Looking back at the free discs sent out alongside offers for box sets of music that people didn’t really want but felt compelled to buy anyway.
Here’s a question: do Reader’s Digest still release records? I haven’t heard of any for a long time, but curiously, I’ve managed to spend the whole of my adult life somehow escaping ending up on the Reader’s Digest mailing list, which it seemed everyone in the world was part of at one point. Certainly, my parents used to get relentless mail offers from the company that ranged from the usual “you are now in the final stages to win this huge cash prize” claims that never quite resulted in a huge cash prize to endless promotions for books and records – some of which they fell for, of course, because in the 1970s, mail order offers were still much more novel than they are now. We ended up with a set of encyclopedias that were bought as an educational investment for me apparently, though, of course, nothing becomes out of date more quickly than today’s knowledge; a book about weird phenomena that I naturally poured over intently even though it was, to all intents and purposes, unreadably dry and boring; and other volumes of DIY and household tips that I can’t recall ever being consulted.
My parents also bought box sets of vinyl records. There was Tunes of Glory, a seemingly excessive collection of military band music that I can’t recall ever being played, and a few country music collections. I think it’s fair to say that had these collections simply existed in record shops or branches of Woolworth, they would never have been bought – but there was something in the whole hard sell of the brochures that worked. And not just for my parents – charity shops across the country are littered with Reader’s Digest collections, just as their book sections often heave with those collections of edited novels that, of course, also sit in my parents’ house even now. What was it that suckered people in? The glossy leaflets, the idea that by making a purchase you were guaranteed entry in a draw that you never seemed to win, the sheer relentlessness of it all – or was it the free demonstration flexi-disc?
A new box set would often be promoted with a seven-inch 33 1/3 flexi-disc – sometimes coloured gold just to emphasise the ‘golden greats’ nature of the collection – that offered samples of the musical delights awaiting you with a hard sell voiceover from a famous DJ or celebrity. No expense was spared in telling you just how great this collection was and what a fine investment it would be. Clearly, these promo discs did their job, even though by the time they had negotiated the postal delivery system, a fair number must’ve been unplayable. Flexis were not the most reliable format at the best of times, their flimsy design clashing rather badly with the way that they were usually delivered to the customer, i.e. taped to the front of a magazine that had not been treated with a great deal of care by ‘Mr Newsagent’ (as comics and magazines invariably called the retailer). A crease, a fold or a scuff might be enough to do for one of these discs and even if they arrived in pristine condition, your record player might not be up to the job of playing them without skipping and sliding – the grooves were often too thin for many players and the record would rarely sit flat, so a certain warping of the sound was another occupational hazard – a coin was recommended to give the disc weight, though if memory serves this was a hit and miss solution. While the readers of Flexi-Pop and other music titles quickly learned to give the disc a once-over before buying and worked out how to weight the disc and record arm properly, the people receiving Reader’s Digest discs in the post had no such luck.
Yet enough must’ve worked their magic to make them worthwhile. And people did play them. You have to remember that most record collections were not huge and so anything on disc that arrived for free out of the blue was going to be given a spin. The sound was always inferior but that didn’t put people off – and they got to hear just enough to whet the appetite. I’m guessing that those small record collections and the relatively low cost of the collections – at least in your calculated per disc compared to what was on sale in the shops – made these instant collections appealing. At the height of the Reader’s Digest record offer, compilation albums by original artists were still not that common and if the format did die out, I’m guessing it was because the major labels moved in on their territory with collections that you didn’t need to send away for. In any case, the flexi-discs presumably came to an end in the 1980s as people swapped their record decks for CD players and the collections moved from vinyl to CD and cassette. Notably, the last Reader’s Digest collections owned by my parents are on tape.
By their nature, the flexis were ephemeral objects and not designed to keep; indeed, why would anyone consider them to be of any value when they didn’t even contain a complete musical number? I’m not suggesting that they have any worth now – but of course, they are a part of our cultural history and there really should be an archive of them somewhere. No cultural object is worthless and even the most throwaway items tell us something about who we were and the world we lived in.
There are some Reader’s Digest flexi-discs from the USA and UK preserved online, thankfully. Here’s a selection for your delectation.
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