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Y ou've seen the offers. Twelve CDs for the Price of One. Or 10 CDs for a Penny. Sound too good to be true? Absolutely.
     Read the fine print and you'll find that you have to pay shipping and handling charges. Then there's the cost of required purchases. By the time you factor in all the charges, the cost of your "free" CDs is about $4 or $5 each. But when you compare that to the $12 to $16 you'd pay at the mall, it's still a bargain.
     Today, with sales skyrocketing, CD and record clubs offer young people a way to enjoy their favorite artists at rock-bottom prices. The catch, if there is one, is that you need to know the rules of the game. The clubs offer great values, but they're not for everyone. Selection is limited, and joining a club requires time and effort if you really want to get the best bargains.

Here are eight questions to consider before joining a club:

How do CD and record clubs work?
Columbia House and BMG Music Service dominate the $1.5 billion mail-order music industry.
     You sign up for membership with an introductory offer. Those offers run the gamut and change constantly. Once you join, the company sends you a membership packet, that spells out the charges and requirements. Read the terms in the membership packet carefully to avoid costly mistakes.
     Club members receive a monthly catalog and a featured selection card. Club members will receive the featured selection unless they return the card in the specified time.

Do clubs offer the best prices?
Yes. The leading consumer publication in America, Consumer Reports, says anyone who often buys music should consider joining a club. Even after factoring in shipping, handling, and purchase requirements, the CDs and tapes that record clubs offer are a good buy.
     But don't be fooled into believing the clubs' advertising. You're not really going to get 12 CDs for $1. Consumer Reports found that the minimum outlay to fulfill membership is about $40 for BMG (11 to 13 CDs), and at least $100 (20 to 25 CDs) for Columbia House (at the best average CD cost).
     Consumer Reports found the clubs' regular prices high. You can save by taking advantage of frequent sales.

How can I make the most of club membership?
Take the time to shop for the best offer. Ask questions if you're confused by the terms of an offer. You can reach Columbia House customer service by calling (800) 457-0500, or contact them on the Internet from site
www.columbiahouse.com. Call BMG Music Service at (317) 692-9200, or access its Web site at www.bmgmusicservice.com (you'll need Netscape to access the site).
     Each club has several introductory offers at any given time. Clubs save the best deals for longtime members who've fulfilled membership purchase requirements.
     Once you're a member, wait for the best sales. There's a different sale every month, some featuring discounts of 50% or more off the regular price.

What about selection?
The clubs cater to a wide range of musical tastes, including hard rock, alternative, rap, dance/pop, rhythm and blues, jazz, heavy metal, country, classical, and spiritual.
     Though the clubs offer thousands of titles, you may not find what you want when you want it. Clubs don't offer new releases until weeks or months after they hit the stores. A growing number of artists such as U2, Metallica, and Smashing Pumpkins have no-club-sale provisions in their contracts because they receive more royalties from record stores than clubs. Still, you can find popular artists such as the Cardigans, Tony Braxton, Aaliyah, and Hootie and the Blowfish.

What is a "positive option" membership?
You can avoid the hassle of returning cards by requesting a "positive option" membership. With this option, you'll only receive CDs and tapes you specifically order.
     Request a positive-option membership by writing or calling the club after you become a member. BMG asks "positive option" members to place an order every three or four months to keep their accounts active. Columbia House club members who go several months without placing an order may get a letter asking about their buying plans.

Are the clubs on-line?
Yes. You can visit Columbia House at
www.columbiahouse.com and BMG at www.bmgmusicservice.com.
     The Web is a powerful searching tool to explore the artists and titles a club offers.
     A great Web site for music fans is the CD Club Web server at www.cd-clubs.com. The site has links to the clubs, music news, catalogs, and to CD Universe, billed as the Internet's hottest on-line music store. Featuring 180,000 titles, CD Universe is a great place to browse, but you may want to comparison shop. For example, "Spice," the new release by Spice Girls, is listed here at $12.95 (plus shipping and handling), but you can buy it at a discount retail outlet for $11.99.
     You also can save money by buying used CDs. Of course, that won't help much when you want the freshest titles.

What happens if I don't return the card on time, or if I want to cancel my membership?
If you forget to return the card on time, you still can send back a featured selection. Mark the box "refused" and send it back immediately. Don't open it or you'll have to pay postage. BMG allows club members three such returns before it will cancel your membership. Columbia House allows one or two such returns, but will cancel the membership if it becomes a problem.
     Once you're a member, you're obligated to purchase a specified number of selections over a period of time. Otherwise, you can quit when you want, and rejoin at any time.

Do I need my parents' permission to join a club?
Clubs like younger members to have parental consent, but they don't require proof of it. BMG doesn't ask age on its application; Columbia House does.
     Under contract law, persons younger than age 18 do not have the legal capacity to sign a contract. But your parents could be held responsible for your unmet financial obligations to the club. The best bet: Talk to your parents BEFORE joining a club to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
     If you have a problem with a club, contact its customer service department. If you can't work it out and you believe you've been treated unfairly, contact the consumer protection agency in your state.

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