Friday, December 10, 2010

Box Set (Essay)

Walk past a big record store during the Christmas rush, and you're apt to spy Annette Funicello, Barry Manilow, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin under the same tree. An all-star benefit, perhaps, in which legends agree to return from the dead and set aside their stylistic differences to join their negative mirror images for the sake of some good cause or another? Hardly. It's a phenomenon made possible by the rise of the box set. Literally hundreds of artists have now been anthologized in these lavish packages, which now encompass a smorgasbord of musical eras and styles that was unimaginable a decade ago.

According to Pulse! magazine, over 150 boxed set retrospectives were released in the U.S. and abroad in 1993. (The figure went down slightly in 1994.) If you were to buy all of them at once, that would set you back about $6500. No one's maniacal enough to go to that extreme, but listeners who go beyond the day's current charts to collect their music have more multi-disc options than ever before.

The box set has been a feature of the music industry for almost as long as records have been manufactured. Before the introduction of the long-playing record in the late 1940s, several 78 rpm discs were occasionally packaged together in boxes, sometimes in accordion-style binders. Material by superstars like Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman was released in this fashion, although the limitations of the 78 required a good deal more disc rotation than multiple CD collections do in the digital age.

With the LP format, it was possible to release several hours of music within a box at once. The boxed set rapidly became widespread in classical releases, but was used much less often to package jazz or pop music. It was virtually never used to house rock & roll music.

After landmark albums like Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out, and the Beatles' White Album made double LPs acceptable in rock, boxes began to appear -- although very rarely -- to package multi-disc productions. George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh were a couple of the best-selling examples, but they remained rare events. Eventually, box set collections appeared in small quantities by artists with devoted fan bases like the Beatles, Brian Eno and Bill Nelson

The introduction of the compact disc, along with the increasing spending power of Baby Boomers eager to assemble collected works of classic rock and soul musicians, began to spur the production of rock box sets in the mid-1980s. In 1986, Bob Dylan's five-LP Biograph set became the first rock retrospective of such size to reach the Top 40 album charts. More importantly, its mix of classic hits, key album cuts, rarities, and previously unreleased material, as well as a lavish booklet, became a model of sorts for the hundreds of rock and pop retrospectives that would follow. Later that year, a five-album box set of live Bruce Springsteen material went to number one. Multi-album live boxes didn't sprout in its aftermath; hardly anyone, after all, has as fanatical a following as Springsteen What it did prove was that fans were willing to pay for such big, lavish packages in much greater force than most people expected.

Within a few years, the box set as concept had picked up a lot of momentum. Most major rock artists -- including Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and the Beach Boys -- have received the box set treatment. In some cases, such as Elvis' there are a few box sets, each devoted to different periods of his career. If your favorite famous artist doesn't have a box set yet, wait a while. It may take a few months or a few years, but odds are that one or several will certainly appear.

The impetus for box set production came from both consumers and the industry. Some music journalists may rant and rave about the ignorance of the great majority of the record-buying public, but the fact is that, on the whole, today's rock & roll buyers are probably more conscious of musical history than ever before, and more willing to revisit past favorites and explore vintage releases that they never became familiar with in the first place. From an industry viewpoint, the CD format has enabled labels to present mammoth quantities of material in a more, well, compact form than was possible with the 12-inch LP.

More cynically, the CD format has generated extensive back catalog reissues because it enables the industry to re-sell albums to consumers that listeners already have in their collection, but may wish to "upgrade" from analog to digital. In comparison with new artists, such back catalog releases require a minimum of fuss in terms of artist development, production, and promotion.

Collectors approach box set reissues with a mixture of joy and resentment. Often billed as "remixed" or "digitally remastered from the original tapes" (although the actual sonic differences may be extremely slight or even nonexistent), some listeners welcome the chance to replace their surface-noise-infested vinyl with fresh packages that will not deteriorate over time. Just as often, it seems, some killjoy or other determines that the remastered and remixed versions are actually distinctly inferior to their analog counterparts, sometimes radically so.

For listeners who aren't audiophiles, the issue of value-for-money remains. Who is the typical box set -- with its mixture of hits, rarities, and album cuts -- really satisfying? The casual fan will be more likely to pick up a greatest hits collection, or one or two LPs, and leave it at that. It's very rare that a box set will feature every last cut by an artist, so it's seldom that it acts as the definitive collection in and of itself.

Listeners who are serious fans of an artist, but not unduly concerned with fancy packaging or remastering, find themselves caught in the middle. Enticed by rare and unreleased cuts that appear on almost every of these sets -- but rarely make up the majority of the content -- they often find themselves paying quite a few dollars for the five-15 cuts from a multi-disc box that they really want, and forced to repurchase quite a bit of music that they've already ensconced in their collection, and had no intention of buying again. And it's rare that a record company will accommodate these discerning listeners by issuing a separate collection that only contains the sought-after rarities.

For the truly comprehensive box sets, listeners often need to look to Europe, where reissue labels are truly fanatical about their music. Germany's Bear Family is particularly legendary for its almost humorously exhaustive retrospectives, such as their five-CD Lesley Gore compilation, their four-CD Marvin Rainwater set, and its eight-CD Lonnie Donegan project. These can be just as exhausting as exhaustive -- do you really want to hear that Gene Vincent alternate take, or over 200 Fats Domino songs?

An essential part of record collecting as the 20th century ends, the box sets offer a mixed blessing -- access to more rock music than ever before, but at a higher price.

by Richie Unterberger


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