Next week is going to be much more comfortable when it comes to posting on The Second Disc. After several months of bitterly typing and researching over a creaky, aging Dell PC (having lost a nearly-just-as-creaky Thinkpad T60 laptop), the weekend should see your humble correspondent upgrading to a Macbook. As a lifelong Windows user (barring my time writing and editing for my newspaper in college), it's an unusual but worthwhile transition, and I can't wait to regain simple pleasures like posting outside, from the deck in the backyard, cold drinks and music by my side.
What does this have to do with anything catalogue-oriented? By my count, I will be paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 for my computational upgrade. That is roughly half of what I would have to spend to buy Legacy's newly-announced The Genius of Miles Davis box set. The latter is a 43-disc box set housed in a trumpet case, with a lithograph, t-shirt and replica trumpet mouthpiece, all housed in a replica trumpet case. The box will not be able to play music. It could not check your e-mail, or organize your personal discography, and certainly won't be able to post on The Second Disc. So why would one be paying more for the computer, which can do all these things?
It's been discussed before that lavish box sets may be a way to attract hardcore CD buyers, even in the face of the ongoing economic and music industry slump. Some of last year's box sets were in fact the impetus behind creating The Second Disc in the first place. Last September's Beatles box sets and the super-deluxe edition of Pearl Jam's iconic Ten were just two such examples of this growing trend.
An increasing amount of labels and genres have been rolling out such box sets, which were once limited only to jazz or sophisticated pop acts (i.e.: Frank Sinatra's 20-disc The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings, Clifford Brown's The Complete EmArcy Master Takes). Recently, the trend has spilled over into the rock world; Rhino did a "brick" comprising all of The Talking Heads' DualDisc remasters in 2005, while EMI quickly issued a box set of all of Radiohead's catalogue for the label, to compete with the then-forthcoming "discbox" version of In Rainbows (the first LP the band released after leaving EMI).
The trend may have hit its zenith last year, with the aforementioned sets for Pearl Jam (two CDs, a DVD, four vinyl LPs, a cassette and a collector's booklet in one package) and The Beatles (two boxes of remasters - one compiling all the band's albums and singles in stereo, one compiling everything they released in mono and a few other rarities), not to mention sets for Michael Jackson (Hello World: The Motown Solo Collection, which assembled four solo LPs, two compilations and some mixes from the vault) and Miles Davis (the 71-disc The Complete Columbia Album Collection).
"So what?" some may ask. "What's the harm in asking $2,000 for another Miles box set?" And the answer is: it's too damn much.
It's a common occurence for the music collector. We're frequently - and willingly - paying for new sets that are often comprised of music we already have. A record you paid under $10 for as a younger listener becomes, 20 years down the road, a $30 affair, with new packaging, unreleased or rare tracks, and of course that new remastering (which is easy to get bitter about - cultural critic Chuck Klosterman satirically explained remastering to the laymen in his book Killing Yourself to Live thusly: "somebody just went back into the studio and made them louder"). I'm sure people were bummed having to pay, on a good day, $450 and up for both Beatles boxes together. But they did, and to many it was well worth it. Same goes for the deluxe Ten box (which helped the reissue - also available in simple double or triple-disc formats - sell 60,000 copies its first week of reissue), which went for something like $150 at the time of its release.
But now it seems some of the labels are too eager to push collectors to the limit. The Genius of Miles Davis is more than five times more expensive than The Complete Columbia Album Collection, which had nearly twice as many discs. That box set also lacked any extra tchotchkes, which can sometimes be fun (I'm a sucker for paper goods like books or posters) but do admittedly come across as unnecessary - especially since, in the case of The Genius of Miles Davis, they're jacking the price up at least a grand more than it's worth.
And what does this hold for the future? Legacy's prepping that big Elvis box set for the fall, which is already insanely limited to a thousand copies (5,000 copies less than, say, Film Score Monthly's eight-disc Superman: The Music 1978-1988 box set from 2008, which sells for $120 and comes with a lot of great, well-mastered, mostly unreleased music and a stellar hardbound book of liner notes). What are fans going to have to expect to pay for that set? The ramifications are nothing short of horrible.
In the end, this isn't about the music industry's problems, or the economy. It's a sad sign that even as fans and labels keep moving forward in getting interesting catalogue titles out there, there are still absurdly low-hanging fruits to bonk everyone in the head with.