I am pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired on this by now (and the companies are long gone), so I’m going to share the story of what was one of my first crimes: fraud. Or maybe identity theft. Or identity fraud? Maybe just mail fraud?
In any case, in the mid-late ’90s, I made up several identities, like a tween Arsène Lupin, in order to… get free CDs from BMG and Columbia House. My target? My pets. And the pets of my friends. Oliver Thecat, Star Dog, Ira Andydog, and several other animals all had accounts at both BMG and Columbia House over the course of a few years.
No, surprisingly, they didn’t seem bothered by those last names. But my thinking was simple: as far as I could tell there was no law against animals signing up. Plus, they did live at the address, so was it even fraud?
To back up for those unfamiliar, the idea of both Columbia House and BMG was simple: 12 (10, or 8) CDs for a penny (or the price of one).
You’d find ads for these “music clubs” everywhere, in the junk mail, the back of magazines, even in other CDs. Each ad had a cut-out mailer attached where you’d write in the CDs you wanted, tape a penny to it, then slap a postage stamp on to seal the deal. The best ads were massive sheets of stamps in with album cover art on each one, where you’d pull off the album you wanted and stick it to a mailer. I did those ones just for fun well before I moved on to committing fraud.
After you got your initial CDs for a penny or whatever, they’d send you a new CD (of their choosing) every month and charge you for it, unless you mailed back a card saying you didn’t want it.
This is known as “negative option billing.” Basically, if you don’t explicitly say “no” the company will keep sending you shit for eternity. Sort of like a free trial where, at the end of the month you’re charged $10 unless you cancel.
Both BMG and Columbia did some absolutely wild shit to keep their costs low, like repressing CDs at lower quality at their own plants and shortchanging the album artwork. By doing it this way, the companies didn’t always have to pay the artists or the record labels. This was such a weird phenomenon that I remember when I worked at a used CD/record store in the early ’00s we were not allowed to buy CDs that came from either of these services.
So, the companies were predatory and terrible. But growing up in the middle of nowhere, they were also the only way I could get music. So, I scammed them, over and over and over.
This worked for me for multiple reasons. For one, I’d at some point realized they were verifying based on name, not address, so I took advantage of that for as long as I could (I seem to remember they eventually caught on). Also, I was always the one to pick up the mail. We didn’t have mail delivered directly to our house, it went to a box near the highway, about two miles from my house. I’d ride my bike there to grab the mail, or get off the bus a little early to pick up my CDs then make the long(er) walk home. My parents had huge music collections, so it was never very weird that I had my own.
I can’t remember if I ever figured out how to cancel any of these fake accounts, but even though I was pretty good at remembering to send back the “no” card, I still missed it occasionally, which means I’d get a bill. I do sort of remember making a phone call to cancel once, using the dog’s name, and speaking in my most “adult” voice. But who knows if that really happened.
And like any good teen, I ignored the bills when they came. Eventually they stopped showing up entirely, so I assumed I was in the clear. Soon after I got a car and could take myself to record stores, no shady mail order business required.
As stupid as it all was, it was foundational in many ways. My parents were good at giving me money to buy music, often taking me along to record stores to shop, but there was a certain autonomy here that let me stretch my legs. In any case, here’s an incomplete list of albums I vaguely remember (probably) receiving through these subscriptions:
- Beck Mellow Gold
- Pearl Jam Vs
- Screaming Trees Dust
- Everclear Sparkle and Fade
- Black Sheep A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
- The Roots Do You Want More?!!!??!
- Public Enemy Fear of the Black Planet
- Tribe Called Quest Midnight Marauders
- Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral
- Meredith Brooks Blurring the Edges
- Ministry Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs
- Korn Korn
- Dishwalla Pet Your Friends
- Sheryl Crow Sheryl Crow
- Seven Mary Three American Standard
- Poe Hello
- Fugees The Score
- Beth Orton Trailer Park
- Sublime Sublime
- Massive Attack Meets Mad Professor No Protection
- Warren G Regulate…G Funk Era