In case you missed it (it was hard not to) vinyl related newsfeeds went crazy over the holiday weekend with news from a company who was once so prevalent in the music industry, Columbia House. Other than their announcement last August about the company declaring bankruptcy, many were unaware the mail-order company music company was still in business.
While Columbia House is remembered by many as giving our first dose of debt collection, they are commonly overlooked as a pioneer in the music subscription model. Of the dozen or more vinyl subscription services today, most owe their business model to Columbia House. If you think receiving records in the mail every month is new thing, you should look into the long history of The Columbia House Record Club.
Sadly, along with the delivery of music came plenty of well justified complaints and frustrations with the company. Bait-and-switch scams, unauthorized payments, unwanted deliveries and difficulty led to the company’s downfall in the late 90’s, with Columbia House eventually getting out of the music game altogether.
So Columba House is back, in a way, and is out to take its share of vinyl comeback. The company announced plans to re-launch next year as a vinyl-subscription service.
Now, we understand the inkling to smash your head on your desk in frustration. In a year that has brought us news of Amazon launching their own label, only furthering the problem of pointless re-issues and hemorrhaging pressing plants. The initial frustrations are certainly understandable. Don’t we have enough big names trying to suck money out of the vinyl resurgence?
Well yes, we do. However, before we reach for the pitchforks, let’s look at both sides.
While we prefer it be through the shelves of record stores, it is great to see the company has confidence in the future of the format. For those who are not lucky enough to have a local record store, vinyl subscription services are a great way of discovering new music. We support any company that positively promotes the vinyl format.
On the flip side, few companies have the shady reputation that Columbia House does. The company is no stranger to lawsuits and formal complaints on behalf of frustrated members. Having gone through several changes of ownership and re-structuring since their mid-nighties peak, one can hope Columbia House learned from their past mistakes.
The truth is it’s too early to make an assessment on the “new” Columbia House Record Club. Will the subscription service be catered to the customer’s preferences? Has the company rectified their shady past? Is it affordable? Are these new releases or unwanted re-issues? There are simply too many unanswered questions to make a fair assessment. However, we don’t think it’s right to end this article right where we started it. So here are our five ways to make Columbia House Record Club a success.
One reason the old Columbia House Record Club failed is because they crammed unwanted release down the throats of their members. With an impossible return policy, members were forced to pay for music they never wanted or listened to. While it’s impossible to hit a home run every time, at least knowing the preferred genres of your customers is essential.
Clean up the business
Columbia House must re-establish trust in order to rebuild their customer base. Make your system transparent. Listen to your customers and be up front about the exceptions and responsibilities of both the company and customer.
Catalog. Catalog. Catalog.
We don’t need another online record store. Trust us, there are more than enough online behemoths hawking overpriced bullshit re-issues. They are playing the nostalgia market. Heck, they own the nostalgia market. Let them have it. While Columbia House can never compete with the selection of a well curated record store, they sure could try. Rather than serve and cater to the big labels, open it up for independent labels looking to expand their business. If we pay for a vinyl subscription, the last thing we need is another re-press of “Tea for Tillerman.”
Keep it about the music
So many companies are obsessed with finding their niche in the market by licensing releases and pressing limited edition colored vinyl and box sets. It’s one of the biggest reasons the industry is hemorrhaging. Don’t add to the problem.
Remember Columbia House is not a record store
A vinyl subscription service is not a replacement to the independent record store. It never can be, so don’t market it as such, as they did in the previous business models. Music subscription services are about discovery and appreciation rather than forcing merchandise on them. Pay attention Columbia House! These companies are successful because they learned from your mistakes. You can learn from their success!
While it’s easy to predict failure for this upcoming chapter of Columbia Record Club, they just might be on the right track for success. The vinyl resurgence has been a pathway for many companies marked for the death. As supporters of the format we should hope that it is another success story rather than the straw that finally breaks the back of the formats capacity.
No matter what the future of Columbia Record Club, its future in vinyl should not be thought as a threat to independent record stores. No online store or subscription service, no matter how catered, curated or personalized can compete with the with the experience someone can have discovering and purchasing music from an independent record store. The vinyl resurgence is giving life to new business and bringing others back from the dead. We can only hope this means the future remains bountiful for both the format and our beloved record stores.
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