, looking back, but just the thing for a teenage metalhead who wanted to know more not only about the bands he already liked or knew of, but to gain a glimpse into a wider and growing world.

The third source -- one that would continue to be key for me in my teen years -- was better-informed friends and acquaintances.  I got into metal in a serious, self-conscious way only in 1984, but there were other kids -- often older, and usually themselves with older brothers and sisters -- who had been listening and in the scene for years before that.  One particular group of kids comes to mind when it comes to my first record club selections.  Our moms and dads all belonged to Parents without Partners -- a kind of social club/support group/dating pool (at least at that time -- here's what they look like now) for the divorced and widowed. 

There was a guy named Jerry, who was a year older than me, had access to his mom's brandy, and carried around a boombox playing his Masters of Metal tape endlessly.  Then there were the Rahn sisters, one of whom I liked, the other of which liked me -- but both of them knew their metal as well.  I can't recall who the other kids were, but we spent nearly the entirety of one of the weekend camping trips in the summer of 1984 walking around on the roads and trails, sneaking nips enough of the brandy for us to get buzzed, and listening to that single tape -- enough for me to get a sense for which band names to recognize when I saw them again on the Columbia advertisement.

So because of these three sources, I had enough knowledge (if you want to call it that -- perhaps vague but enthusiastically embraced ideas is more accurate) to order a number of great albums, and thus widen my exposure to full LPs of bands from whom I'd previously heard only singles.  That was the first main expansion in my metal collection -- practically speaking a windfall at that time -- and opened up so much new ground for me to explore!

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