How the Mail Order CD Racket of the 1980s Made Me a Vinyl Connoisseur

Working for Columbia House had its benefits

Mark H Davis
Cuepoint
Published in
7 min readMar 28, 2015

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I was recruited by CBS Records out of grad school to move to New York City and become a marketing planner for them. Not in a fancy, cool division, but in a backwater subsidiary named Columbia House which had a racket where by enrolling you could get a dozen albums essentially free, by agreeing to buy another dozen over the next three years. (If you tried to get out of that agreement we would haunt your mailbox for life.) However, if you did the math, it was not a bad way to flesh out your album collection at a better price than you would get at your local record store, if you remember what those looked like.

I loved music, and had shelves of albums. Mainly rock, new wave, but with some world music and a little jazz and classical sprinkled on top. When I bought albums, I carefully recorded them to cassettes to get the best sound quality. While working at CBS Records there were albums for the taking all the time, and my collection dramatically increased. My friends got all the extras.

I found myself in a hot position — I was the sole planner for the Compact Disc Club. CDs had just been invented, and CBS was the only domestic manufacturer. Walter Yetnikoff was running the show at the peak of his success. Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were all on the labels. It was a music industry that’s unrecognizable today. CDs were a shiny new toy that everybody wanted. Artist royalties typically maxed out at a $12.99 album selling price, but most CDs were retailing for $17.99 — meaning the labels were raking in profits. It was a perfect storm, and I was right in the middle of it.

Columbia House advertisements from the 1980s

At the time, the superiority of music on CDs was largely unquestioned. First releases on CD like Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms or the Eurythmics’ Revenge that had a lot of high frequency sound and clear vocals would leave listeners stunned by the clarity. Listening to a new recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons would freeze a classical buff in their tracks. No pops, no scratches, and it didn’t wear out. CD specifications were designed to cover at least the full range of human hearing, with a dynamic range from the barely audible to volume causing pain — more on this later.

Columbia House was in the right spot at the right time. Everyone wanted to get their favorite albums on CD even if they already owned the album, and Columbia House was a cost-effective way to do it. I was a planner looking at the best offer strategies, and what listening preferences (rock, classical, country) were most effective for acquisition, but it almost didn’t matter. The Compact Disc club was a rocket ship. Within a year it was the size of the main record club. It was the child that deposed his father, like a naughty prince. I amassed a huge collection of CDs, and as music went digital a decade later, I was leading the pack.

Fast forward (or more appropriately, hit the skip button) close to 25 years.

I redesigned my audio system, and this time I decided to include listening to my old vinyl records in the setup. I have a pretty large collection, many with the CBS Records ‘For Promotion Only’ stamp on them, a few still in shrink-wrap. Parenthood interrupted my listening habits, but fortunately I had mothballed the records in a warm, dry attic for years and they are still in pristine condition.

It was really the album cover art that got me interested again. I’m lucky enough to have several of the more famous covers in my collection: The Rolling Stones Let it Bleed, the Beatles Sgt. Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band, Led Zepplin’s IV, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, Blondie’s Parallel Lines, and on and on. Some covers are worn because they were early favorites, but many are almost mint due to my habit of recording to cassette and preserving the records (basically, an accident). I spent hours searching online for the best frames to mount albums on the wall of my home office. Eventually, I bought eight from the Rock Art Picture Show. Their product lets you mount the covers and still slip the albums out for an occasional listen. They are a small independent store that supplies the Smithsonian among others, and I’ve got to say they’re fantastic.

My aging Dual turntable had to be junked. For now, I’ve replaced it with a cheap model with a preamp, but maybe I’ll upgrade soon. In a nod to how the younger generation thinks of records, my son calls it “the vinyl player.”

Listening to albums is an enjoyable and ritualistic flashback. You delicately ease the albums out of the cover and slipcase. Carefully positioning the record on the spindle, you clean off the record. Like a patient watchmaker, you then lower the needle to the record. You listen to the entire side of the album. You don’t skip from track to track like a caffeinated squirrel. You get the whole experience, just like the artist and sound engineers designed it.

There’s no doubt that vinyl is hip now. Go to a Brooklyn flea market and you’ll see all your favorite retro artists’ record albums lined up. I was at MOMA a month ago and was surprised to find an excellent exhibit called Making Music Modern: Design for Eye and Ear, which featured high end audio gear as design art. The exhibit included a wall of album art, and I was flabbergasted to find several albums that were part of my collection among the ones featured.

Making Music Modern at MOMA

So, would I switch back to vinyl? After listening to my records over the past month I’ve come to the opinion it’s about the mastering, not the digital vs. vinyl format debate. I’m fortunate that my collection is almost all high quality analog pressings from the 70s and 80s. They were made before the start of the loudness warsa sonic “arms race” where every artist and label feel they need to crush their music onto CD at the highest possible volume level, for fear of not being “competitive.” In fact, yesterday was Dynamic Range Day, an annual protest against this loudness trend, backed by famous music producers, engineers, and high-end manufacturers.

Recently, no less a music authority than Neil Young weighed in with the comment that almost all new vinyl releases are sourced from digital masters, and you are essentially listening to a CD cut to wax. Some artists, such as the White Stripes, remaster their work specifically for vinyl. Neil is pushing his high resolution Pono music player, and now Jay Z’s TIDAL is also hawking music at a quality level beyond the capacity of human hearing. Neil Young has been criticized for his junk science, and recently Kirk McElhearn wrote an exceptionally clear and insightful article: Music, Not Sound: Why High Resolution Music is all a Marketing Ploy.

As one of the few people with a sound system (and maybe ears) that could potentially let me hear the differences in music beyond CD quality — Bowers & Wilkins XT4 speakers, Rotel DAC, Integra receiver; with design help from the excellent Home Theater Group — I’m skeptical of the high resolution music claims. However, if hi-res provides an excuse for remastering, that could make it worth it.

The vinyl cycle took thirty years for me, but it wasn’t a circle. It was a spiral that expanded into conversations around digital, and high resolution, and places no one ever suspected vinyl would go. For the right albums, I love the vinyl experience and I’ll be on the lookout for artists paying attention to the techniques and skills that make vinyl come alive again.

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Mark Davis can be found online at www.IMetMark.com
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Mark H Davis
Cuepoint

Periodic musings on marketing, social media, tech, and gadgets