Mail-Order Music Giant Columbia House Files Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

Aug 12, 2015
Originally published on September 8, 2015 4:28 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, someone finally told the Columbia House record club to stop sending albums. The music and movie subscription company, which maybe you thought was already gone, has filed for bankruptcy. NPR's Andrew Limbong reminds us how we got those piles of CDs in the corner of our living rooms.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: From the 1950s through the late '90s, ads for Columbia House were everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Look for special Columbia House offers this month in selected magazines, newspapers and your mail.

LIMBONG: At its peak, the company was making $1.4 billion dollars in revenue. It was a time when vinyl, then cassettes and CDs were the only way to get recorded music, and it was really easy to get through Columbia House. You'd get a bunch of CDs for pennies, but then you'd be obligated to buy more every month at a much higher price. The whole process seemed like a Coen brothers movie. In fact, it was in a Coen brothers movie - "A Serious Man" set in the '60s.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A SERIOUS MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, you received your 12 introductory albums, and you've been receiving the monthly main selection for four months now.

MICHAEL STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) The monthly main select - is that a record? I didn't ask for any records.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) To receive the monthly main selection, you do nothing.

STUHLBARG: (As Larry Gopnik) That's right. I haven't done anything.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, that's why you received the monthly main selection.

CHRIS WILCHA: It almost feels like the Coen brothers' bureaucratic mistake that it even existed this long.

LIMBONG: Chris Wilcha worked there in 1993. He made a documentary examining his two years working at Columbia House called "The Target Shoots First."

WILCHA: I was one of the people who thought it probably died easily a decade ago (laughter).

LIMBONG: The company went through a series of owners all while people were shifting away from owning physical media. Last year, revenues were $17 million, excluding shipping and handling. Its debts were way, way more than that. But in spite of its convoluted rules, Chris Wilcha says Columbia House did fill a need.

WILCHA: You know, that Columbia House catalog was pretty deep. I think there was a time where it really was a place to discover music.

LIMBONG: Especially if you lived in an area without a record store, Columbia House was there for you and made sure you got that Hootie and the Blowfish CD.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD MY HAND")

HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH: (Singing) 'Cause I got a hand for you.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD MY HAND")

HOOTIE AND THE BLOWFISH: (Singing) Hold my hand, want you to hold my hand. Hold my... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.