They're expensive, extravagant, exhaustive. And they're everywhere.
Box sets -- lavishly packaged, multidisc (or multicassette) retrospectives -- are shaping up as the recording industry's biggest trend this Christmas. Boasting prices that stretch upward from $40 (for CD packages) and a range of artists that reaches from rock icons like John Lennon and Led Zeppelin to such legendary figures as bluesman Robert Johnson and jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, these super-retrospectives are pouring into music stores at a record rate.
"In the last month, there's been an unprecedented flood of boxes," says Chris Morris, an album review editor at Billboard. "It happened to some extent last year, but this year it's just incredible the amount of stuff that's out there."
Indeed it is. At last count, there were more than 20 box sets scheduled for release this season, and some are already ringing up impressive sales. Robert Johnson's "The Complete Recordings" has sold some 110,000 copies since its release in late August (not bad for a collection of 53-year-old blues recordings), while "Led Zeppelin" is a certifiable smash, shipping over 350,000 copies to enter the Billboard charts at No. 40.
Ironically, the success of such sets raises some concern over whether the box-set boom will cost the industry in diminished sales for newer artists. "This Christmas, we're just in an overload situation," says Morris. "I mean, all this stuff is coming out right in the teeth of the recession Christmas here. So it remains to be seen how they're going to sell."
"I don't know if we're in competition for the same consumer dollar," offers Bob Merlis, vice president and national publicity director at Warner Bros. "Maybe it's a surplus market. People want to buy something, they save up for it. But they're still going to buy the hits, because it's an ongoing thing."
Why are these sets selling so well? For one thing, these collections not only focus on the greats -- Led Zeppelin, the Byrds, Elton John, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and Frank Sinatra, to name a few -- but deliver the best of their work. As Morris puts it, "You're getting the creme de la creme of the artists here. I mean, I wouldn't want to own the whole Led Zeppelin catalog, but I wouldn't part with this set."
Then there's the sense of history such collections convey. "The Legendary Roy Orbison," for instance, includes the singer's first single, recorded as a member of the Teen Kings in 1955. "The Byrds" follows that band from its first single, "Mr. Tambourine Man," to a reunion session in Nashville earlier this year. "The Jellyroll Morton Centennial" includes every recording the jazz legend ever made for Victor -- 110 sides recorded over 11 years.
"This is a way to be an instant Smithsonian, an instant Library of Rock and Roll Congress," says Merlis. A box set, he says, is not "an ephemeral piece of trash. It's a keeper."
That's one reason Merlis sees the box-set phenomenon as a permanent fixture in the industry. "These things are meant to be sold over a long period of time," he says. "It's not a here-and-now kid's business. They're going to have a long shelf life.
"It's not like their marketability is dependent on a hit single," he adds. "It's a life's work. It's kind of like Penguin Books, that would put out all the classics. You could always have them, they were forever. I think this is analogous. It's like owning a classic, or a standard reference."
"But how many times are you going to listen to any box set?" asks Morris, who points out that many of these sets are four to five hours long. "That's the thing. I mean, the Byrds set is wonderful, but there's so much on it that I don't know if I'll ever sit and listen to it from beginning to end."