As the music industry readies to turn the page on 2011, things are looking up, literally.
Through August, cumulative album sales in the United States had increased 4.8 percent compared to the prior year. Interestingly, catalog album sales were up 3.5 percent, but sales of new releases were down 9.5 percent. And while physical album sales showed a 4 percent decline, the deficit was smaller compared to the 19 percent decline during the same period in 2010.
One factor playing a part in this positive growth is the recent proliferation of box sets.
Going back to the late '80s, some box sets simply consisted of multi-CD packages combining the artist's best-known recordings with a selection of previously unreleased tracks. Today, many box sets are far more elaborate. Recent box sets have been released in multiple versions with the most involved packages designed to appeal to the artist's most dedicated fans. And box sets are no longer just career retrospectives. Many are dedicated to single beloved albums.
In September EMI Music released an "Immersion" box set for Pink Floyd's landmark 1973 album Dark Side Of The Moon, including three CDs, two DVDs and one Blu-ray disc featuring rare audio and unreleased video. The collection also includes a deluxe booklet and photo book, a replica backstage pass and tour ticket from the Dark Side Of The Moon tour, and collectible cards, coasters, a printed scarf, and black marbles.
A similar "Immersion" box set for Pink Floyd's 1975 album Wish You Were Here was released in November, and a set based around 1979's The Wall is scheduled for release in February 2012. September also saw the release of the Pink Floyd "Discovery" box set, an elaborate collection featuring the band's original 14 studio albums remastered and an accompanying 60-page artwork booklet.
In 2010 Bruce Springsteen unveiled a box set called The Promise: The Darkness On The Edge Of Town Story. In addition to a remastered version of his 1978 album Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the set features two discs of unreleased tracks, a concert DVD from his 1978 tour, a 90-minute documentary on the album, and a DVD performance featuring Springsteen performing the album in its entirety in 2009.
With digital sales continuing to rise, the influx of deluxe box sets might appear to be a last gasp attempt by record labels to exploit the connection older music fans have with physical product. But Bill Gagnon, senior vice president of catalog marketing at EMI Music North America, believes the decline of brick-and-mortar retail outlets for recorded music and the growth of Internet sales and marketing have actually allowed labels to invest in compiling these box sets.
"We're finding a way to let consumers know about our packages through digital marketing," says Gagnon. "The mass distribution isn't going through your mass merchants like Walmart and Target. So we decided to build the best product we can possibly build and find a way to get it to the consumer because we don't need to rely on the mass merchants to find a racking home for these box sets."
In October Rhino Records released a deluxe collector's box consisting of the Smiths' entire catalog. Limited to 3,000 pieces worldwide, the box set comes in a mini-trunk and features the influential '80s British rock band's eight studio albums remastered on CD and vinyl and their entire output of 25 7" vinyl singles. It also includes a DVD compiling the band's music videos, poster and art prints.
Die-hard fans of the Smiths may be the most passionate consumers when it comes to the band's deluxe box set. But Dan Chalmers, president of Rhino UK, claims that his label isn't discounting younger listeners in its overall marketing campaign.
"There's definitely a growth in the collectible market," says Chalmers. "But there's also a new generation of fans who are not used to physical packaging and that really drives us to make sure they are aware of this and that it's represented in its best form. We always have to make sure we're adding enough value to justify the prices we're charging."
Which brings us to arguably the "dark side" of the box set story: price. Referring to his own The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook!!! set, Elvis Costello wrote on his website on Aug. 11, "Unfortunately, we…find ourselves unable to recommend this lovely item to you as the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire. All our attempts to have this number revised have been fruitless…." The set currently costs $262.26 for the "super deluxe edition" at Amazon.com, which highlights that many deluxe sets come with deluxe prices.
Deluxe box sets are constructed based on available material and what makes the music or artist special to begin with. Dark Side Of The Moon was originally viewed as an essential audiophile experience. There is also a seeming scarcity of filmed concert material of the band from this period. So the deluxe box set emphasizes the state-of-the-art surround sound that's represented on its DVD and Blu-ray discs, though these discs also include some visual materials.
Conversely, EMI's recent deluxe box set surrounding the Beach Boys' Smile album is all about resurrecting an unfinished and mythic album that was intended to be the follow-up to the band's legendary 1966 Pet Sounds album. The project features five CDs, two vinyl LPs and 7" singles each, pulling together the entire album with demos, alternate takes and instrumentals.
Like many deluxe box sets, both the Smile and Dark Side Of The Moon projects are available in simplified, cost-friendlier versions. The former is available in a two-disc format, with the latter also available in a single CD digipak.
The fourth quarter of 2011 has also seen box sets and/or deluxe editions devoted to albums by Nirvana (Nevermind), the Rolling Stones (Some Girls), U2 (Achtung Baby), and the Who (Quadrophenia), and more would seem likely in 2012.
In January Rhino Records will release a two-disc deluxe set commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Doors' L.A. Woman. The set will include the unreleased song "She Smells So Nice," as well as eight never-before-heard versions of songs from the classic album. Rhino will also release L.A. Woman: The Workshop Sessions, a double LP featuring all of the unreleased material found on the CD collection.
"People want to have something tangible...some cool artwork in their hand to look at while hearing the sounds," notes former Doors guitarist Robby Krieger. "There will always be a need for vinyl. Vinyl is making a comeback. It just sounds so much better."
"These type of deluxe box sets have a life for a few years," says Gagnon. "But in 15–20 years that consumer may be consuming music in a much different way. There will be some emerging [technology] and we're going to have to be there to meet that challenge if we want to remain relevant. It's no different from what we're doing now."
(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)