Their ads appear in nearly every magazine or Sunday newspaper you're likely to pick up: "Free CDs! No Further Obligation! Get Eight for the Price of One!" But are these music clubs really worth the trouble? For many audiophiles, the answer is a firm "maybe."
Record clubs have been around since the late 1950s, when Columbia House, riding rock and roll's first big wave, offered free platters to mostly teen-age buyers.
Of those that remain, the industry leaders are Columbia House and BMG Music Service.
Even though the clubs are still called record clubs, vinyl is on its way out. BMG no longer offers records, and Columbia House is planning to phase out its LP titles within the next year.
So what do you get when you send in the reply card marked with your free selections?
BMG offers eight CDs or cassettes for the price of one. Upon joining, you receive four CDs and are billed for their shipping and handling costs only, usually $1.50 to $1.80 a disk.
After you pay that bill, you are enrolled as a member, and you receive a choice of three free CDs for your next order of one CD at full price ($14 to $18, plus the cost of shipping and handling for all four). After that, you are not obligated to buy anything else.
Columbia House asks for a total of $1.86 up front for shipping and handling. After sending in that amount with your reply card, you get 8 CDs or 12 cassettes. You are obligated,however, to buy six CDs or eight cassettes at full price over the next three years.
Both clubs send catalogs of current titles every three weeks or so. You are asked to specify your primary musical interests (from country to hard rock) so the catalog can reflect those favorites.
Each catalog showcases a featured selection, which will be sent and billed to you automatically unless you return the enclosed "no thanks" card. Each club also has a mind-boggling variety of bonus offers, like a free tape or CD with the purchase of two others, or half price on a second recording.
There is one important difference between the two clubs: BMG members, after paying for a full-price CD, are eligible for any bonus offers, while Columbia House requires members to wait until they've bought six CDs or eight cassettes at full price before taking advantage of most bonus deals.
BMG also sends bonus certificates with any order that doesn't make use of the special deals for which it qualifies.
That is, if you are entitled to a half-price CD with your order, but aren't aware of it, BMG mails you a half-price certificate to use on your next order.
"Keeping tabs on club correspondence is probably the most common complaint club members have," said Fred McIntyre, classified advertising manager for Spin, a popular-music magazine. "They get annoyed with the constant mailings and having to respond in order not to receive the featured CD. It can be a real hassle to keep sending back unwanted music."
When the frequent bonus offers are factored in, the clubs do offer substantial savings on most titles and a larger selection of harder-to-find items than a typical music store.
"BMG is stronger than Columbia House on classical and country titles," said Worth Linen, president of BMG Direct Marketing. "In fact, we have a separate classical-only club for members who want to receive catalogs containing only classical choices. Columbia House has a larger number of mainstream popular artists, like Michael Jackson and Billy Joel."
Ralph Colin, senior vice president at Columbia House, said: "We're planning a big boost in classical titles starting next year. We want to bring our classical selections up to the high level our rock and pop titles currently hold."
A big drawback for would-be trendsetters is the three- to four-month lag between the appearance of a new recording in the stores and the offer of the title by record clubs. In order not to anger retailers more than they already do with their cut-rate prices, record clubs have agreed to the imposed lag so they don't undercut initial retail sales.
A slow-to-change repertory is another problem some club members cite. Mr. Linen said Columbia House had a faster turnover among its 5,000 or so available titles, but that BMG was working hard to add titles to its 3,000 listings and to get rid of leftovers faster.