Tuesday, August 1, 2017

All The Donny Osmond You Could Want

Part of the fun of flipping through what my parents used to call "funny books" was the plethora of ads tucked between those pages that caught my eye, all interesting in their own way and many of them tempting to answer, if only out of curiosity. But in the '70s, when I was discovering the advantages as well as the pitfalls of mail-ordering, I found myself grabbing for handholds to extricate myself from one of the most aggressive marketing blitzes ever to grace the inside of a magazine, funny book or otherwise--the "what a deal!" approach of the mail-order record clubs, offering discounts galore to the LP buyer as long as you followed a few simple procedures during your membership, like keeping careful track of what you were being sent, agreeing to buy X number of selections, and returning response cards promptly.

Wait--keeping what? Returning what? Agreeing to what?

I remember joining a couple of these clubs (dropping one, replacing it with another), but there were a number of them in play (ha ha! get it?) in a wide spread of newspapers and publications, comic books among them. Columbia, Capitol, and RCA were affiliated with their respective record labels; there was also Citadel Record Club, Record Club of America, and various offshoots. (RCA would later change its name to the BMG Music Club, though I used to wonder if RCA and Record Club of America were one and the same.  They weren't.) The clubs came into prominence in the 1950s with stars like Peggy Lee and Andy Williams, updating through the decades and giving the turnover of recording artists ample visibility in the ads--and why not? You couldn't ask for better pitchmen/women, since their images gave the illusion that they were endorsing the clubs and the artists were in sync as far as wanting to make you happy.

The ads varied little from company to company, usually occupying two full pages and plastering a sampling of the music they offered while a hard-to-resist start-up offer in enlarged text made sure you were tempted to read a little further to see if these guys were on the up-and-up.

Given the deals they were offering, you tended to skim through the terms and conditions that were peppered with exclamation points and words like "benefits," "free," and "hundreds of selections" and convince yourself that you could manage whatever hoops you had to jump through to get your money's worth. If memory serves, Columbia snagged me first--so let's say I joined in 1972 (give or take a year) so that the pictured ad serves as an example for describing the basics of how the pricing worked. Basically, you selected 14 LPs from the choices shown in their ad and paid $2.86.  Once you sent in your form, you became obligated to purchase ten regularly-priced records within the next two years. If you wanted tapes instead of LPs, you paid the same $2.86 for eight tapes, and agreed to buy seven more tapes in the same time frame. (The ratio of LPs vs. tapes in the initial deal was obviously unequal; you also had to purchase nearly the same amount of tapes to complete your obligation. Perhaps 8-tracks and cassettes were more in demand.) I don't know about you, but in 1972 I wasn't really chomping at the bit to crank up my stereo with Mantovani, Jim Nabors, or Vikki Carr, so Columbia's introductory selections were obviously designed to avoid having the company eating any losses from quality contemporary albums being swept up by this deal.

That takes care of the front-end of this arrangement. Then, every month, you'd receive a catalog magazine from which you could make selections for purchase that would incrementally satisfy your part of the agreement. Albums in 1972 averaged around $6.00 each, so paying for ten more at "regular club prices" of $5-$6 over a two-year period was a guaranteed win for the company and not too bad for the buyer.


There was a little more to this deal that you had to keep in mind for the next 24 months.

  • Unlike shopping at a record store, you're not only limited to choosing from the records being offered in the company's club magazine*, but you're also coughing up shipping and handling fees for the item(s) you choose to buy.
  • With the magazine, you're also sent a "response card," which you have to act on one way or another by a certain date. Either mail it back, with or without choosing any record(s)--or do nothing, which whether you realized it or not indicates that you want the company to automatically ship you its selection that's geared to the musical interest you've previously checked off, and for which you'll be billed. On the bright side, at least it's one less record you'll have to keep track of--on the other hand, you may find yourself having to explain to your cool friends why "Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits" is on your shelf.
  • On occasion--the word "occasion" having a different meaning for you than it does for the record company--you'll be offered "special" selections which fall under the same conditions for accepting or rejecting. This is where the "keeping track of" part of this arrangement comes into play. You'll probably want to stock up on postage stamps. Starting a log wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

*"Selections," as the company refers to them--i.e., you don't simply get to choose from the company's entire music catalog. Wouldn't that have sweetened the deal?

The light at the end of this tunnel is that you could cancel your membership once you'd fulfilled your obligation. But I found the company's "we want you back!" follow-up solicitations to be relentless, somehow obtaining my new address whenever I moved--dogging me for years after cancelling. All those music celebrities beckoning me... I could have started a scrapbook with all of those updated album covers.

Given such a niggling experience, where I'd spent way too much time macheting my way through the business side of music and not enough time enjoying the actual music, the terms offered by Record Club of America hit me like finding a lush oasis on Tatooine.

No cards to return... you're sent only what you order... you can defer your introductory choices and instead make them from an expanded listing... and you save a minimum of 33% with each record you order. In return, you pay a one-time membership fee of $5 (though you're still charged shipping and handling costs). I have a dim memory of signing up with this club, but I honestly don't remember much about whether or not I was pleased with their offerings or service. I do remember that they didn't pester me about renewing my membership to nowhere near the degree that Columbia buried me with such mail--more on that in a moment.

Over the years, these clubs and others would substantially cut their prices in their introductory deals as their market diminished, even after shifting over to CDs. (Columbia, for instance, would offer "8 CDs or 12 cassettes for 1¢"--would the subscriber actually have to enclose a penny with their sign-up form, I wonder?) But many of them hung on longer than you might expect, to the point that when they did fold it came as a surprise that they were still doing business. RCA/BMG closed up shop in mid-2009; four years earlier, BMG had acquired Columbia, at which time the latter shifted to a mail-order DVD club before finally filing for Chapter 11 in August of 2015, with debts of over $60 million and assets at just a fraction of that amount. At last report, Columbia's high point as a record club was reached in 1996, with profits of $1.6 billion. How the mighty had indeed fallen.

By comparison, Record Club of America had a short run--all too short, staying in business only from the late 1960s to the mid '70s. At some point they'd made deals with record companies to allow them to acquire their record inventories at wholesale prices; but whereas normally-pressed records were guaranteed returnable to the big labels if they didn't sell, the new arrangement that allowed the record club to label their stock "Manufactured by Record Club of America" stuck the club with those unsold records and tapes, with no reimbursement. In other words, "Oops." (That probably explains why I'd lost touch with them.) You might enjoy comics enthusiast John Simcoe's nostalgic visit to the club's dormant warehouse in York, PA, decades later--still standing with its sign welcoming passers-by, as if enticing you to one more great bargain.


Anonymous said...

I think Columbia House is still looking for me...


Comicsfan said...

Defunct or not, M.P., Columbia was so tenacious that I wouldn't put it past them to have a contingency plan in place to pursue their former members from beyond the grave.

Warren JB said...

Debts of $60 million! I can barely imagine it. You've got to wonder if that was all down to MP3s, or if they had a new CEO with 'great' ideas.

Funny Book Funnies said...

More often than not, I forgot to send that stupid response card back. Sometimes I sent back the CD that was automatically shipped. If I did so too often, I'd get a nice little letter advising me in a nice way to knock it off.

Comicsfan said...

Warren, I'm not sure if Columbia's debt was acquired in the nine years before the company shifted their inventory and operations to DVDs, or afterward. Maybe a bit of both. I imagine the Internet played a part in many such businesses not being able to compete, in one way or another--especially those still relying on mail-order to ship their wares. (Though Amazon is admittedly still thriving as a mail-order company. Perhaps the other stock they ship more than compensates for their offerings of movie and music discs which may not be moving as briskly.)

B Smith said...

It was only after I'd been to art school that I'd look at ads like the first one you've shown and think "Holy moly, pasting up all that typesetting and halftones must have been murder!"...no wonder they went for the cleaner (and much more assembly-friendly) layout in the second ad.

Have to admit I was never tempted to join any of these clubs - it all looked too complicated (much easier to pop down to the nearest record shop) - but I would often pore over them thinking "Now, if I did join, what selections would I want...?"

Comicsfan said...

B, those introductory selections really should have made it pretty easy to pass on the offer--but there were enough good selections there to catch your eye, and you can often talk yourself into filling the quota with even choices you may not put on your player too often if it meant making a good deal. :)

dbutler16 said...

I was intrigued by these ads, but never bit. Without looking too much into it, I figured those prices were too good to be true, which of course they were. Like B Smith, though, I would look at the ads and say "Now, if I did join, what selections would I want...?"