The Rene Magritte-esque cover art of the new “Immersion Edition” of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here tells us, “Ceci n’est pas une boite.” It’s not fooling anyone. This hefty box, designed by longtime Floyd collaborator Storm Thorgerson, contains two CDs, three DVDs, two booklets, a photo book, replicas of a backstage pass and a tour ticket, nine coasters, four collectors’ cards, a scarf and a velvet pouch with three glass marbles. Clearly the death of physical product in the music industry has been exaggerated.
At a time when portability and digital convenience are said to be the most desirable qualities in music retail, labels appear convinced that the best way to get people to buy albums in physical form is to make their packages more physical. They’re having some success: EMI’s similar Immersion Edition of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, released Sep. 27, has been certified gold in Canada, and its 14-CD box of all the Pink Floyd studio albums has gone double platinum. Randy Lennox, the president and CEO of Universal Music Canada, cites last year’s deluxe 40th-anniversary edition of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., which went gold, as a watershed moment: “There was a phenomenal, almost tsunami-like response from the consumer.” As a result, his label is now issuing deluxe and super-deluxe editions of U2′s Achtung Baby, The Who’s Quadrophenia, The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, as well as Rush’s first 15 albums in three boxes, and more.
These editions are even more lavish than those that were made during the pre-MP3 heyday of CD sales. Clearly people are still attracted to stuff, especially when it’s well-crafted. The true music fan’s collection is becoming more than just shelves of discs (which themselves are often ripped to hard drives and iPods and then filed away) — it’s a museum, an assemblage of artifacts. It would thus appear there’s more at stake here than a cynical cash grab by record companies trying to make people buy the same songs for the umpteenth time.
“I think labels have been taught their lesson about not doing the best by their consumer,” says Ed Christman, senior correspondent for the New York-based music-business magazine Billboard. “They’re trying to make a living and to give the fans what they want.” Christman looks back with disdain on the practice of the “relaunch,” which began in 2002, whereby labels would reissue albums six months or so after their original release, with new artwork, a few new songs and perhaps an accompanying DVD. “Nowadays they’re more into trying to do the right thing and give the fan choice; they put [the two editions] out simultaneously.”
For instance, Rihanna fans who want her new album, Talk That Talk, along with extra artwork, bonus tracks and a sample of her perfume, can go straight for the “Deluxe Edition.” Increased profit margins from such editions are “certainly one of the ways [labels] compensate for the lower prices for downloads and single CDs,” Christman notes, but some deluxe editions are also valuable archival releases designed for fans’ libraries.
“We’ve succeeded in sustaining a physical CD’s lifespan by making it interesting and informative,” Lennox says. He sees an intergenerational appeal for these editions: parents buy them, and their children peruse the information they can’t get with MP3s.
The many demos contained in deluxe editions of Quadrophenia, accompanied by Pete Townshend’s extensive notes, or the sprawling studio outtakes in The Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions box (EMI), give useful context to the albums they present. Eagle Rock’s 10-DVD Miles Davis at Montreux collection traces the evolution of the trumpeter’s later years with a hardcover book of liner notes, Davis’ drawings and video interviews. And the new CD (and vinyl) compilations The Legendary Studio One Records (collecting work by Coxsone Dodd’s seminal Jamaican label) and Voguing (about music and fashion in the Harlem ballroom scene from 1989-92), both on Soul Jazz Records, are supplemented by large hardcover books with informative essays and photos tracing the cultural history of the music
Says Stuart Baker, who founded Soul Jazz in London in 1992 and has been publishing music books since 2007: “‘Coffee-table book’ sounds slightly derogatory to me — it’s not alive with passion. Music is.” His goal, he says, is “to make a book that people respond to in that way. Exploring the idea of music as a cultural expression of a time and a place and communities of people has become as interesting to me as listening to music. ‘Educative’ sounds a bit ‘arsey’ — it’s more like, ‘This is interesting, and this is why it’s interesting; come and share it with us.’
Baker views himself as both an enthusiast and a craftsman. “There are lots of people who would buy music digitally who would also buy one of our books and one of our records or CDs — they want nice things as well.
“I’m not interested in making deluxe boxes that are $100; to me that’s not the point of making them beautiful. I want to make them beautiful in a way I think Levi’s 501s are, as opposed to an Armani suit — they’re affordable and everyday.”
As a career artist’s audience grows over time, it can expand demographically into different age groups and income brackets, and be split between more casual fans and hardcore devotees. The ideal would be for a label to be able to reach all of them. Deluxe boxes might appeal to one segment, books to another.
Says Jeffrey Remedios, of Arts Crafts music, whose vinyl box set of Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record won the best recording package Juno this year: “Music companies have finally started to segment an artist’s audience, and not just cast everyone with the identical brush. All of a sudden you’ve got these offerings from ‘free to an email address’ to $100. Different fans are interested in different products along that curve.”
One advantage of physical product over MP3s becomes apparent as the holiday season approaches: you can put it in a stocking (if it fits!), or under a tree. And although the Wish You Were Here box includes the warning that its marbles are “NOT A TOY,” it’s a safe bet there will be a few adults rolling them around Dec. 25. And should they fall under the sofa and disappear, perhaps there will be a Super-Super Deluxe Edition to replace them.
The hardcover book Voguing will be available through Soul Jazz Dec. 10, and the album of the same name Jan. 30, 2012. All other products mentioned are now available.