Wednesday 25 September 2019

Britannia Music Club

In the mid 80s, Record Companies were trying to squeeze as much out their back catalogues as possible.  This was before the advent of the CD when new technology did that for them.
But before the CD revolution (or "people re-buying the stuff they've already bought"), a few record companies launched their budget or more correctly "mid price" labels.
CBS had their Nice Price stream, Virgin launched Virgin Mid-Price (all with and OVED# catalogue number) and EMI had their Fame label.
Basically, old stuff was re-released on these labels - and punters either re-bought their old worn out albums, or younger fans discovered new music at a bargain price (I was one of the latter - £3.99 for a bona fide classic album?  Yes please).

Each of these labels included a catalogue (of sorts) which was basically just a list (complete with catalogue numbers, potential stockists, and peppered with the odd picture).
A (sort of) revolution in music buying was born - you could now sit at home an read up on what you might be on your next visit to a record shop, rather than just aimlessly mooch in the hope of inspiration (I still preferred the latter method, and could quite happily lose 3 hours in a record shop).

There was also the Mail Order route, with Record Shops advertising their wares in the back of Smash Hits, Kerrang, Record Collector, or any other magazine where they could afford the advertising space.  And into this Mail Order maelstrom, and advertising space in national newspapers strode The Britannia Music Club.

The premis was simple:
      choose x records or tapes (or later CDs), and pay for x-1      (Postage and Packing applies)

Whichever way you look at it, this meant you were getting one recording completely gratis (except the P+P costs ate up most of that saving).
It also meant you were now a club member, and each month you could peruse their magazine and choose, from the comfort of your house, which newly released albums you might want to get.  Again, these would be offered at a cheaper price than the high street (and again, the Postage and Packing costs would negate any saving).
As a club member, you were required to purchase 6 albums at full price in your first year of membership.  After that you could make as many (or as few) purchases as you liked, and if you bought 6 further albums you were entitled to a Free album (Postage and Packing applies).
You also got a (supposedly hand-picked) Monthly Recommendation - basically, the offer of whatever album they had the biggest pile of in the warehouse.
But you have to remember to send the reply card back before the due date or you could end up with an album you don't really want.  OK, you've met part of your obligation by buying a full price album, but equally you could now have a Five Star album on your shelf that you're never going to listen to.

But there were other short-comings to the seemingly Utopian music buying experience.

  • Britannia was partly (or wholly?) owned by PolyGram, meaning they had quite a deep catalogue but only from PolyGram artists - so there was nothing from EMI, Virgin, CBS, or any of the Indie labels.(Universal Music)
  • New releases only hit the magazine about 1 month after they are available elsewhere (plus another 2 weeks before they arrive through your letterbox)
  • Payment was by cheque or Postal Order (they would get really annoyed if you sent cash, or tried to make up the difference in postage stamps)
  • They had a fairly aggressive marketing stance - constantly sending junk mail bulletins about new releases, upcoming films or concerts in the USA (which you had no chance of getting to)
  • Their Customer Service was (at best) woeful (and (at worst) non-existent)
  • It sold itself as a "Club" and stated you had the freedom to leave whenever you wanted.  In truth, it was more difficult to get out of than a High Security Prison.

But they were the Biggest Bugger in the Playground, and could basically do what they liked, because where else were you going to go?  They even ended up sponsoring the Brit Awards for a period (the time when it became a corporate sham with predictable results and winners announced long before the ceremony).  This also gave them the opportunity to send even more junk mail (usually telling you what you already knew because it was already printed in the club magazine)

Britannia were eventually driven out by the Internet - and notably Amazon - where you could browse at home, make a selection, order it and be listening to it without ever having to set foot in a nasty, smelly record shop with borderline rude staff
(I like record shops like that)

The difference was Amazon (and the others like, cd-wow *, even hmv) were much more efficient, had a deeper range of product, decently priced, and did not threaten to "send the boys round" if you forgot to correctly tick the "No Thanks" box

* cd-wow - the cheapest place on the (early) internet for CDs.  Basically, because most of their stock was made up of Japanese and Russian Bootlegs

So the mid-80s record companies budget labels were correct - there is a market for people to sit at home and make their selections.  And Britannia Music Club exploited this.  Convenient (and possibly lazy)? Yes.  But what was missing was the choice and delivery network so you didn't have to wait a fortnight to get your hands on your new purchases.
(And as a recent new member of Amazon Prime, I can vouch for the speed of delivery)

Still can't beat a good morning's mooch around a nasty,smelly record shop - that's my weekend sorted.


  1. Ah, this brings back memories...

  2. For me too. I joined Britannia about three times (having cancelled my membership each time I reached by necessary limit... it didn't seem that hard to quit). First time vinyl, then a couple of times CD. I did all right out of the introductory offers, particularly the time I managed to get three Elvis box sets as part of the introductory offers (18 CDs in total). Well, I felt like a winner, anyway.