Cheap Music! (Terms and Conditions Apply): The Rise and Fall of Album of the Month Clubs


If you are old enough, cast your mind back to adverts in 1980’s magazines. You may remember the following:

1. Franklin Mint’s offer for readers to invest monthly in a set of twelve potentially priceless butter dishes celebrating the fairy tale, and no doubt everlasting, marriage of Charles and Diana for just £23.95 +p&p each,

2. a cartoon advert for Bazooka Joe bubblegum, 

3. an incredible offer from the Britannia Music Club. 

The latter advert offered three albums by popular artists for just £1.49 each (plus p&p). This was a substantial discount, and acted like a Pied Piper to the pocket money of the nation’s youth. Stung into action by the chance of ludicrously discounted records, they posted freepost coupons in their droves with little heed to a) small print or indeed b) their parent’s knowledge. 

The offer was a trap: attached was the promise of a “handbook” to explain the club “rules”. That list of rules were described as “simple”, but then there were ten of them just in the advert itself, suggesting understanding membership terms might require a little focus.


The scheme was designed to be fiendishly complicated in order to make it almost impossible to calculate that in fact the buyer would would be worse off after taking into account the cost of posting back a letter every month to say no, they would rather cover themselves in jam and dive head first into a nest of wasps than have the soundtrack to Phantom of the Opera, or worse, Enya, posted and billed to them as the Album of the Month choice. 

This was the big catch: having product sent to you unless you said “no thank you”. An album was recommended each month by the club – presumably by someone with a pretty mischievous sense of humour around what sort of music you liked (“What’s that? You ticked the “rock music” preference? Here: have a Five Star album”) – which would be sent unless you posted a letter within a month to say otherwise. 

You had to order six albums over two years, and each time you did you could order another at a discount, diminished by shipping and handling charges that were so high it suggested the warehouse was based in the Outer Hebrides (or perhaps Neptune) and packages were handled by princesses, and what’s more, princesses earning considerably more than the National Minimum Wage For Princesses. 

After ordering six albums, if you ordered another two you would get a free album. And if you posted your order on a Tuesday, you’d get an extra 10% off. 

Okay, I made that last one up. But you get the idea. 

All this assumed that you were happy to wait months to receive the latest releases instead of just popping to Boots, WH Smiths, Woolworths, Our Price, Virgin, HMV, or one of hundreds of independent record shops then scattered liberally throughout the land.

It was truly a business model for people who never left the house, except to post letters to request someone not to send them music through the post. 

Which appears pretty niche if you think about it. 

There was a ten day free “home trial” – presumably of the potential buyer’s sanity in signing up to the deal – a sanity which, in many cases had been temporary suspended by the promise of cheap CDs or tapes. 

In the USA the allure was even greater. A skim of US magazines would reveal Americans could buy eleven albums they hadn’t thought important enough to buy upon release for just a penny. Or thirteen for a dollar! Who could resist! Especially the millions of Americans who actually lived nowhere a near a record store.

Both Britannia Music and its US equivalent, Columbia House, generated huge profits because many subscribers would forget to mail back their request to skip the latest Milli Vanilli long-player. The offending album would be delivered, unwelcome and unwanted, like a prehistoric version of U2’s Songs of Innocence, only you had to actually pay for it. Imagine the bleatings of the people who complained about U2’s album if they had received Milli Vanilli through the post along with a bill for $16.99…!

Let’s face it, being organised enough to send back a form in the mail every month within a set time frame is a big ask for anyone. And this was before junk mail was frowned upon. Every day the nations’ letter boxes were polluted by so many Readers Digest promotions it was a Herculean task to sift through a kilo of mail every day to find the real letters. 

Speaking of Herculean tasks, the story of Hercules may well have turned out very differently had one of his quests been to diligently send back his album of the month cancellations over a three year time period. In the US you also had to buy a set number of albums (nine over three years at “catalogue prices”) before cancellation was possible. Many complained that cancellation of the scheme wasn’t easy. It was said the one thing Harry Houdini was never able to get out of was his Album of the Month Club subscription. 

The scale of these mail order businesses was phenomenal. According to this article, in 1994, 15 percent of all discs in the U.S. sold because of these clubs, while a 2011 Boston Phoenix article about Columbia House Record Club reported that 3 million of the 13 million copies sold of Hootie And The Blowfish’s “Cracked Rear View” were sold via Album of the Month clubs.
There had to be a reason for the success of that band, right?

So we’re unlikely to go back to those bad old days, right? 

Wrong. 

The resurgence of the popularity of vinyl has led to a plethora of companies wanting to revive the old “Album of the Month Club” format. 

Not that anyone is offering ten albums for a dollar. With the advent of streaming services, cheap CDs and YouTube, anyone offering an Album of the Month service competing on price is going to fail. With Spotify and Apple having algorithm-based or curated recommendations, the idea of having an ordinary album forcibly sent to you every month for twice the price of a Spotify account to see if you might like it is also somewhat anachronistic. There are plenty of ways to discover new music – doing so by having one physical album sent through the post months after release doesn’t seem to be a tremendously good use of anyone’s time. 

So new players need an new angle. 

And, the free market being what it is, we have a plethora of ideas.

Some good…

Some pretty bad. 

And to save you the trouble of using a search engine, over the next few weeks I am going to find out what is out there, try out a few, and report back. 

Stay tuned…



Categories: Music

Tags: , , , ,

41 replies

  1. I am pretty sure I subscribed to Brittania at one point. Can’t really remember much though. I imagine I ducked out of it pretty quickly if it costed me money though! Will be interesting to see what you find.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah I got suckered into this many years ago…. I have a distinct memory of one Britannia catalogue harping on about the new Sweet 75 album and how they were gonna be huge…
    My bank account at the time meant I was granted a cheque book long before I was 18 and as Britannia believed every member was just such an age or over (because, of course, nobody would ever tick the “I’m over 18” box if they weren’t) I was able to make back some of my loss on the bloody Chris Rea album I got stuck with after forgetting to say “no don’t send me this” by ordering, at a small mark up, some of those videos in the ‘sealed’ catalogue for friends at school.
    I recouped the rest of my Chris Rea losses by telling the disinterested berk on the till at Woolworths that it was an unwanted gift and could I please exchange it….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Despite being caught in the Britannia Music trap when cassettes were still a thing, I have subscribed to ‘That Special Record’ for the last 12 months and it has been a mostly positive experience. I’m essentially paying for somebody to do the music discovery part for me and send me things that I probably haven’t ever heard of. I think it needs the subscriber to have a pretty wide an eclectic taste in music, but so far it really has worked pretty well for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In Canada we had Columbia House. When I started buying cd’s back in 88 it was a decent way to build up your collection fast. I did it a few times…Ge the freebies than buy the next 4 cd’s cancel and renew…
    did it for about a year this way…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I subscribed to one as well. I ended up with a KC and the Sunshine Band album because I wasn’t fast enough to decline the album of the month. It was a scam and if brought back, I wouldn’t subscribe to it again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. As a former Columbia House subscriber, I have this to say to the youth of today: “Just. Say. No.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post. Thankfully, I never fell prey to these record clubs. As you state, there were way too many options for me to choose from to buy records & CDs, as I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area then Los Angeles in my teens, 20s and 30s.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, had forgotten all about those deals. In Oz, our equivalent was the World Record Club. And i think CBS had one as well. Anyway being in high school and getting into music like you do, i signed up for both. One was ok and i picked up the Jam’s ‘dig the new breed’ etc. But the other deal, like Britannia, was diabolical. I think my mum got me out of that one.
    Was probably the worst deal since the x-ray glasses in the Disney comics….

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ha ha! Record clubs! I joined Columbia Record Club under 3 different identities in the early 70’s – all before I was 15! I scored 30 albums – most of which I still have (and love). My mom finally realized what was going on and inflicted some old school love on my butt! Not sure I ever purchased the 6 (or 18) albums my aliases were responsible for – maybe my mom did it. If so, she never gave me the other 18 albums – I should ask her (but am afraid she would still be peeved).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I subscribed to that Britannia club when I was 13 or 14. Was delighted to receive a bunch of albums, but my organisational skills were still developing, so you can imagine that the opting out of the album of the month thing wasn’t quite working out. My parents weren’t too impressed with reminders for payment.

    I’ve been tempted by Vinyl Me, Please recently, but I then I think I’d rather just buy albums that I actually want.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on The culture club and commented:
    Considering yesterday’s post was about the Rough Trade album club, I decided why not share this great post by every record tells a story.

    Hope you enjoy!

    Like

  12. Following on from jd’s Australian experience, I must be a bit older than you Steve, because I subscribed to 2 record clubs – World Record Club and Australian (?) Record Club – but starting in 1971 or early 72 when I was 13. I reckon WRC was EMI. My first ever from that club was Magical Mystery Tour; it had a completely different cover (a still from the I Am the Walrus clip in the movie) and I played the grooves off it. My first from what I think was called the ARC was their offering of 5-6 LPs for a dollar, 3 of which were Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, Electric Warrior and Highway 61 Revisited. That first package meant so much to me I can still remember staring at the covers after removing them from the packaging, 46 years later.

    I lived in Bumface, South Australia, hundreds of km the nearest big city (Adelaide). As a music obsessed outsider, transplanted from Sydney to this god-forsaken backwater full of boof-head footy players and farmers, these clubs were a lifeline to sanity. I spent all my meagre pocket money on LPs from these clubs. I pored over the monthly catalogues, agonising over my choice. Nearly everything I bought was a stab in the dark. It opened my eyes to what a big, strange wonderful world we live in.

    My only other source was through our very occasional journeys to our nearest regional centre. It had a proper record shop which I parked myself in while my mum went shopping.

    I remember these clubs with gratitude and affection. Buying Electric Warrior 3 months after it came out wasn’t a disadvantage to me. I’d never seen a copy till mine arrived in the post.

    Cheers, Dave

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Dave, good recollection! I lived in regional Victoria but not quite as isolated as yourself (Bumface SA??). Can totally identify with the catalogue being an outlet from those around you. Actually the award for the most unusual place i have bought a record from was in a pet shop in Renmark, SA!

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s fascinating, and I can well imagine what a lifeline a mail order music store would have been for someone living remotely. It’s also a reason why Columbia House was so popular in the middle of the USA where kids were in a similar circumstance.
      May I also congratulate you on living in such a remarkably named town. Bumface is definitely my favourite ever name for a town.

      Like

  13. It wasn’t actually called Bumface guys, but it should have been…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Weren’t Britannia Music Club on Watchdog most weeks? My most vivid memory of Britannia was the realisation that I’d forgotten to cancel an Enya cd one month……..

    Liked by 1 person

  15. As a 14-year old just getting into music, and with zero financial acumen, I fell hook, line and sinker for the Britannia offer. I still have very fond memories of that first batch of CDS they sent me (six for £10 or something as ridiculously cheap).

    I got Automatic For The People, Are You Gonna Go My Way, and some others that maybe weren’t so memorable. They always used to send me stuff I didn’t want though – no matter if you sent that fucking postcard back or not!

    And the CDs often turned up rattling like a pair of maracas from those inner studs all breaking loose. If you were lucky your CD would still be held secure by one or two plastic studs; if not, your CD would be loose too.

    Thems were the days. I’d fancy doing a vinyl one like somebody mentioned above but nobody’s offering such a service here in New Zealand (yet).

    Thanks for the mammaries!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Growing up in the US in the 60’s and 70’s there were quite a few and I joined them all, more than once, but the best was Records & Tapes Unlimited. Buy 6 for 99c and NO obligation, plus prices were $1.69-$2.99 per record and they ran specials. shipping was not bad either. Now Columbia House and RCA Music Service were the absolute worse.

    Like

  17. Oh man I relied on these clubs. I grew up in a small town (maybe 400 people, tops, if everyone was home for Christmas) in the middle of farm country. It was a 20 minute drive through corn fields to get to a town of 1500. Anyone who would mail cassettes to my door was a friend of mine! We had Columbia House, mostly, though I did try the BMG one too. We’d totally fulfill the agreement, then cancel, wait a few months, and sign up again. Ah, kids.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Also: looking forward to what you find out!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I remember seeing the adverts for Britannia on the back of the Radio Times when I was a kid. I was fascinated by the album covers for Jean Michele Jarre’s Oxygen and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. I didn’t get to hear either until many years later.

    Liked by 1 person

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