By James B. Eldred
More people are buying music online than ever before, forgoing a physical product entirely for a collection of digital files that can easily be carried with them on any mobile device.
But even while the music industry seems to be inching ever closer to an entirely digital world, record labels are finding ways to entice fans into buying physical product. The latest effort? Super deluxe editions — massive box sets that are typically dedicated to just a single album by a band, featuring multiple CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays and LPs of unreleased material, studio outtakes and live recordings alongside a newly remastered version of the original studio recording.
Take, for example, EMI’s 2010 Super Deluxe edition of David Bowie’s 1976 album “Station to Station.” In addition to a new analog remaster of the album on both CD and LP, the box set also includes a disc featuring the original 1985 CD remaster; a CD with the single edits; a DVD with high-quality, surround-sound mixes; and a 1976 live concert on both CD and two LPs.
And that’s just the music. Also packed inside the gigantic box is a full-sized book with rarely seen photos; production information and liner notes by writer/director Cameron Crowe; reproduction press materials; fan club memorabilia; and assorted collectibles such as pins, stickers and posters.
The project was a massive undertaking, according to EMI Director of Repertoire Nigel Reeve, who was personally involved with the project.
“From the original idea to release ‘Station to Station’ took two years,” said Reeve, who has personally worked on four super-deluxe box sets in the past three years. “[They are] hugely demanding and time consuming. One individual set takes up so much time. Much rides on it, and you can only do so many at any one time.”
Because of the extreme investment of time and money, as well as their high retail cost (most super-deluxe box sets cost over $100), the majority of these high-end editions are either incredibly popular albums by established acts, such as David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, or influential albums by bands with devoted followings, such as prog-rockers King Crimson or Jethro Tull.
“Ultimately, the figures have to stack up. There is no point in producing a beautiful set that loses money,” said Reeve.
At a time when the economy is slumping and sales of physical product continue to plummet regardless of what efforts the labels make, it may be surprising that any of these expensive box sets can turn a profit. Adam Tutty, store manager at Easy Street Records in West Seattle, Wash., said that he believes this has more to do with the target demographic of these box sets, rather than a surge of interest in physical product.
“Most of these sets seem to be of artists and titles with fans who are in their 30s and beyond; theoretically they have more disposable cash,” he said. “Plus, these are the same people who have grown up buying vinyl and CDs, not downloads. They like to have the physical product and not just an MP3.”
That was definitely a deciding factor for Adam Stanley, an enterprise architect from Minneapolis who recently purchased EMI’s Immersion Editions of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and “Dark Side of the Moon.”
“I’m a sucker for special packaging. I only buy physical product; I like having something to hold. There’s ‘stuff’ in the boxes that I’ll never look at again, but at least I have it,” Stanley said, referring to coasters, marbles and other odd collectibles included in the Pink Floyd box sets.
One of the most extravagant box sets released last year was the Uber Deluxe edition of U2’s “Achtung Baby.” The Universal release included six CDs, four DVDs, two LPs and five 7-inch singles, as well as a variety of art prints, a hardcover book, stickers and a reproduction of Bono’s “The Fly” sunglasses, among other assorted memorabilia. It retails for more than $400; a less opulent Super-Deluxe edition, which carried a list price of about $150, also was released.
Peter Lenarcic, a software tester from Ljubljana, Slovenia, shelled out the cash for an Uber Deluxe edition. His initial reasoning for making the purchase was one of nostalgia.
“It’s one of my favorite albums; it reminds me of one of my favorite periods of my life, and U2 just plain rocked at the time,” he said. He also wanted the sunglasses.
However, once he got the box, he was faced with a bit of buyer’s remorse. He didn’t appreciate that much of the bonus material was dedicated to “Zooropa,” the band’s 1993 follow-up to “Achtung Baby.” He also was upset to discover that much of the content in the box had already been previously released.
And don’t even get him started on the sunglasses.
“The Fly shades turned out to be a cheaptastic piece of nonfolding plastic, so I can’t carry them with me except on my face. Too bad,” he said.
Collectors like Lenarcic may be growing tired of the box sets, no matter what special features, added content or other bonuses are included, said Auggie Rebelo, manager at Everyday Music in Portland, Ore.
“The trend for box sets, especially if they’re not LPs, are just down in general compared to this time last year,” he said.
The super-deluxe sets are so tailored for collectors and die-hard fans that they remain niche items — and items that Rebelo says are just too much of a chance for his record store to take.
“We usually just get one or two maximum, just because of the expense for us. I wouldn’t say they are flying out the doors by any means,” Rebelo said.
Easy Street’s Tutty agrees that there just isn’t much of a reason for small stores like his to carry high-end box sets. At his store, the only box sets that sold noticeably well were the recent super deluxe editions of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and the sets that Pearl Jam has been rolling out for the past few years — something that he credits more to his store’s Seattle location than an overwhelming trend for box sets.
Even Reeve thinks that the trend is soon to slow down.
“I do fear that we are reaching saturation point, and I do believe this year will see some releases failing, because of the difficult financial time most of us are living in,” Reeve said. “There will be a market for these kind of sets going forward, but I believe there will be fewer of them as we all learn what will and won’t work.”
But even as Super Deluxe edition fatigue seems to be setting in for both record collectors and retailers, they’re quick to point out albums they’d like to see re-released as exorbitant box sets.
While Tutty works in the grunge capital of America, he’s hoping for a Guns N’ Roses reissue. “Isn’t it about time for the 25th anniversary of ‘Appetite for Destruction?’” he asked.
At first, Stanley sounded hesitant to buy another super deluxe set — “There’s really not a lot of albums that I think could carry a $100+ price tag,” he said. However, he rattled off a list of albums that he would willingly shell out the big bucks for if they were re-issued, including Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Rush’s “Moving Pictures,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Genesis’ “Selling England By The Pound.”
Even Lenarcic, who felt burned by his “Achtung Baby” purchase, would be willing to dip into the Super Deluxe pool again — if the album was right.
“Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’ … there’s a ton of unreleased material from those sessions [and] R.E.M.’s ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Automatic For The People.’ I’m sure they could easily compile a four-disc version of either album,” he said.
Ironically, the one person who doesn’t want to see any of his favorite albums re-released as super-deluxe editions is the very person who works on putting together so many of the box sets.
“Many of my favorite albums are quite perfect as they are, and no addition of ‘extras’ or ‘crapobilia’ will improve my overall experience of memories,” Reeve said. “Often, outtakes are outtakes for a bloody good reason.”