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Musical box sets go ‘above, beyond’
Limited editions premium, pricey
Question of the Day
Musical box sets, encapsulating a portion or all of an artist’s catalog, are hardly a new trend. They’ve been around for decades.
But as labels begin to search for more sources of income, they’re increasingly using yesterday’s hits to help today’s bottom line, from multidisc deluxe editions of your favorite old album to over-the-top collections of obscurities complete with cool little tchotchkes.
And they’re also reaching new heights in pricing. Love U2 beyond measure? There’s the new “Achtung Baby” uber-deluxe edition, a limited, numbered box set that originally retailed for $650. It includes six CDs, four DVDs, a new documentary, a magnetic puzzle box, five clear 7-inch vinyl singles, 16 art prints, an 84-page book, a sticker sheet and a pair of Bono’s bug-eyed sunglasses, among many other things.
Tony Bennett fans can own his entire recorded output — more than 1,000 of his songs spread across 73 discs and three DVDs — in “Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection,” original price around $400. Elvis fans willing to pay the $750 list price for “The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” 30-disc set last year took home more than 800 songs — every master released in chronological order, plus more than 100 rarities — and a book by Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick.
Josh Walker, an assistant manager at Nashville record store Grimey’s New and Preloved Music, recently sold about 20 copies of the Beach Boys’ “The Smile Sessions” box set. (He was among the buyers.)
Mr. Walker said the real gems in the box-set world are the ones that come reimagined and packing truly over-the-top rare items.
He calls the Beach Boys set, named Spin Magazine’s reissue of the year, “beautiful.” Inside there’s the double-disc set of the original music, three more CDs of all the sessions with Brian Wilson orchestrating the music, a vinyl copy of the original album, two 7-inch single replicas and a coffee-table book with Mr. Wilson’s insights.
“The packaging is above and beyond,” Mr. Walker said. “It looks exactly like a storefront, and it’s got this little window, and it’s inset with these little people selling smiles. So from the get-go, the package is nice.”
Single albums getting the box-set and deluxe-reissue treatment like “Smile” are the biggest trend. You can get the expanded edition of the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” for around $150, too. Similarly priced releases this year included Nirvana’s 20th anniversary “Nevermind” box set and Pink Floyd’s “immersion” set for “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
But these don’t even come close to the most elaborate items out there. Legacy Recordings, which put out the Presley and Bennett box sets, also released the $20,000 “Fifteen Minutes: Homage to Andy Warhol.” Creator Jeff Gordon is quick to point out the deluxe edition, which includes three CDs, four vinyl LPs and 17 signed original silkscreens, is a unique creation for art-world collectors. Only 85 were made, and they are selling, Mr. Gordon said. (A cheaper standard edition goes for $600.)
He solicited artists, musicians and former acquaintances of Warhol’s to create a piece of art and a sound recording to accompany it. Patti Smith read a poem. Another recorded contribution includes a 40-minute conversation between two of Warhol’s friends and former employees talking about their old mentor.
The originals are now on display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The fact Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog division, was interested in the project indicates to Mr. Gordon there are many possibilities out there for cross-pollination and even expanding the form.
“I think there are a lot of people out there who appreciate something like this,” said Mr. Gordon, who served as both a producer and curator on the project. “In a couple of years, you’ll see these things going for $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000.”
The trend of pricier box sets seems incongruent with the musical landscape: Many people buy their music digitally, and downloaded singles now rule over albums. When an act’s catalog can be downloaded in moments, who is purchasing these lavish collector’s editions?
Rising country star Eric Church counts himself among those fans. His favorite box set chronicles the entire history of seminal rock group the Band, complete with previously unreleased tracks, live cuts and covers he’d never heard before.
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