Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Box Set Dilemma Part 1: A Question of Balance

Career-spanning box sets like this one from Sublime are currently de rigueur for successful acts 

I still remember it like it was yesterday. I woke up on the morning of my nineteenth birthday and headed into the kitchen to grab a cup of the coffee my mom had just put on. As I walked past the dining room table, I noticed an elongated wrapped box addressed "To Jason, Love Mom".  Remembering to give her a hug and a kiss, I forewent the coffee and immediately set about tearing into the package, having a good idea what it contained.

Sure enough, just as I had asked for, it was the legendary Beach Boys Good Vibrations box set. I was overwhelmed and elated. Finally I was going to get to hear that SMiLE material that had tantalized me ever since I had started getting seriously into the Beach Boys five years prior. And then there was this all this stuff from their later albums which I couldn't ever seem to find at any of the local stores. This day was going to be one for the ages.

Little did I realize it back then, but box sets weren't always going to retain their aura and mystery. Particularly during the past decade as revenue from CD sales has decreased, record labels have increasingly targeted perhaps their last remaining demographic for physical product-- male boomers and gen-xers with disposable income-- with an ever-expanding array of multi-disc anthologies containing all manner of add-ons. But the question arises: when is enough finally enough? Is there any valid reason for the continuation of these deluxe artist retrospectives?


In the wake of the recent high profile releases like the Beach Boys' Made in California we've seen a lot of debate on the boards over whether or not the box set model is a particularly good value for either fans or neophytes. The most common argument I hear regarding box sets is along the lines of, "fans don't want to re-buy the same songs yet again, and newbs aren't going to want to hear studio outtakes if they haven't even heard most of the catalog yet". In other words, Greatest Hits and rarities collections ought to remain separate species and never intermingle.

 So is there even a justifiable reason to unleash a box set in this age of digital downloads/ streaming and infinitesimal attention spans? I'm not talking about sets like Harry Nilsson's RCA Albums Collection where the label just took a bunch of out-of-print albums and lumped them together into a big box to compensate for a market shortage, or one ones like Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series vol. 10 - Another Self-Portrait that serve up outtake upon outtake to appease rabid fanboys; rather I'm describing the type of curated tour through a artist's back catalog that brings forth the highlights and skips the low points, while hopefully still offering a smattering of previously unheard gems.

Well as you could probably guess if you've spent any time at all reading my blog, I would argue that there definitely is a need for such sets. I would also put forth the proposition that it is exactly such sets that develop dilettantes into fans. Of course, the insatiable fan won't be satisfied with just the box and will want to devour an artist's entire back catalog; but in truth, how many artists do we have the time to actually do this with? As a life-long music listener, I can only think of a small handful of groups from which I've heard every note available to me-- groups I can honestly say I was obsessed with for long stretches of my life.

The one that started it all for me.

Similarly, there's a bevy of artists out there in which I'm only keenly interested in a certain era of their recorded output. The Rolling Stones might be the quintessential example of this phenomenon which I'm describing. I own and cherish practically everything they recorded up until around the time of 1978's Some Girls, but my knowledge of their work after that is rudimentary at best. Now I could take the time to go back and buy all those albums and listen to them in their entirety, but based off of the mostly tepid to outright negative reviews those records received, do I really want to waste my time doing that in the hopes that I might find an overlooked classic somewhere in the midst?

As such, a compilation of the group's later-day work is tailor made for somebody like me. Were such a thing to exist (and maybe it does, I haven't really thought to look into it until right now) I could listen to one or two discs worth of highlights, focus on the songs I like the best and then maybe go back and check out their particular host albums-- this is the compilation as gateway model.

Now let's expand that concept to artists as a whole. I'll go over all this in detail in part two of this article, but suffice to say that any compilation by any artist needs to start out by figuring out what its objective is, and then determining the proper number of discs (or total playing time, if you no longer think in terms of CDs the way I do) it takes to get there. The box set should always primarily cater to the person who has already heard the "hits" and finds themselves craving more-- somebody who's already on the verge of fandom. If you can hook them with the box, chances are you've got yourself a new dedicated fan.

The secondary purpose of the box set is to offer the already existent, time-challenged fan a go-to option when they're in the mood to hear your music. Ideally, they should be able to grab any CD from the set, throw it on while they're in the car on their way to work, and enjoy it all the way through without having to hit the dreaded skip button more than once or twice. Again, we'll discuss some of the pratfalls in part two.

So what are your thoughts on career-spanning box sets? Do they fill a need, or are they something artists put out in a purely mercenary fashion to gouge fans? Let us know, and I'll be back with part two of this article shortly!


  1. I love box sets. ;)

  2. Nearly every performer has a good beginning tapering off to occasional inspiration. The Rolling Stones are a good example and I would also welcome a wrap-up of the worthy post-Some Girls tracks, as I have not listened to those albums at all.

    Many box sets cut short the good tracks in order to make room for a CD or two of end-of-career dreck. I prefer a set that pinpoints a specific era. First present me with the artist's best work, then give me another set covering the highlights of the remaining twenty years.

    Jazz performers have very long careers and frequently change labels. Often those changes provide new inspiration and expose them to new producers and musicians who change the focus of the performances. This can produce ideal conditions for a box set. It's not unusual for them to turn out three albums a year, so a set that covers four years at a company can bring out their best work there.

    As an aside, it may serve you to not bring up the Hoffman forums as often. He is not universally liked and his forum is less well regarded. If that's your bag, then fine. But it can be an immediate turn-off, like describing your political views to a total stranger.

    1. Very good points. If I can just address the Hoffman thing for a moment; I should probably make it clear that while I spend time over there doing research on the sound quality of various pressings or just shooting the shit with other posters, I'm by no means a card-carrying acolyte in the Cult of Steve. I'm well aware of his shenanigans with the Buddy Holly master tapes and his tight-fisted control scheme to silence all disinters or the ever-so-threatening MoFi reps. (Not to mention Ken Scott!)

      Shit I'll probably get banned for typing this as I know he has spies everywhere, but sometimes the truth just needs to be said, you know?

      Still, lots of good people over there, including a fair number of the Byrds intelligentsia. The conversation there can be decent so long as you're adept at navigating threads.