The Target Shoots First: Inside the Colombia House of Smoke & Mirrors.

I was just in NYC, walking around the towers near 30 Rockeffeler, the same address now synonymous with Tina Fey’s hit comedy series. Midtown Manhattan is home to a host of major television and publishing giants, towering over us like large, gleaming and dark rectangular monsters, feeding us a steady diet of reality tv and late night banter via cable television and wifi umbilical cords.  Looking up at those somewhat menacing, dark towers; it’s interesting to contemplate the unique collision of art and commerce that takes place within those blocks. Although, of course it’s perhaps debatable to refer to The Today Show as art.

These same blocks, not long ago, also held the former headquarters of Colombia House.  For the uninitiated, Colombia House, first started in 1955, was the music mail order Goliath with a sales pitch that got people hooked by it’s legendary dubious marketing ploy, promising a plethora of records for a minute chunk of shrapnel. For the majority of music junkie teens with empty wallets, it was the best deal in town. For those that lived outside of major urban centers, it was the only deal where they had the opportunity to discover new music. This was during that moment in time before the internet really took off, and companies like Napster transformed those very same compact discs into ammunition that practically took down the entire music industry.

colombia house 2

And what a glorious time it was.  A time when it took 30 people to write copy describing a single album. When you could eat lunch without having to check your email. When you could spend meetings wasting time with your friends, laughing away for hours, and collect a cheque for it at the end of the week, then go off to tour with your band for the weekend. Like the Colombia House sales pitch, it almost sounds too good to be true.

In 1993, recent NYU grad Chris Wilcha, armed with a philosophy degree and a punk rock pedigree, lands his first job with it’s own office(!) inside one of the towers that run the United States of mass music culture. He brings his Hi 8 camera to work with him and shoots his fellow jaded and overeducated employees while they grind away through the red tape tedium at their corporate jobs, while trying desperately to stay true to their alternative culture, music loving roots. It’s raw, unassuming and a delight to watch. The Target Shoots First is an interesting window to a world, now almost long forgotten. It’s a rare gem of a time capsule profiling 1990s corporate and creative culture, butting heads against one another, much like dinosaurs once did during the Mesozoic Era.  And we all know what happened to those guys in the end.

Scroll down for the entire film. Afterwards, check out the A.V Club‘s recent old school sit down with filmmaker Chris Wilcha and a select few of Colombia House‘s former inmates. They discuss how much the workplace has changed in the last 20 years, the fast changing topography of the music business and the puzzling mathematics behind Colombia‘s marketing scheme.

3 thoughts on “The Target Shoots First: Inside the Colombia House of Smoke & Mirrors.

  1. I remember a very similar thing in the Uk and every six months or so I’d ask my Mum if I could join and she’d always say no because there were so rules and so much small print, that you could go crazy spending money to get more ‘free’ CD’s that you didn’t even really want that much.

    1. Yeah, I never joined either, although I had many friends that did- some using some amusing pseudonyms; (I.P. Freely, anyone?). The advertising was certainly enticing.

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