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It's a Steal! How Columbia House Made Money Giving Away Music

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If you grew up in the pre-MP3 era, chances are you had at least one go-round as a member of Columbia House’s mail-order music club. Who could turn down the allure of eight compact discs (or 11 record albums or cassette tapes) for just a penny? It would be stupid not to join up! A few months of automatic shipments later, you probably ended up like a lot of members did: as a no-income 14-year-old who owed Columbia House $47 for unwanted Sir Mix-a-Lot CDs. Let’s take a look at a few lingering questions about the music club.

How did the Columbia House business model work?

The underlying model for Columbia House was a pretty simple setup known as negative option billing. Basically, once you sign up for a membership in a club or service, you start getting monthly shipments unless you expressly tell the club you don’t want them. Of course, you also get the bill.

Negative option billing has actually been illegal in Ontario since 2005, but it’s still legal in the United States. There are a few caveats, though. The Federal Trade Commission requires that any club or service offering a negative option plan must clearly and conspicuously indicate minimum purchase obligations, cancellation procedures, the frequency with which members must reject shipments, and how to eventually cancel a membership when they enroll new members.

The FTC really drops the hammer on any company that doesn’t comply with these regulations. In 2009 it reached a $1 million settlement with the online company Commerce Planet, which had been offering a “free” online auction kit while also signing customers up for a recurring $59.95 “online supplier” program.

How did Columbia House make any money while giving away so much music?

Columbia House and competitor BMG brought in tons of gross revenue — as late as 2000, the two companies were grossing $1.5 billion a year. But even with negative option billing bringing in cash from club members who forgot to return their rejection forms, Columbia House operated on a seemingly tight margin.

Columbia House and BMG had some fairly clever ways to save cash, though. Until 2006, the record companies had never actually secured written licenses to distribute the records they sent to club members. Instead, the clubs saved the hassle (and the expense) by paying most publishers 75% of the standard royalties set by copyright law. The clubs argued that since the publishers were cashing their discounted checks, they were submitting to “implied” licenses.

Music publishers didn’t love this arrangement, but for decades it was pretty tough to fight back against the mail-order clubs. As some of the biggest pre-Internet retailers, the clubs held enormous power over the music market. According to a 2006 Billboard article, if a publisher complained, the clubs would simply stop carrying their records.

On top of that, the clubs generally weren’t buying their records from labels and then selling them. Instead, the clubs would acquire the master tapes of records and press their own copies on the cheap. Moreover, remember those “bonus” or “free” records you got for signing up for the clubs? The clubs generally didn’t pay any royalties at all on those, which further slashed their costs.

In the end, all these little factors saved a ton of money. In his 2004 book The Recording Industry, Geoffrey P. Hull took a look at the economics of the clubs. He estimated that the cost to the clubs of a “free” disc was only around $1.50, while a disc sold at full price cost the club anywhere from $3.20 to $5.50. Hull did the math and realized that even if only one of every three discs a club distributed sold at the $16 list price, the club would still end up making a margin of around $7.20 on each sold disc. Hull explains that retail stores were hard pressed to make a margin of even $6.50 per sold disc, so it’s easy to see how the clubs stayed afloat even with their massive marketing and advertising costs.

Did anyone really, really take advantage of those introductory offers?

Joseph Parvin of Lawrenceville, NJ, was undoubtedly the patron saint of anyone who ever wanted to stick it to a music club for receiving an unwanted record.

In March 2000, the 60-year-old Parvin admitted that he had used 16 post office boxes and his own home address to fleece Columbia House and BMG out of 26,554 discs during a five-year span in the '90s. He pleaded guilty to a single count of mail fraud.

Oddly, the New York Times story on Parvin’s plea included a story of another scammer who was nearly as prolific. Just five months earlier, David Russo pleaded guilty to stockpiling 22,000 CDs using a similar scheme. He then sold the booty at flea markets.

What about Columbia House’s old rival, BMG?

This may come as a shock to your circa-1994 self, but Columbia House and BMG are part of the same company now. In 2002 Columbia House’s then-owners, Sony and AOL Time Warner, sold a majority stake of the company to the Blackstone Group. (Sony and AOL maintained a 15 percent share between them.)

In 2005, Blackstone again flipped Columbia House to the German media giant Bertelsmann, the owner of BMG, for a reported $400 million. After a series of further transactions, Columbia House is now situated in the portfolio of Direct Brands, Inc., a direct marketer whose other holdings include the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Can I still order music from Columbia House?

You’re a few years too late. The merged version of Columbia House and BMG, the BMG Music Group, quit selling music on June 30, 2009. (Apparently digital music wasn’t just some silly fad.) Direct Brands still operates a business under the Columbia House name, but don’t expect the latest music to show up at your door. The revamped company sells DVDs and Blu-Ray discs.
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Did any of you end up owing way too much money to a music club? Do you remember your first eight CDs?

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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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