Columbia House Owner Reportedly Wants to Revive Company, This Time With Vinyl

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Customers shop for vinyl records during World Record Store Day at Dussmann on April 18, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

The new owner of legendary mail-order brand Columbia House is reportedly looking to revamp the service with a trusty old medium: vinyl. John Lippman, who recently bought the remains of the business at a bankruptcy auction, told The Wall Street Journal that vinyl’s resurgence in recent years is proof that consumers need more choice in the way they buy the pricey platters online.

For many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, Columbia House was the way to amass a music collection, thanks to its deals for "11 records or tapes for $1." It later shifted its focus to CDs and by 1996 hit a peak with $1.4 billion in revenue. When CDs fell out of favor with buyers, it dropped music and settled on DVDs and until recently still had about 111,000 subscribers. Over the years, ownership has gone from CBS to Sony to Bertelsmann AG to Najaf Cos and finally to a Pride Tree Holdings company called Filmed Entertainment Inc (FEI), at which Lippman is CEO.

Lippman put FEI, Columbia House’s immediate parent, into chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August with $2 million in assets and $62 million in liabilities. (Creditors include Universal, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, Paramount, Sony, Anchor Bay and others.) WSJ reports that when no suitors arrived at a bankruptcy auction, he offered to buy the company for about $1.5 million.

Though short on details of how a vinyl-selling Columbia House will work, Lippman said that “for a category that is meaningful and growing rapidly, you don’t see a whole lot of choice" online. That said, he stressed that Columbia House probably won’t be a traditional store where you can pick-and-choose whatever you want. Rather, the service may resemble a book-of-the-month club but with more choices, where, as WSJ notes, subscribers will have “some ability to choose the records, genres of music and possibly other types of media they receive."

As for pricing, Lippman hinted that he’s considering a dialed-down (you’re not getting 10 vinyl records for a dollar) version of Columbia House’s old promotion schemes.

Another question raised by Columbia House’s planned entry into vinyl sales is... where exactly are those records going to come from? According to the RIAA, vinyl sales were up over 50 percent in the first half of 2015. And, per Nielsen Music, vinyl album sales were up 30 percent year-to-date through the week ending Dec. 17. But, that increased demand has put pressure on the limited number of record pressing plants. In some cases it takes up to four months for record labels to get their vinyl orders back.

If Columbia House ends up resembling a hands-off vinyl club, it will join others in the record delivery business like VNYL, which for $36 sends three new albums every month based on the member’s musical tastes. Another service, Vinyl Me, Please, delivers one new LP plus original artwork and other perks every month for $23.

Interested in learning more about Columbia House during its 1990s heyday? Check out this documentary by a former production manager who, somehow, was allowed to film everyone at work: