Repackaged treasures

The ongoing survival of the box set
By MATT ASHARE  |  December 11, 2007

RARE TRACKS: The Magnolia Electric Company box is one “collectible” worth owning.

Radiohead may have given us all a good scare when they announced they’d be leaking In Rainbows on-line and making it available to fans as a download for whatever fans wanted to pay. Was this the end of the album as we’d all come to know it? Had the days of roaming record-store aisles on a romantic quest for, well, something special come to an end? Were the children of Korn — with all their fancy iPods, $500 cellphones, and other strange gadgets — finally taking over?

Not quite. Radiohead’s In Rainbow ploy was actually as old as any P.T. Barnum scam, a reactionary move disguised as a door to the future that in fact consolidated the position of the hard copy — not just the CD but also the high-quality vinyl of the In Rainbows “discbox” that is now beginning to reach the fans who purchased it for delivery “on or about December 3” back when In Rainbows was first posted. The download offered half of a double album — a teaser, or, in industry parlance, a loss leader designed to sell the full album, a fancy, high-priced (about $80) item otherwise known as a box set. Radiohead aren’t the first to do this, but they’ve been the canniest in that their business plan grabbed the attention of fans and scribes around the world for several weeks in one of the cheaper and more effective publicity campaigns in recent memory.

Repackaging music in box-set format and in newer, more-deluxe versions is a marketing ploy that’s been around at least since the dawn of the CD age, though the first box sets go back to vinyl and even shellac 78s, and the greatest-hits disc is as old as rock and roll itself. If I were more cynical, I’d suggest that the original decision to use those crappy plastic jewel cases as the industry standard for CD packaging was always intended to ensure that there’d be a market for reselling the same music in more deluxe fashion (i.e., the Digipak), and that Radiohead have simply taken the idea one step farther.

We didn’t get our copy of the In Rainbows set in time to review it for this issue (check back next week), but there are enough other holiday-timed box sets and deluxe reissues out there to suggest that the CD is alive and well, at least at the higher end of the retail market. In fact, such items have become a year-round presence, since new albums are at once distributed in limited-edition versions that include special artwork, DVDs, and other bonuses that pump up the price. As long as there are fans who want to identify with their favorite artists by owning some special piece of merchandise, the promotions departments at record labels will find ways to satisfy the demand. Just look at the merch booth at any major concert tour and observe the numbered-edition T-shirts for $80 and all the other trinkets that are now part of any respectable musical caravan. It’s enough to keep the music industry chugging on for years to come.

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