Romancing the box: Bring back the box set!

The pictures…rare and revealing…The booklet…so thick and full of fresh information and insightful reflections…The music so crisp in sound and nicely packaged. Excuse me for rhapsodizing so intimately, but I recently received the Nat “King” Cole box set (100 songs, 55 page booklet; originally released by Capitol Records in 1992) in the mail and can’t help but wish record labels were more inclined to release them.


                                                                    Copyright  © 1992 Capitol Records.

                                                                    Copyright ©1992 Capitol Records.

While I have downloaded multiple box sets in the digital era the listening experience feels incomplete without the packaging and content that usually accompany these sets. Record companies have recently cashed in on already popular albums (i.e. Usher’s Burn, Beyoncé’s Beyoncé) by reissuing them as “deluxe” sets which usually entails bonus tracks, remixes, and/or DVDs. This is usually a dubious money-making scheme that prematurely coronate new albums as “classics” without the benefit of historical posterity. I have certainly purchase digitally re-mastered physical versions of older albums (i.e. Thriller) especially when I switched from cassette tapes to CDs, and I appreciate crisper sound, more elaborate pictures, and expanded notes.  But, this would be more meaningful if the new content was more than just padding. Also, it’s maddening that LPs and cassette tapes that were converted to CD in the late 1980s and 1990s need to be re-mastered and repurchased to be fully appreciated sonically. Essentially the music industry is an annoying shell game for discriminating buyers.

 I distinguish deluxe editions of new albums and re-mastered “classics” from true box sets. Beyond the obvious capitalist drives of record labels, box sets can serve as legitimate forms of musical history beyond the normal confines of a greatest hits or “best of” type collections. They’re really for completists or at the very least, listeners passionate about particular artists. The educational function is even more lucid when a set follows a carefully chosen theme requiring recordings and images from multiple record labels and eras, which is quite an expense from a licensing perspective.  For several years, box sets were literally huge rectangular cardboard boxes featuring three to four discs of music accompanied by a thick booklet with commentary, discographical information, and photos. Some sets also feature oddities like postcards, drawings by the artists and other memorabilia.

 The late fall/early winter holiday season has tended to draw the highest traffic for box sets because these are times when shoppers anticipate spending more money on consumer items. Hence music outlets like Collector’s Choice Music, which sends mail order catalogs, and online retailers (i.e. Amazon) tend to have box set sales during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.  While box sets were never intended to compete with regular albums or greatest hits collections sales wise, and are usually published in limited quantities, they are relatively good values considering the content. Several, such as Bruce Springsteen ‘s Live/1975-1985 (1985), Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin (1990), Bob Dylan’s multi-year,  multi-volume The Bootleg Series (beginning 1991), Barbra Streisand’s Just for the Record (1992), and Nirvana’s With the Lights Out (2004) have actually charted well for such expensive, elaborate packages.

 The downturn in physical record sales, which coincided with the greater ease of access afforded by digital access to music, has made record stores increasingly obsolete for many music fans. The immediacy of digital downloading, the clarity of sound, and the infinite access afforded by cloud technology has makes digital downloading nearly irresistible.  The chance to download individual songs of interest as opposed to whole albums is integral to the digital age—music is now cheaper and more customizable. Yet, even when a digital album is offered with liner notes in pdf form I feel less connected to the set’s overall content. The tactile nature of packaging matters because it requires something more than a scan or a scroll.

 Personal Disclosure: When I receive box sets I usually flip through the booklet, review the photos and read the content before I listen to a note. I’m not sure when I started doing this exactly, nor can I totally explain the reasoning behind this ritual but it’s what I do. My guess is that I want to know the story the music seeks to tell before delving into it. It’s almost like previewing a film through its trailer; I want to hint of what’s to come before taking it in. Music can be an enveloping force in a sonic and emotional sense. Reliving the official moments of an artist’s career-the hits, the well-known album tracks a.k.a. “cuts”—and gaining access to rarities, including unreleased, remixed, and alternate versions is one of the more intimate ways to understand an artist. 

 Today music listeners can easily assume that everything worth hearing is readily available but this is untrue. For example, in the mid-1980s it was a revelation when producer Kiyoshi Koyama compiled and reissued all of the material legendary singers like Helen Merrill, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington recorded at Mercury Records. Similarly, the German record label Bear Records and Mosaic Records (co-owned by Capitol Records and part of the Blue Note label) are pure reissue labels continue excavating long forgotten and unheard material by a range of musicians.  Additionally labels like Rhino Records (owned by Warner Music Group), Time-Life Music, Smithsonian Folkways, Legacy Recordings (owned by Sony Music) have exposed listeners to the development and evolution of genres and eras through smart, creative thematic boxed sets.


Copyright  ©  1984 Smithsonian Institution/CBS Records, Inc.

Copyright © 1984 Smithsonian Institution/CBS Records, Inc.

One of the pivotal introductions to the roots of the “Great American Songbook” canon for me occurred when the Smithsonian Institution and CBS Records released 1984’s American Popular Song a five CD set featuring songs  composed from 1910-55 performed by a range of singers spanning from 1918-80. The set’s curators are well respected musicologists who delve intricately into the musical and lyrical innovations that distinguish these songs from other popular forms. In doing so the songbook feels less like a didactic imposition than an influential and original contribution relevant to modern living. The breadth of performers is outstanding; there are obscure singers like Mildred Bailey, Connie Boswell, Marion Harris and Sophie Tucker; popular figures like Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis, and Frank Sinatra; and unexpected selections from Leslie Uggams and Marilyn Maye. I experienced similar epiphanies exploring the world of the 1950s New York cabaret scene courtesy of 1987's The Erteguns' New York: New York Cabaret Music, issued by Atlantic Records. Both the recordings themselves and their scholarly books have served as sources of entertainment and valuable information for a variety of writing projects. Jazz and pre-rock pop constitute 1-2% of record sales today. I doubt a major record label would release an abundance of sets with their historical scope today because of fears they wouldn’t find an audience.

Copyright  ©  1987 Atlantic Records.

Copyright © 1987 Atlantic Records.


        Copyright  ©  2015 Smithsonian Folkways Collection. 

        Copyright © 2015 Smithsonian Folkways Collection. 

Perhaps these fears are something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While most listeners are presumably casual listeners the music industry cultivates these habits. The industry itself shifted from focusing on singles to LPs, and over time the liner notes of albums began featuring song lyrics along with pictures. The notion of an album as an experience that engaged multiple senses emerged, which suggested that the music being listened to might actually be…important. I’m reminded of this reading a New York Times Arts & Leisure story (“A Folk-Music Giant’s Long Shadow”) on a new 2015 Lead Belly box set issued by the Smithsonian. In true Smithsonian style the set is a five CD retrospective with an oversize 140-page book. Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place shared his concern with Alan Light, “I worry about someone now who cares about the context and history of music,” and continued noting, “downloading means missing all of that story, so we wanted to create a book that has CDs with it, rather than the other way around—a museum exhibit in a coffee-table set.”

 The idea of music as a meaningful aspect of our identity and experience endures. But the mechanisms for supporting this engagement seem increasingly fragile as independent brick-and-mortar stores, and the sense of community they foster has disappeared, single downloads have  overrun album sales, and boxed sets have grown increasingly rarer. In between the more familiar “hits” songs featured on the Cole boxed set there are a surprising number of duets, instrumentals, and live cuts that are more of a revelation about Cole’s range than a mere revival. It’s a story worth knowing.