Always read the fine print before diving in

Published on Tuesday, 16 January 2024 08:09

By Ed Stozek
For the Herald

Tuning into 630 CKRC on the transistor radio, or watching The Ed Sullivan Show on Brandon’s CKX television provided an avenue for the latest music trends by musical groups and solo artists.

While attending Grades 10 to 12 at the Elphinstone Collegiate, my classmates and I often discussed those latest trends in music. Starting a record collection became an important component in a teenager’s life.

During those high school years, the school bus dropped rural pupils off at the Oakburn Elementary School and then we boarded another school bus bound for the Elphinstone Collegiate.

When we returned to Oakburn at 4 p.m. there was just enough time to run to the post office, pick up the mail and then catch the school bus home.

One day a magazine advertising the fabulous benefits of joining a record club came in the mail. Mail-order record clubs like Columbia House and the Capitol Record Club offered amazing super-cheap albums. Both companies offered a generous sign on promotion of a given number of records for one cent providing that the applicant agreed to purchase the same amount of records in the next 12 months.

On a monthly basis each club produced a magazine roughly the size of a letter-sized sheet folded in half featuring small sized pictures of all the current album selections. Without reading the fine print, I promptly filled in the pertinent information to receive my long-playing records. Several weeks later my “free” albums came in the mail. It was too good to be true.

Ordering the required records as part of the contract agreement wasn’t cheap. Along with paying $4.98 per record there were additional shipping and handling fees. One also had to respond each month to the club selection notice or else automatically receive the recommended album of the month and be charged for it. To make a long story short, my parents were not very pleased with my record club membership obligations. The matter was eventually resolved when the “free” records were sent back to the company.

The Columbia Record Club was formed in 1955 by CBS/Columbia Records as an experiment to market music directly by mail. It spurred sales to many rural customers.

As recording formats evolved, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes and finally CDs were added. If a family didn’t initially own a record player, Columbia had an interesting marketing scheme with an opportunity for one to enjoy the newest dimension in recorded music-stereophonic sound. “If you join under the terms outlined you can receive the Columbia Stereo Phonograph, a $39.95 value for only $7.95 pus postage for shipping and handling.”(Columbia Record Club advertisement)

”To begin a membership, simply select a stereo record at $4.98. Indicate your choice on the attached postage paid card.”

Along with the $7.95 record player fee a total bill of $12.93 was charged. Upon receipt of payment the record player was automatically shipped. Thankfully I already had a record player.

The experiment used by Columbia House to gauge the public’s response to marketing music through direct mail was very successful reporting 128,000 members in its initial year of operation. Seven years later, Columbia House had delivered 7 million records to its members and accounted for 10 per cent of all sales in the recorded music industry. 1975 marked more than 3 million members. In the 1980s the company created the Canadian Music Club and the CBS Video Library expanding their selections to include VHS videos of television shows. Videos accounted for half of their sales.

By 1990 Columbia House had shipped 1 billion records to consumers. At the end of the decade there was a significant decline in sales due to competitors such as Amazon. Columbia House was unable to compete with digital streaming music and in 2010 ceased selling music, turning its focus to DVDs. In 2015 the company filed for bankruptcy protection.

As a thank-you for a recent purchase using Amazon, I received a “join today” e-mail noting that I was eligible for a 90-day free trial of Amazon Music Unlimited with access to millions of songs, always ad-free and numerous other benefits.

This time I carefully read the fine print.

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