The rise of the deluxe box set

Deluxe box sets are the ultimate badge of musical devotion. But are they worth it?

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - MARCH 25: Robert Trujillo, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield members of the band Metallica performs live on stage at Autodromo de Interlagos on March 25, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mauricio Santana/Getty Images)
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How much are you willing to spend on the music you love? The answer for so many of us right now (to quote Edwin Starr) is absolutely nothing. One exception to this rule is not a singer, band, composer or even a genre, but a format: the box set. These come in a dizzying variety of forms – the deluxe or even super deluxe – and a ­concomitant variety of price tags which range from roughly US$20 to a staggering $400 (Dh73 to Dh1,469).

The box set formula

Whatever the precise content, the formula remains more or less the same. Take one album and release it with multimedia extras: demos, live versions, alternate mixes, DVDs of interviews, concerts and documentaries. The more you spend, the more you get: 180-gram vinyl pressings, books, lyrics, and all manner of non-sonic goodies.

Last month, for example, you could spend a couple of 100 dollars on Metallica's …And Justice for All, re-released to mark its 30th anniversary. Its most deluxe version arrived in a sizeable box packed with live concerts on vinyl and CD, hours of "Riff Tapes" (essentially the songs in utero), a handsome book with photographs and reminiscences, posters and even Metallica patches.

Paul McCartney re-release

This month, Paul McCartney re-­released 1973's Red Rose Speedway, the second album he made with Wings. Priced at just under $200, the limited deluxe version includes "no less than 35 bonus audio tracks, the James Paul McCartney TV Special, 14 replica hand-drawn original character sketches by Paul and a 128-page book containing many previously unpublished images by Linda McCartney."

The former Beatle is fast-becoming the King of the deluxe box set: Red Rose Speedway, which he "personally supervised," follows hard on the heels of Wild Life and Paul McCartney And Wings: 1971–73 Limited Edition Box Set, which would set you back more than $374 (Dh1,402) before it sold out. As with almost everything else he does, it is his work with The Beatles that puts everything in the shade. The super-­deluxe White Album released earlier this year landed with the eye-watering price tag of $415, justified by a mind-boggling variety of mixes, books and (Ringo Starr drum roll) a stonewashed Levi's blue denim jacket whose "imagery [was] inspired by The Beatles 1968 White Album intricately embroidered across the back." In case you were wondering, it has "Levi's-branded shank buttons. Chest pockets with flaps. Welt hand pockets. Side hem adjusters." Fab.

Bigger names, bigger prices

Not surprisingly, price reflects an artistic hierarchy. Performers at the top of the pyramid include Led Zeppelin ($250 for The Song Remains the Same), David Bowie ($250 for the 13disc A New Career in a New Town), and The Rolling Stones ($435 for all the studio albums from 1971-2016). A notch further down come Queen ($140 for News of the World), Nirvana ($125 for Nevermind) and U2's The Joshua Tree ($142). Below that comes REM's Automatic for the People ($80), Manic Street Preachers' ($62 for Everything Must Go 20th Anniversary), and so on.

The sheer proliferation of these box sets proposes their success, as does the speed at which they sell on the ­artists' websites: you can't buy that White Album denim jacket any longer, not directly through The Beatles. As is now de rigueur, demand has created a subsidiary market with sold-out limited-editions available at obscene prices: Infinite by The Doors is available for $1,399.99 on Amazon; The Complete Smiths: Collector's Edition, vinyl box set is on at $1,249.95 with the same retailer. Box sets by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Rammstein, Eric Clapton and Rush are all valued at more than $350.


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Old is gold

As this brief summary illustrates, the deluxe box set is dominated by classic or at least old albums. Major new releases do come in enhanced formats: the box set of The Now Now by Gorillaz can cost almost $300. But to go truly super-deluxe requires decades in which to gather sufficient ephemera to flesh out the central work.

In this context, the deluxe box set simply authorises and monetises something that music fans have been doing for years: collecting, packaging and trading bootlegs. The traditionally not-for-profit nature of these exchanges have not, in recent years, prevented fan-sensitive musicians such as Pearl Jam and Metallica from selling high-quality downloads of gigs at affordable prices.

The brand-leader in this regard is Bob Dylan, probably the most bootlegged artist in history, thanks to his restless experiments with arrangements and lyrics both in the studio and in concert. The release of The Bootleg Series: Volume 1-3 in 1991 not only acknowledged this subculture and improved upon it in terms of quality, it began Dylan's concerted attempt to capitalise upon it. More Blood on the Tracks, released in November this year, was the 14th instalment of the 'Bootleg' series.

Mainstream record companies have been toying with something similar for years, driven mainly by technological advances. As vinyl begat the cassette which begat the CD and MP3 (and, by extension, the Walkman, MP3 player and smartphone), executives realised they could make fortunes by reselling albums most of us owned already, in dustier and less portable forms. Sometimes the overlords made it worth our while, adding bonus tracks here or there. But just as often, they discounted the price, and flogged us a second copy of Tom Waits' Rain Dogs.

'Radiohead played a pivotal role'

This continual repackaging created aesthetic and economic problems. Having grown fat by feasting on the past, record companies in the 1990s became increasingly complacent about finding artists in the present. Those that did make the grade quickly, grew dissatisfied with arrangements, Radiohead being a case in point. The band played a pivotal role in the evolution of the deluxe box set when they released In Rainbows in 2007. While the most famous experiment was the "pay-what-you-like" download via their website, they also offered a limited-edition "discbox". Costing $50, it contained the album on CD and ­double vinyl, added a second CD of extra songs and a pleasant book of Stanley Donwood's artwork. Radiohead have repeated this trick ever since, adding evermore inventive extras. Their last album, A Moon Shaped Pool, came wrapped in master tape from one of the band's recording sessions. Their 20th anniversary re-release of OK Computer titled OKNOTOK featured Thom Yorke's notebooks and an ingenious mixtape (actually on cassette) of demos, doodles and unreleased songs.

It is another of Radiohead's innovations that has made the deluxe box set an appetising prospect for artists and fans. The band released these records themselves, maintaining artistic control while absorbing both the costs, and the profits. Radiohead were the first to exploit this DIY ethic. Punk and metal bands, not to mention artists from avant garde and electronic circles, have been producing limited-edition and even handmade records for decades. By the time mega-bands like Metallica followed suit (with their record label Blackened Recordings), they were wealthy enough to buy their very own vinyl pressing plants.

Is it worth it?

Whether the exhaustive and exhausting results are worth the resulting vinyl they are pressed upon depends very much on your feelings about Paul McCartney's solo career, Metallica's most political and tinniest release or Radiohead's 21st century output. The dark side of the super-deluxe Moon is glimpsed in the secondary collectors' market on websites such as eBay and Discogs, which are full of "mint" copies – which here means "unplayed". In other words, a lot of money is changing hands for music that will never see the needle of a turntable. And isn't the music the reason we buy super-deluxe box sets in the first place? Then again, we live in ironic times.