Music box sets with bells and whistles

Ultra-deluxe box sets for Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and others are priced at up to $1,200.

Scanning the upper stratosphere of this year’s end-of-the-year holiday-centric music releases, it’s tempting to think some record company execs decided it’s time to head into full kamikaze-dive mode.

Despite so much news revolving around the record industry’s struggles to sell 99-cent singles and $9.99 album downloads, several labels have recently cooked up ultra-deluxe box sets for Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and others priced at $200 up to $1,200.

“We don’t carry them,” said Tom Gracyk, manager of Freakbeat Records in Sherman Oaks. “We want to stay in business.”


He’s referring to elaborate projects including “The Genius of Miles Davis,” a 43-CD set packed into a replica of the celebrated jazz trumpeter’s instrument case (original list price: $1,199; now selling for $749), the 30-CD “The Complete Elvis Presley Masters” set ($749) gathering all 711 tracks released during the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s lifetime plus more than 100 alternate, unreleased and live recordings; and Time Life Records’ 16-CD “The Hank Williams Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” set ($199).

Retailers like Gracyk aren’t the only ones who recognize that this wave of music releases dripping with bells and whistles isn’t for the average music fan.

“Make no mistake, these are specialized items,” said Adam Block, Sony Legacy senior vice president and general manager. “They are not intended for the masses, nor are we targeting the masses. The decision to proceed or not in the development of projects like these stems from a number of contributing factors: First and foremost is the content that exists and the richness of the experience we feel we can create. We have confidence in our ability to reach first the hard-core fan, then beyond that the collector community.”

Many music executives and retailers noted that there has long existed a small but well-heeled population of collectors who feel compelled to own everything officially issued on particular artists.

“Even though the economy is down,” said Mike Batt, owner of Silver Platters record store in Seattle, “there are still enough music fanatics that are fortunate to have so much money they don’t care what an item will cost to make a market for these items.

Record companies often have that niche market in mind when exploring specialized projects. The “Elvis Complete” box had a first pressing of just 1,000 copies, which quickly sold out. A second run of 1,000 is under way. The Miles Davis set is limited to 1,955 copies — the number reflecting the year Davis signed to Columbia Records. But with the demise of so many physical retailers in recent years, labels have turned to virtual marketing, in some cases employing 3-D visuals, to give potential customers a closer look online at what they’re buying than they could get in the old days when Tower Records or Virgin Megastores might have stocked them.

To spread the word about the Hank Williams set, encompassing 72 15-minute radio shows the country music titan recorded in 1951, “We took out ads on national TV, in national print media, and we worked closely with NPR,” said Mike Jason, Time Life’s senior vice president of retail. “A lot of the marketing focuses on the online part, and the offline component drives people to the website. We have become a direct-response culture, and we spend huge amounts of time trying to figure out what else we can do to share this with a broader group of people.”

One way labels and musicians are doing that is by abandoning the one-release-fits-all mentality of the past. “Consumers in this day and age expect options,” Block said. “We’re finding more and more that there’s a 99-cent Elvis Presley fan, a $90 Elvis Presley fan and a $900 Elvis Presley fan. That’s what often drives the selection: How deep a physical experience is that fan looking for?”

An act doesn’t have to be an icon of rock, country or jazz known and loved around the world for decades like Presley, Williams and Davis to join them in the box-set stratosphere.

Richmond, Va.-based heavy metal band Lamb of God created a variety of releases this year to mark its 15th anniversary.

“Every time we’ve put out a record we’ve tried to do something unique,” manager Larry Mazer said. “For the 15th anniversary we decided to put out something that goes from the casual fan to the hard-core fan to the ridiculous collector-type fan.”

That runs from individual CDs that cost $9.99 to a deluxe box set with a coffee table art book and other extras for $250. A $1,000 super deluxe set, which came out in June and recently has been discounted to $699, includes three CDs, a vinyl LP box set, a set of albums on six USB drives, the coffee table book, an autographed band photo and a real electric guitar from the same company that endorses lead guitarist Mark Morton, all housed in a white, coffin-shaped case. Mazer said the band has sold about 100 of the limited edition of 300.

Decisions about how far to go and how much to charge often instigate debate, sometimes heated, between record label factions.

“It’s a record company tradition: the conflict between the creative people in A&R and those in sales,” said Gregg Geller, now an independent producer and consultant who created numerous box-set projects for various labels for three decades, including a 1982 Jackie Wilson retrospective that’s cited as a flashpoint for the entire box-set genre.

“Creative people always believe whatever they’re doing is going to have fantastic success,” Geller said. “The sales people who have to actually go out and sell it have to go out and be more realistic, and that realism can sometimes be a hindrance. Striking the right balance is very hard.”

Geller cited a $500 20-CD Frank Sinatra box set he assembled when he worked for Warner Brothers in the mid-1990s. Sales reps fretted over whether they could ever sell out the initial run of 15,000 copies. “It sold out instantly,” he said. “As far as I know, it’s still in the catalog.”

Ernst Jorgensen, producer of the 30-CD Elvis box, noted that when he put together a 1992 five-CD box set of Presley’s ‘50s recordings, label executives were skeptical that it would sell more than 20,000 copies. It has sold more than 250,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and Jorgensen said the worldwide total is now around 1 million.

Last year EMI/Capitol Records took a step toward box-set future with a $299 USB memory stick containing high-resolution digital files of the complete Beatles catalog. It came in a green apple-shaped base but largely offered no tangible extras like the conventional box sets that target fans who prize the physical accoutrements that have traditionally accompanied the listening experience. The bonus features were all in the digital content.

And in belatedly bringing the Fab Four’s music to iTunes last month, EMI and the Beatles’ company Apple Corps offered the full catalog for $149 in a downloadable edition with digital extras.

“The digital box set was one of the best-performing titles,” said Bill Gagnon, senior vice president and general manager of catalog releases for EMI/Capitol. “The success of it seems somewhat counterintuitive, but it’s a different type of box-set experience that’s even more interactive in many ways than the traditional physical package. In some ways it’s a better experience and it’s something we’re interested in developing as technology gets better and consumers become more interested in expanded digital content.

“What you’re doing is you’re selling an experience,” Gagnon said. “You have to provide the value to the consumer, and we think that’s what we’re doing.”