Thinking Inside The Box

Box sets are hot, especially at holiday time, but they face new challenges in the digital age

November 11, 2008|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,

As musical products move more toward intangible digital consumption and away from tactile sources these days, box sets remain one of the only ways fans can immerse themselves in an artist's work. It's one of the few hands-on musical experiences left over from the LP era, when the package's artwork served as a gateway to the music.

Box sets have always been specialty items because only a stone fan of the artist would spend up to $100 or more on a collection of greatest hits, B-sides and outtakes. But when they're well-done, they can be enriching trips. Devotees can fill several hours rediscovering the classics and absorbing previously unreleased songs, all in gloriously remastered sound, while perusing the accompanying booklet of liner notes and rare photos.

Now, to entice an increasingly fragmented pop audience in a spiraling economy, major labels are enhancing box sets with much more than just hours of music and a few extras. They are offering more and higher-quality visual additions and memorabilia. And to keep up with the feverish demands for all things digital, some companies are also starting to test the market with entirely downloadable versions of box sets.

"The challenges for us begin with the diversity of media we compete with that didn't exist even five years ago," says Adam Block, senior vice president and general manager of Legacy Recordings, the reissue arm of Sony-BMG. "But if you're not creating as whole of an experience as you can, you're not doing yourself justice."

The company has recently released three box sets on musically mercurial legends in jazz, pop and soul. The collections of Miles Davis, Billy Joel and Nina Simone respectively offer fans a DVD of rare performance footage in addition to the music. Excluding the one on Simone, the other sets include a wealth of keepsake items: reproductions of lyric notebooks, posters and glossy photos.

Where the Simone set is a sleekly packaged retrospective on three discs plus the DVD, the Joel and Davis collections center on a single album. Joel's box set commemorates the 30 years since The Stranger, the artist's commercial breakthrough, hit the streets. The collection was released to coincide with his hugely popular Shea Stadium concerts this summer. It has since sold more that 15,000 copies, according to Legacy, an impressive number for a box set selling for $44.99.

The Davis box set, one of the more audacious and expensive ones on the market this season, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the release of Kind of Blue. The album, featuring such jazz giants as Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and a young John Coltrane, is considered one of most important recordings in all of American music.

Though over the years the album has been reissued in different configurations - including as a DualDisc, which is a CD on one side and a DVD on the other - the box set is the most complete documentation available of Kind of Blue.

The 12-by-12-inch royal blue slipcase houses two CDs, a DVD and a coffee table book filled with historic photos and perceptive essays about the music and Davis. Also included are memorabilia and - the real treat - a blue vinyl LP inside a reproduction of the original album jacket. It all runs for $109.95.

"The goal was to bring the fan as close to that moment as you possibly can," Block says of the Davis set. "We're always conscious of not just doing a project because we can do it."

Executives at Rhino Entertainment Co., a division of Warner Music Group that has a strong reputation for its imaginatively executed box sets, has ventured into digital territory. Last year, the company released Led Zeppelin's entire discography of 165 tracks online for $99. Though the company doesn't release sales figures, Rhino says the Led Zeppelin digital box set is one of the top 5 biggest-sellers for the Warner Music Group this year.

The digital package for download is cheaper to produce, which means consumers can save money on the music, said Cheryl Pawelski, vice president of Artists & Repertoire at Rhino. "But there's still a great advantage of having a tricked-out box with all the bells and whistles."

To appease the diehard fans who want to hold the music, so to speak, Rhino released last week a Led Zeppelin box set containing mini LP replica CDs of the band's 10 albums issued between 1969 and 1982. The exhaustive box will go for $199.98. To promote it and other box sets, Rhino is launching an aggressive digital campaign, the details of which the company won't divulge.

"We're changing our marketing ways constantly to a lot more direct contact with the consumers," says Kenny Nemes, vice president of marketing at Rhino. "So we're going to high-end clothing stores, boutiques, the Internet, of course. Marketing is tricky these days for everybody."

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