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?
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 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.
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