Pop Culture Syllabus: CDs


A course in pop culture isn’t complete without a well-considered curriculum. Here are the sights, sounds, and texts you need to become a master of the arts at mental_floss university.

You don't have to be a Gen Xer to appreciate the glory days of the compact disc. We've burned a playlist just for you.


In 1960, Tower Records founder Russell Solomon took over a shelf in his dad’s Sacramento pharmacy and began hawking records he’d salvaged from jukebox discards. By 2000, his shelf dreams had become a billion-dollar CD-selling monolith with locations from Israel to South Korea, a Frank Gehry–designed flagship building in Boston, and its own music magazine, Pulse. But a combination of overambitious expansion, explosive personalities, and the digital music boom led to its downfall. In 2006, the last Tower location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side shuttered for good. Crowdfunded via Kickstarter, All Things Must Pass is Colin Hanks’s heart-rending documentary on the death of a physical music empire.

WATCH: All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, in theaters September


If you bought music in the 1990s, you probably remember the too-good-to-be-true offers from the Columbia House and BMG record clubs, which promised to send you stacks of $18 CDs for pennies. Founded in the 1950s to give rural music lovers access to the latest LPs, Columbia House got behind CDs in a big way in 1992, pouring millions of dollars into its first nationwide ad campaign. The move worked: In 1994, 15 percent of all CDs sold in the U.S. were delivered by these mail-order rackets. This oral history explains how that bargain- basement pricing worked, and reveals a corporate-suits-meets-alt-music-lovers office culture doomed to implode, much like a real-life Reality Bites.

READ:Four Columbia House Insiders Explain the Shady Math Behind ‘8 CDs for a Penny,’” by Annie Zaleski


CDs are just the latest in a long line of past-their-prime music formats. At Roxbury, New York’s Eight-Track Museum, the Timeline of Musical Technology tours through more than a century’s worth of attempts to solidify sound, from Thomas Edison’s 1888 wax phonograph cylinder to the first iPod (plus, of course, the eight-track). Founder Bucks Burnett opened the museum to show off his 3,000-strong collection of tapes, but he’s amassed other unique formats, including the thin, plastic PocketDisc, sold in vending machines in the late ’60s and designed to fit into a jeans pocket, and the ultra-rare folding eight-track, a 1970s effort to stave off the up-and-coming cassette revolution (it didn’t work).

VISITThe Eight-Track Museum, Roxbury, N.Y.