A couple months ago, my husband and I decided to go on a weekend road trip. When we got in the car, I was surprised to find a large Ziploc bag full of some of my old CDs. “I thought we’d go old school for this trip rather than Bluetooth,” he said. 

I was thrilled to see my favorite artists represented, as well as a few I’d forgotten about over the years. And I was reminded of where the bulk of these now-antique vessels of musical awareness came from: my membership with Columbia House.

 Changing times

Like most Gen-X’ers, I’ve experienced a wide spectrum in the evolution of music alongside modern technology. My early years involved vinyl, to include those tiny 45 records that had the latest singles. 

I had my own little record player, the kind you could fold up like a suitcase and tote to grandma’s house or wherever. Late childhood brought us the ungainly 8-track, which was quickly replaced by cassette tapes. 

We all loaded our Walkmans (you youngsters can google that) and listened to the new Billboard top 40 hits. We also filled up a lot of blank cassette tapes, which involved taping our favorite songs off the radio and then creating playlists for our latest crush (you don’t know true love until you’ve spent hours making a mixed tape!) 

Columbia House

The advent of CDs was a whole new world, and in my early 20s, I found myself signing up for a Columbia house membership. For those of you who don’t remember, Columbia House was a mail-order club that offered 12 CDs for as little as a penny with sign-up, as long as you agreed to purchase a certain number of CDs for full-price each year. 

A lot of people signed up for the initial membership just to get the free CDs, then spent the next years evading the inevitable phone calls, past-due reminders, and eventual collection notices from the company, something that became a bit of a running joke in the ‘90s and tarnished some errant music lovers credit ratings well into adulthood.

I was too much of a rule-follower to skip out on my contract, and to be honest, I loved getting my Columbia House catalog of available CDs in the mail every month. It was reminiscent of the Scholastic book club catalogs we used to get at school, which I looked at longingly but was seldom allowed to order from. 

I made up for lost time with Columbia. Every month, I carefully curated the CDs that looked the most interesting. I had my preferred artists of course; The Cure, Jane’s Addiction, INXS. 

 Finding new music

But I also started checking out other albums, the ones that weren’t necessarily mainstream or set to videos on MTV, the more obscure stuff that was sometimes on sale or even on Columbia’s “free this month” offer. I discovered myriad artists that were relatively unknown, at least in my small town – groups like The Replacements, Helmet, The Flaming Lips, and Satchel. The more obscure, the more I was likely to order the album.

Soon, the milk crates that served as post-college bookshelves in my apartment were stacked deep with CDs. I made the exciting purchase of a stereo with a six CD-changer, so I could listen to music without having to change out the discs so often.

 Some of my choices were definite misses, but I still tried to listen to a CD at least a couple times before I decided it was a no-go. My CD collection continued to grow. I found myself exploring early punk, classical music, even the occasional country artist although I’ve never been a big country music fan. And as my musical world expanded, so did my mind.

 Music brings peace.

In many ways, music serves as a connector. It can transcend culture, race, economic status, even politics. A shared love of a certain song or type of music can bring people who might otherwise be polar opposites together, and it’s hard to hate when you’re all dancing to the same beat. 

For me, exploring different kinds of music over the years left me hungering to not only see the artists perform, but to see the places that their music actually came from, which has led me on some wild journeys and only enhanced my desire to travel the world. It sounds silly to think I have Columbia House to thank for all this, but if I hadn’t signed up for those 12 free CDs, I’m not sure I’d be so musically diverse today.

 Bye, bye baby.

After filing for bankruptcy in 2015 (I guess one too many people bailed on that monthly commitment) Columbia House finally shut down for good in 2015. Most of us stream our music via Amazon music or Spotify these days, myself included, but there are still those moments where I like to pop a CD into my now ancient CD player and listen to an old favorite.

I do still stay abreast of new music, and I’d like to think it has kept me somewhat relevant, even, dare I say, cool. A few years ago, a much-younger-than-me guy at work put on some music, and was surprised when I started singing along. This led to a discussion about music and various groups, and during the conversation he asked “How’d you get to know so much about music?”

I laughed. “Columbia House membership. You can google that.”

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About Jody Ellis

Jody Ellis is a freelance writer who specializes in beauty, health, travel, fashion and social justice. She is currently part of a fellowship with Community Change, a non-profit focused on writing about social policies that impact low-income families. Her work has appeared in publications such as LennyLetter, Huffington Post, BBC Future Planet, Civil Eats and Eater.

View all posts by Jody Ellis