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Boxed In

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Reaction to the recently-released tracklist for John Mellencamp’s On the Rural Route 7609 box set has been a bit mixed, and for good reason. It’s hard to greet a four-disc box set full of album tracks and just over a dozen unreleased outtakes with a price tag of nearly $100. But it’s becoming clear that there’s a bigger issue here at stake than Mellencamp fans getting soaked.

Friends, the entire concept of a box set is in a state of crisis. It’s been a long two decades since compact disc box sets became a burgeoning haven for hardcore catalogue fans. They presented music as art , even as the entire listening experience was becoming increasingly artless. But it may finally be time to rethink the whole strategy of collating tracks onto multiple discs with a fancy package to boot.

By the late 1980s a healthy chunk of music fans were buying and re-buying music on CD. But there was something kind of boring about it. The packaging – whether they were jewel cases or longboxes (the horror!) – lacked the size or ornamentation a picture sleeve or gatefold jacket could provide. Where liner notes, lyrics or portraits of the artists often loomed, there were stoic reminders of how to clean your CD, or a number to call if you experienced a defective disc (an entirely separate number was reserved for New Jerseyans for some reason). The eye-catching label design was often replaced with a simple regurgitation of track info on a disc that spun too fast in a CD player for anyone to bother looking at.

And then the box sets came. Often packaged lavishly, with those annotations and notes music fans were craving, featuring tracks that had never been released or old favorites that were new to CD, they came in droves and were bought in droves. Sets like James Brown’s Star Time, Led Zeppelin’s 1990 box set, Elton John’s To Be Continued, Rod Stewart’s Storyteller: The Complete Anthology 1964-1990 and The Police’s Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings are still high watermarks for catalogue fans.

Of course, the more music gets released and re-released on CD, the harder it is for such box sets to sell. That’s when labels have to get crafty; packaging sets around a theme or even a label can be a good way to go in some cases, such as the Nuggets boxes devoted to the history of psychedelic music, time-specific sets like Have a Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box or Like, Omigod! The ’80s Pop Culture Box (Totally) or Motown’s two Hitsville U.S.A. boxes.

Nowadays, box sets are even harder sells. They make sense if the material covered is hard to find on CD (Michael Jackson’s Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection, The Cure’s Join the Dots: B-Sides & Rarities 1978-2001), a well-organized, well-packaged tribute to an act or both (Duran Duran and The Clash’s singles box sets). They can work if they cover ground nearly as thoroughly as out-of-print sets (think Motown: The Complete No. 1’s).

But that field is hard to play, especially as the market gets more and more saturated. Epic’s four-disc Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection has about one disc of worthwhile material if you’ve already bought most of his albums on CD. Same goes for the new Mellencamp set – and don’t even get me started on the upcoming Steve Winwood box.

Granted, not everything can stay in print forever. For some who don’t have Winwood’s The Finer Things set and don’t want to scour Amazon for a copy, getting a newer set makes sense. But that mentality only goes so far. And there’s not much of a point making a career-spanning box without a heap of unreleased material these days; with enough money and patience, one can structure a similar playlist on iTunes. What makes such sets worth it then? The liner notes? We love reading them, but we can’t make casual fans do the same.

The bottom line is if labels are going to go so desperately for the middle, they’re going to lose the loyalty of the most devoted catalogue enthusiasts. Perhaps On the Rural Route should have been only rarities, or fewer discs. Whatever the future outcome is, it has to be something special, or everyone risks losing the allure the box set possessed in the first place.

What are your thoughts on the state of box sets? Sound off below.

Written by Mike Duquette

April 28, 2010 at 15:00

6 Responses

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  1. This isn’t a point to argue but I’ve always held the view that if I didn’t want something, I just didn’t buy it. My lack of purchase would do my talking for me. Personally, if I’m a diehard fan, and I mean a diehard fan, I WANT this set. It represents a deep look into the artist.

    If Faces or Wishbone Ash released something like this, I’m there DAY 1, even as I already own their Box of hits AND all of their albums.

    No, I LIKE this set…a LOT. I hope that this sets precedence and more bands follow this configuration. To be able to have the gems that may exist for Faces makes me wish for more of this kind of chance.

    The bad side? It fails and they throw away the idea that this brings to the table.

    Matt Rowe

    April 28, 2010 at 21:35

  2. Another old gem of a box set, and arguably the one that started the whole box set craze back in the mid-80’s: Dylan’s Biograph. Then, a few years later there was The Bootleg Series. There was also Dreams from the Allman Brothers Band, Clapton’s Crossroads, Jeff Beck’s Beckology. All splendid examples of how a boxed set should be done. In each case, a nice balance of hits, album tracks, rarities and live stuff.

    Box sets of late, however, are a real mixed bag for me now… They just don’t seem to deliver the goods like they used to. Case in point: I eagerly awaited Billy Joel’s My Lives collection, but I only enjoy a bit more than half of what’s on it.

    Some of the rare tracks were previously unreleased for good reason, and there were plenty of other great rarities, outtakes and alternate versions that weren’t included. Stuff that exists on bootlegs of varying quality, stuff that needed to be on that collection but wasn’t. My Lives also really petered out with the fourth disc, supposedly covering the years from 2000 on but was in fact a total misnomer. They needed to rethink the whole collection.

    Then there’s that ugly artwork his kid drew for the cover. Yeesh!

    Other than that, I can’t even think of the last boxed set that had me really excited. When Rhino reissued the Grateful Dead’s catalogue several years ago, they put out two very pricy sets (The Golden Road and Beyond Description) that compiled all their studio stuff, plus several vintage live albums, all remastered and with copious bonus tracks. Great stuff, but I opted for finding all the CDs used, and individually, because the boxed sets were so overpriced.


    April 28, 2010 at 23:30

  3. I’ve been buying a ton of boxed sets lately, but most of them have been the classics: “Hitsville, USA”, “Allman Brothers – Dreams”, “Lynyrd Skynyrd”, etc.


    April 29, 2010 at 08:56

  4. I think the recent Hall and Oates box set was done well. It seemed to hearken back to boxed sets of the 80s and 90s in terms of look, presentation and content.

    It “only” had 16 previously unreleased tracks, but it was an awesome overview of their entire career despite a few glaring omissions. But H&O have had so many “hits” collections over the years that it would have been redundant to put every hit single back on this box set. I think the balance was just about right with this one.


    April 29, 2010 at 09:38

  5. Interestingly, I think everybody here is making fine, valid points. I don’t know that there’s one perfect “concept” for a box set. The H&O box set that Don rightfully praises follows more or less the same concept as the Mellencamp box which is being criticized in so many quarters (though not by Matt.) Is the sticking point with the Mellencamp box simply the admittedly-exorbitant price tag?

    I’m thinking of the box sets released last year, and they all vary in style and scope — complete artist collections like Rhino’s Big Star box; all-rarities sets like The Rod Stewart Sessions; themed compilations like Los Angeles Nuggets; all-live boxes from the likes of the Doors and Frank Sinatra; historical anthologies like Woodstock 40; career overviews from H&O and Dolly Parton. None of these boxes follow one set formula, and I think the bottom line is how well they succeed in their execution. (For my money, all of the boxes I mentioned did succeed.)

    It’s an encouraging sign that, if articles from Billboard and other sources are to be believed, box set sales are actually on the rise. Even the much-maligned “Super Deluxe” editions that routinely sell for $100-150 are big sellers. Pearl Jam’s “Ten” super deluxe edition sold over 10,000 copies in its first week, out of the total 55,000 sold including all versions. The holidays are always a fertile time for box set sales.

    It’s my hope that, far from being in a state of crisis, labels are simply trying to reach as many people as possible with the box sets they offer. Some go strictly for the collector, some just for the casual fan, and some which try to reach both groups (and usually wind up pissing off one group or the other…but usually the collectors, annoyed that the completist in them wants to purchase the box, but they want more unreleased tracks on it!)

    Some more “devil’s advocate” food for thought — when the Dylan Biograph box was released, it sold for around $60. In today’s dollars, that’s easily over $100.00. So is Mellencamp’s box really priced outrageously? Or have the majors shot themselves in the foot by pricing box sets consistently and without inflation over the years, to the point where the intended audience won’t pay more? For me, it comes down to personal taste. I have little interest in the Mellencamp box, but the $100 for Rhino’s recent complete Wilson Pickett set didn’t seem unreasonable in the least.

    Speaking personally, I’m much more inclined to pay more for a box set if the packaging is, as Mike points out, a piece of art. I take pride in displaying my box sets shaped like a stacks of 8 tracks, a lunchbox, an old phonograph, a slab of shag carpet or even a “brain in a box!” I hope such creativity doesn’t wane as future box sets are prepared.

    Just the two cents’ worth of a dedicated collector and fan…

    Joe Marchese

    April 29, 2010 at 12:52

  6. One of the big draws for me was the fact that the box set contained all of groups albums for a low price. I remember when I bought the Police set for $54 in 1993. I could not find the complete set (i.e. one stop shopping) for that price, let alone the bonus material.

    To this day, I still have not found some of the bonus material on the original box set. Same can be said for the Led Zep, the Moody Blues, Jimmy Buffet, and Cheap Trick box sets.

    Another box set possibility was the first few Duran issues. The self titled debut, Rio, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, a complete version of Arena, the b-sides and remixes, and separate DVDs of the Rio concert, the greatest hits videos, and anything else form the vault would be great. Provide a track listing chronologically, and you could have a complete history of early DD.


    April 29, 2010 at 22:59

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