The Price of Box Sets: How Much is Too Much?

The revelation of The Rolling Stones’ CD singles box set is pretty cool, and living proof that the catalogue music business is still thriving. It’s a year that’s given or will give us a box set of Danny Elfman’s music for Tim Burton, all of Aretha Franklin’s Columbia-era material and an enormous run-through of The Grateful Dead’s European tour of 1972.

But how much is all of this worth?

The Stones set, when one converts from pounds to U.S. dollars, is nearly $300. How worth it is that for some nice packaging and a few dozen largely-unavailable tracks (among a host of album cuts we’ve all bought more than once)? Will Deadheads ever get the opportunity to shell out less for a set that has the best of the Europe ’72 tour, rather than 60+ discs for a few hundred clams? What if an Elfman fan just wants the soundtrack to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure instead of another round of Batman to go with it?

Of course, the mega box set caters to a very small group, but I worry sometimes that the trend could hurt music buyers even more. Think of all the artists you might have got into or the CD collections that started with early box sets by James Brown, Phil Spector and the like – simple, four-disc overviews that cost maybe $50 to $100. Such sets are more viable options, economic crunch or no economic crunch, and they’re low-risk and high-reward. That’s not to say mega-boxes shouldn’t exist, but it’s tough thinking of all the possible riches some people won’t be afforded – Stones dance remixes, Aretha’s great live LP, the theme to the Beetlejuice cartoon show on CD – just because they can’t spend scores of money.

What’s your take, readers? Sound off in the comments and vote in our poll below.


  1. Don says

    Most of the time the list price is too high, but if you can find a good first-week discount it’s not too bad.

    For example, Best Buy sells U2’s “Unforgettable Fire” super-deluxe box set for 59.99 (list price 69.99). Either way, that’s far too much. However, during the first week of release, they had it on sale for 29.99, which is a great deal.

    I know this doesn’t always apply, as some of these super-huge sets like the Rolling Stones box won’t ever make it to retail anyway.

  2. Tom says

    I think you have to assess how much you will listen to the box set in the future and if it is a must-must in your collection.

    I knew that I had to have the CHIC box set. I paid about $50-$60 for it from Amazon France and it was worth it. That’s a relative bargain.

    I want the latest Bruce Springsteen box set, but I just cannot justify paying over $100 for it, although I’m sure it’s great.

    The most I have spent on a box set was the Atlantic box set from 2009. It was $200 and it was worth every penny. The song selection, accompanying DVD and other goodies were hard to resist.

    I’ve had to rely on the used market for expensive sets. I don’t like this route but sometimes you cannot resist. The Frank Sinatra in Hollywood set is over $100 for a new set but I got it used for $40.

  3. RoyalScam says

    I spent $800 on the Complete Elvis Presley Masters. The fact that the last 3 discs were NOT mastered by Vic Anesini pissed me off. But it’s a great set.

    Only other group I’d even CONSIDER spending that much on is Steely Dan, and at that price it would have to have a ton of unreleased stuff…which will never happen.

    And a relative bargain on the French CHIC set is the $30 I spent on it from

    If it resonates with me, and I have the cash, I will buy it. But the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” nature of the latest round of mega-sets is way off the mark for the masses, who they’re obviously not being marketed to.

    I miss the days of well compiled, well annotated, well packaged and well mastered 4 disc sets for around $50.

  4. says

    The way to go is for artists and record companies to start issuing Official Bootleg Series and make individual shows come out in increments so that people can collect everything at an affordable pace.
    I wanted to invest in the Grateful Dead-Europe ’72 box, but it was too much in one chunk for me to buy at this point. The price of that box amounted to roughly a little over half to nearly 3/4 of the monumental spending I did for the 4th Quarter buying season this past year.

    I don’t want this trend to end up forcing all of us into the download route eventually. I almost feel as if the record companies are gauging how much they can get away with before they “acquiesce” to buyer complaints by switching over to the download route. The buyers of older artist shows and studio outtakes are the people who have supported physical product for years. I want to take part in this, but you’ve got to play by our rules.

  5. Joe Marchese says

    Mike, you never ask the EASY questions, do you? :-)

    Once upon a time, the business of box sets was relatively easy to figure out. For a major artist release, if the price was kept down, more customers theoretically would buy it. More purchases = more money for the label and artist. Lately, however, music has become more and more of a niche product. (I blame the media “analysts” for much of this…but that’s a subject for another post.) As a result, labels have seen the need to squeeze every penny out of the customer to make a release viable, especially the major labels with higher profit goals than many indies. Research has shown the majors an approximate accounting of just how many diehard Stones fans, for instance, there are out there. These diehards will buy a Stones singles box whether it costs $30 or $300. So why not charge the $300? Everything comes down to numbers…it’s a business, after all. Sure, they lose a number of sales (including perhaps my own, and I consider myself a completist about most of my favored musicians’ catalogues) by charging the exorbitant price. But it works for their profit margin. Just look at The Who’s “Live at Leeds” box (already selling at high prices in the secondhand market) and most of the other super-deluxe boxes we’ve seen. They’ve clearly been a success; hence, the proliferation of them. The labels simply don’t believe that they’d arrive at the same profit margin by charging less, because the number of buying customers wouldn’t be SIGNIFICANTLY (that’s the key word) higher.

    That said, most of these boxes can be acquired at significantly under retail by bargain-hunting, and I don’t just mean waiting for Amazon to charge a low price. Brick-and-mortar was very kind to me last year in purchasing any number of box sets at well below retail. (Thank you, Borders, I’m rooting for you!)

    As far as I’m personally concerned, the Aretha Franklin box is reasonably-priced, the Stones box much less so, and the Elfman/Burton box (and Elvis box set) completely priced out of the realm of possibility for most. But I still wager it will be a success for Warner, so it’s a win/win situation as far as WMG’s bean-counters are concerned. If I ruled the world, as the old song goes, I’d offer a lower-priced alternative to these major-ticket items. Many of the super-deluxe album boxes (which retail around $100-150, still well below Elvis/Burton/Stones, etc.) have offered such an option, but we still haven’t seen a $200 edition of the Elvis box with all of the discs and annotation minus the lavish packaging, or a $100 edition of the Stones box with the singles packed onto a small number of 70+-minute CDs. For those, I’d gladly shell out. I applauded Hip-o’s decision to market its Ella Fitzgerald box as standard CDs, piecemeal, but many objected, feeling the “limited edition” value of their box had decreased. You can’t please ’em all.

    I agree with Mike’s point that the labels may be shooting themselves in the foot by pricing themselves out of the market for first-time buyers. But playing devil’s advocate, I also have to argue that first-time buyers (again, according to their research, not necessarily according to what I believe) aren’t interested in complete anything (whether Stones singles, pre-fame Aretha or Elvis masters) or a super-deluxe edition of “Kind of Blue” or “Layla” when a single-disc version would do. These packages are aimed squarely at a small number of collectors, many of them older with great amounts of disposable income. As long as these super-duper-deluxe boxes can coexist with smaller collections, like last year’s Hendrix and Bee Gees boxes, for instances, I can’t object TOO much to their being here to stay.

    Just my two cents’ worth, friends.

  6. Bill B says

    I think the Springsteen Darkness box and the upcoming Derek And The Dominoes box should be the model the record companies use. A complete box set with a thorough package of everything they can find related to a specific release for the serious fan and then various lesser iterations that cater to everyone else.

    • RoyalScam says

      But, the Springsteen set should’ve had a “Legacy Edition” in between the “The Promise” double CD and the extravagant box…and that should have been: the remaster, “The Promise”, and the documentary. And it should’ve been priced at $39.99 like the “Born To Run” box.

      If you’re gonna go crazy completist for over $100, there should be a bone for the frugal fans as well, IMO.

  7. Uncle B says

    I personally enjoyed picking up the Jane’s Addiction “Cabinet Of Curiosities” 2009 box set from ebay, including voodoo dolls, and the sticker from the front of the original box in mint condition for $47.

  8. Uncle B says

    I also am a big fan of the two Super Deluxe boxes, that I picked up, with pride and a very aggressively discounted price, at my last-one-standing independent retailer…”Exile…” and “Bitches Brew”. Both well under $100, and money well spent.

  9. Amy Green says

    I LIKE buying box sets, and feel there aren’t enough of them-good ones, anyway. Ones I like are: Tina Turner, Prince, Michael Jackson, The Jackson Five, and Stevie Nicks. I’m looking forward to Janet Jackson’s upcoming box set, later this year. P.S. Fleetwood Mac’s was pretty good, too.

  10. Shaun says

    I wanted the Bruce/Darkness box, but not at the prices it’s selling for now… Wait another year or two, and I imagine it’ll get slashed down to a far more reasonable $50-$60. Maybe less? Right now, you can get the Born To Run 30th box from Amazon for under $21. The Billy Joel/Stranger box is at Amazon for under $20, and Billy’s My Lives box is going for just over $30. Good deals all, so the Darkness box will eventually follow.

    The Grateful Dead’s complete Europe ’72 box is interesting, but no way in hell I’d pay that kind of money. I probably don’t need every single note played on that tour anyhow. What I would like is for the Dead to make all the shows from that tour — and they’re entire famed vault for that matter — digitized and made available for download.

    Download the shows you want, offer mp3, but also higher quality formats (like FLAC), and keep the prices reasonably low since there’s no packaging involved and the buyer provides his/her own physical media. Deadheads would flock to this. Given how many of the newer jam bands that followed in the Dead’s wake (Phish, String Cheese Incident, moe., etc) do this sort of thing, it’s both puzzling and frustrating that the Dead/Rhino haven’t.

  11. Hank says

    My opinion might be self-serving, but here it is:

    I collect Dylan, so let’s use him as my example. A couple of years ago, a deluxe 3-disc edition of “Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs” was issued with a $100+ retail price, which included a full-length third disc full of rare Dylan unavailable elsewhere.

    Having shelled out the $100+ for this set, do I really want to see Dylan’s people release this third disc by itself for $9.99? My self-serving answer is “&#$%@ no!”

    This Stones box contains a single studio-recorded song, a b-side called “I Think I’m Going Mad”, which is the sole title in the Stones studio catalog to have never seen official CD release. Do I want to pay $300 for a single song? No…but if I do buy this set, I sure wouldn’t want to see “ITIGM” popping up on a Stones comp for $5 at my local Wal-Mart.

    I know, I’m side-stepping the issue. But I do have a certain investment in some of these sets that, frankly, I’d just like to feel good about.

  12. Kevin says

    In any boxset that actually comes with an outer box, the outer cardboard box ends up being more value than the contents, inclding both the CD and the book. This is easily proved by the fact that used dealers who are trying to sell the set without the outer box can rarely get 50% of the price for the set with the box.

    This says something about us, doesn’t it?

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