Reaction to the recently-released tracklist for John Mellencamp's On the Rural Route 7609 box set has been a bit mixed, and for good reason. It's hard to greet a four-disc box set full of album tracks and just over a dozen unreleased outtakes with a price tag of nearly $100. But it's becoming clear that there's a bigger issue here at stake than Mellencamp fans getting soaked.
Friends, the entire concept of a box set is in a state of crisis. It's been a long two decades since compact disc box sets became a burgeoning haven for hardcore catalogue fans. They presented music as art , even as the entire listening experience was becoming increasingly artless. But it may finally be time to rethink the whole strategy of collating tracks onto multiple discs with a fancy package to boot.
By the late 1980s a healthy chunk of music fans were buying and re-buying music on CD. But there was something kind of boring about it. The packaging - whether they were jewel cases or longboxes (the horror!) - lacked the size or ornamentation a picture sleeve or gatefold jacket could provide. Where liner notes, lyrics or portraits of the artists often loomed, there were stoic reminders of how to clean your CD, or a number to call if you experienced a defective disc (an entirely separate number was reserved for New Jerseyans for some reason). The eye-catching label design was often replaced with a simple regurgitation of track info on a disc that spun too fast in a CD player for anyone to bother looking at.
And then the box sets came. Often packaged lavishly, with those annotations and notes music fans were craving, featuring tracks that had never been released or old favorites that were new to CD, they came in droves and were bought in droves. Sets like James Brown's Star Time, Led Zeppelin's 1990 box set, Elton John's To Be Continued, Rod Stewart's Storyteller: The Complete Anthology 1964-1990 and The Police's Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings are still high watermarks for catalogue fans.
Of course, the more music gets released and re-released on CD, the harder it is for such box sets to sell. That's when labels have to get crafty; packaging sets around a theme or even a label can be a good way to go in some cases, such as the Nuggets boxes devoted to the history of psychedelic music, time-specific sets like Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box or Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally) or Motown's two Hitsville U.S.A. boxes.
Nowadays, box sets are even harder sells. They make sense if the material covered is hard to find on CD (Michael Jackson's Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection, The Cure's Join the Dots: B-Sides & Rarities 1978-2001), a well-organized, well-packaged tribute to an act or both (Duran Duran and The Clash's singles box sets). They can work if they cover ground nearly as thoroughly as out-of-print sets (think Motown: The Complete No. 1's).
But that field is hard to play, especially as the market gets more and more saturated. Epic's four-disc Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Collection has about one disc of worthwhile material if you've already bought most of his albums on CD. Same goes for the new Mellencamp set - and don't even get me started on the upcoming Steve Winwood box.
Granted, not everything can stay in print forever. For some who don't have Winwood's The Finer Things set and don't want to scour Amazon for a copy, getting a newer set makes sense. But that mentality only goes so far. And there's not much of a point making a career-spanning box without a heap of unreleased material these days; with enough money and patience, one can structure a similar playlist on iTunes. What makes such sets worth it then? The liner notes? We love reading them, but we can't make casual fans do the same.
The bottom line is if labels are going to go so desperately for the middle, they're going to lose the loyalty of the most devoted catalogue enthusiasts. Perhaps On the Rural Route should have been only rarities, or fewer discs. Whatever the future outcome is, it has to be something special, or everyone risks losing the allure the box set possessed in the first place.
What are your thoughts on the state of box sets? Sound off below.