Look for the gold box no longer.
Filmed Entertainment Inc., which owns record company Columbia House, filed for bankruptcy on Monday. You may remember Columbia House as what the Verge calls “The Spotify of the 80’s”: a mail-order service (founded in 1955 when Columbia Records were looking to unload some LPs) that offered its new clientele 8 albums for a penny (not to mention a special bonus album if you filled in the gold box!). Sounds like a dream come true, but there was, as always, a catch: in order to get the killer deal, you had to agree to a contract with the company in which you would purchase a set number of other CDs or tapes (in later years they also offered VHS movies) for the next few years; those “regular” CDs were often priced at a huge markup, sometimes nearly double its standard retail price. Kind of a slimy practice, but wildly effective: In its heyday in 1996, Columbia House was raking in over $1.4 billion. This past year, revenues were at a meager $17 million.
Columbia House will be remembered as an iconic company for teenagers of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s in spite of its swindling ways—or maybe even because of them. Former Columbia House marketing director Piotr Orlov told NPR it was common practice for the youths of America to fill out the 8 “CDs for a Penny” form several times using a different name but the same address, only to cancel their multiple subscriptions once they had received the initial 8 albums. Columbia House employees were completely aware this was happening, and treated it like an “inside joke,” because, back in their adolescence, they did the same thing.
NPR Music Editor Stephen Thompson remarked: “Columbia House was a huge rite of passage — your first foray into maybe wrecking your credit rating, or at least running afoul of an authority beyond your hometown … I always look back on Columbia House as, like, Baby’s First Mail Fraud.”
Although Columbia House faded into the abyss of the record industry years ago, it’s bankruptcy is symbolic in a similar way to the death of Blockbuster: it serves as just another marker that the physical recording is well on its way out. If you still have old Columbia House CDs and tapes, hold onto them folks. They’re now relics.
Watch a wonderfully weird ad for Columbia House from 1978 below: