Eight Albums for Just a Penny

This is an essay from the Winter 2010 Issue of my zine, The Inner Swine, for no particular reason.

From the Columbia Record & Tape Club to Amazon MP3s: My Musical Consumption History

PIGS, my first brush with what I’ll term Pop Music Snobbery Humiliation came in grade school. I was never a particularly hip cat, peeps; when I was very young I was wiry and quick and dreamed of athletic prowess, but something went wrong with me genetically as I got older and by the time I was ten or eleven years old or so I was a pudgy glasses-wearing nerd, and I drifted myopically through my days without too many worries. Generally, I was a happy kid living in my own little world. I had a few friends and I did well in school, and had few complaints.

There were, of course, a few bullies. There always are. I didn’t have a terrible time of it, but there were a few incidents. I don’t lay awake at night tortured by my experiences or anything, but there was one kid who was in my grade who occasionally liked to torment me, but usually there were juicier targets for him and I sort of coasted by in the usually rhythms of being almost-cool to being almost-outcast depending on the prevailing winds of grammar school. By the time I graduated to High School I was almost nostalgic for my grammar school, so obviously I didn’t have a Carrie-esque experience, but that one kid still irritates me in my memories to this day. It’s not like he beat me up or ever did anything particularly terrible, it was just that he sensed I was kind of not paying attention to the things that made you cool and liked to knock me around with my own lameness once in a while.

One of these moments was when everyone was suddenly discovering pop music and choosing their sides; I can remember one girl had a birthday party in class (we used to do that—every kid got a birthday in class; after three o’clock or something we’d move the desks out of the way, they’d bring in cake and soda, and we’d spend the last hour or two of the day having fun) and brought in some records to play. I’d never heard any of it, obscure things like “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John or “Safety Dance” by Men Without Hats—you know, minor hits I couldn’t be expected to be familiar with.

The kid who picked on me sometimes positioned himself as a heavy metal guy, naturally, and declared that Van Halen and Led Zeppelin were the greatest bands in the universe. I’d never heard of either. How is this possible in the early 1980s? You have to have a powerfully foggy brain, like mine. You have no idea how easily I can ignore things. No idea. Anyway, one day he demanded to know what my favorite band was. It was one of those grammar-school moments when you sensed that history had paused to make note of your response, and it would follow you—probably on your permanent record—forever. I didn’t actually have a favorite band, and I didn’t own any albums of my own (my parents had few rock and roll records aside from The Beatles, who I loved, but even I knew better than to name a band that had broken up 15 years prior), so I simply picked a band from the air and said Led Zeppelin, hoping this was sufficiently cool. My nemesis, no fool, demanded to know what my favorite album by Zeppelin was, and I couldn’t answer, and my humiliation was complete.

I vowed to never be so uncool again.

Remaking yourself into a pop culture savant ain’t easy, though—and it was even harder back in The Day, before the Internet, before Jersey City had cable television (not until 1987, if you can fucking believe it), back when my main source of music news was Rolling Stone magazine. I couldn’t just spend three weeks in a chat room and download a gigabyte of torrents and be up to speed. So I turned to the Columbia House Record & Tape Club of World Domination.

The Faust of My Time

For those of you too young, or who were too cool back in The Day, The Columbia Tape & Record Club was a mail order catalog of music albums which had an introductory offer of eight or so albums for just a penny. When you joined, you got your music for a penny and you signed an agreement to buy a certain number of albums at full price—which was actually like 133% of the price you’d pay in a store—within the next year or two or whatever. The exact details escape me, but that’s the gist of it: Get in for a penny, get raped for each album you bought after that so you don’t actually save any money over the long haul.

It was a nightmare, of course. A lot of people defrauded Columbia, of course, signing up under a fake name and ignoring all the threatening letters that eventually came when they refused to pay for anything, but I was just a kid and such a thing never occurred to me. All I knew was that I didn’t have much money and I needed to upgrade my record collection—from zero—immediately, and there was no such thing as the Internet, so there was no way to just steal everything. Which, believe me, I would have. Hard.. The way it worked was they sent you a brochure with all the titles listed, and you had a form to fill out and send back. Since you were contractually obligated to buy a certain number of albums, you could only check off “no selection” a few times. If you didn’t select anything, there was a monthly “choice” that would be automatically sent to you. Which meant that if you forgot to send in the form, as I always did, you ended up getting Culture Club’s largely-obscure third album, like a turd in the mail one day.

It was an awful system. The worst part was getting out, because the contract you signed set you up to automatically renew every year, and the process to get your account closed was mysterious. I think I was still getting dunning letters from them when I was 24 or so.

Still, my short-term goal was achieved: In a week I acquired 8 albums without having to beg for an advance on my paltry allowance. The albums? Let’s see if I can remember: Van Halen, 1984; The Cars, Heartbeat City; Huey Lewis and the News, Sports; John Cougar Mellencamp, Uh-Huh; Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA; Gold & Platinum (greatest hits of 1983 compilation)—that’s all that come to mind. There were a couple others but obviously I have forgotten them, so let’s move on.

Did this nano record collection make me cool? Er, no; though it did introduce me to the world of rock and roll and pop music, which was a start. I remember I only had a Sony Walkman to play the cassette tapes on, and would walk around with the headphones on 24 hours a day, rockin’ out to Huey Lewis and the News. Huey Lewis and the Fucking News, people.

Yes, I Actually Owned Cassingles

You know what I remember most about my teenaged years? The smell of brand new cassette albums. I remember buying AC/DC’s Fly on the Wall at a Sam Goody’s or something and that weird fruity smell of the clear plastic will always stay with me. Those were days when you pretty much had to buy entire albums; there were singles, but they were inconvenient and overpriced. When I was really young I bought a bunch of 45 records, believe it or not, and after those died off there was the infamous Cassingle, which was a cassette tape with a couple of songs on it. Unfortunately the price to manufacture a cassette was more or less the same no matter what so the singles cost like three bucks where the album cost five—there was no point except for songs you definitely knew you’d never buy the album. Those were the days. On the one hand, you often got to hear album cuts that otherwise would remain obscure—and some of those unreleased songs turned out to be my favorites—but on the other hand I ended up with a lot of albums on which there was one stinking song I actually liked.

Going to the stores was fun, actually. I’d usually go with someone else and we’d spend some time checking out the stacks, see if there were any interesting obscurities, any releases we missed. Sometimes it was amazing to go and discover that a band I’d just heard of had eleventy albums out. By this time I had moved into Music Snob territory myself, and my friends and I were always vying to be the first to trumpet a new band, or to own every single piece of recorded music by an artist, including imports and rare reissues etc. I think TIS Staff Artist Jeof Vita won this eventually by being the first person to bring Welcome to the Jungle to school and tell us it was fantastic. He still brings this up.

When CDs hit, naturally I resisted for years and years. By the time I was 17 or so I was already half a Luddite and resisted all kinds of technological or mechanical change. Still, when the transition to CDs finally happened the shopping experience was pretty much the same—I went to stores, I browsed, I bought entire albums. Again there was some experimentation with singles on CD (mini CDs of various stripes were tried) but this didn’t really work well either, so again I usually bought albums.

Hello, LimeWire, My Old Friend

And then, some time in 1998, I downloaded my first MP3.

To understand the impact of the horrible, lossy MP3 encoding algorithm, you really have to be someone like me, who had to take roughly 500 cassette tapes in 2005 and digitize them manually. Today if I hear a song I like, I buy it for less than a dollar and have a perfect digital copy that will never get scratched, warped, or eaten by a hungry old tape deck. I make infinite copies for backup and I can open it in Audacity and edit it, play with it, do whatever I want. Hot damn!

If you were born into the MP3 age it probably seems pretty dull, and you’re also probably shooting me an email right now explaining that MP3 is a terrible codec and that I should be using AIFF or Ogg Vorbis or something. Fuck you. I don’t care; the day I downloaded Moron Brothers by NOFX from Limewire was my personal Independence Day.

There have been a few CDs purchased here and there. AC/DC made it almost impossible to purchase their last album, Black Ice. Shit, it was like you had to assemble a Misson: Impossible team complete with forger and weapons specialist just to get the fucking thing, and naturally, being paranoid men in their fifties and sixties with more money than god they refused to release it digitally as MP3s or anything. I had to actually buy a physical CD. Which I then ripped immediately and tossed into a box, which will eventually be thrown away. I mean, AC/DC could give away their fucking albums at this point and still make millions—I can understand worrying about piracy and everything, but in the age of iTunes and Amazon.com, are we seriously still worried about this?

The major affect digital music has had on my music purchasing is that I no longer buy very many whole albums. Sometimes I discover holes in my collection, songs I remember from my youth that I mysteriously do not have in my collection, so I wander to Amazon to look them up, but instead of buying the whole album I once owned, I pick out the songs I like and leave the rest. Let’s face it, if I like one stinking Yes song, why in the world do I want twenty-seven minutes of prog rock noodling on side two?

Of course, this means that my per-song cost has ballooned alarmingly, hasn’t it? In 1984 I bought something like 100 songs for a penny. Today I buy one song for a dollar. Inflation, maybe. Thank goodness I am rich and powerful now, or I’d be destitute.


  1. Sarah W

    Three words: Science Fiction Book Club.

    Twelve hardback books, bound in genuine leather-like paper, for one penny, plus shipping.

    I had to get married and change my name before they let me go.

  2. jsomers (Post author)

    Sarah: The more things change … I don’t see many of these kinds of offers any more. Does the SFBC still operate that way? I always figured more people would scam them with fake names than would actually comply with the agreement!

  3. Sarah W

    I’m not sure if the SFBC is still around — I bailed in 1993.

    Oddly, I can see at least three books on my shelves right now that were Club selections. Guess it wasn’t all bad, in a relentless, cultish sort of way.

    But I do wonder if that’s why I was so leery of Netflix at first?

  4. Jon Gawne

    Yes, SFBC is still around. IN fact they did a BC version of Jeff’s first two books. Book Clubs everywhere are now slowly shuting down and consolidating. One of the more ineresting deals is http://www.bomc2.com in which you pay $10 a month and get one book per month off your selection list. I’ve done that for a few years, but selections have been getting crappier recently.

  5. Howard Rich

    I’ve been released from prison (Texas). I was a devout reader and follower of yours ( right behind your wife and cats ). Sadly, life has not been as fun as I thought it would be.. and then I realized I had stopped reading the only material that made sense to me and put all this crazy worlds’ actions (and inactions) in an understandable light..um “Lite” beer by miller. I have escaped tx. and now live in Florida until I can secure transport to The Netherlands. And I would like to ask to be placed back on your mailing list (Howard “Oink” Rich P.O.Box 536073 Orlando, Fla 32853-6073. until I obtain a job and can mail in my $50.00 for a “Life Sentence” of TIS. Respectfully, Rich

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