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Limited, ultra, deluxe: The box set goes beyond

By Chris Talbott
AP Entertainment Writer / December 21, 2011
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Musical box sets, encapsulating a portion or all of an artist's catalog, are hardly a new trend. They've been around for decades.

But as labels begin to search for more sources of income, they're increasingly using yesterday's hits to help today's bottom line, from multi-disc deluxe editions of your favorite old album to over-the-top collections of obscurities complete with cool little tchotchkes.

And they're also reaching new heights in pricing. Love U2 beyond measure? There's the new "Achtung Baby" uber-deluxe edition, a limited, numbered box set that originally retailed for $650. It includes six CDs, four DVDs, a new documentary, a magnetic puzzle box, five clear 7-inch vinyl singles, 16 art prints, an 84-page book, a sticker sheet and a pair of Bono's bug-eyed sunglasses, among many other things.

Tony Bennett fans can own his entire recorded output -- more than 1,000 of his songs spread across 73 discs and three DVDs -- in "Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection," original price around $400. Elvis fans willing to pay the $750 list price for "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" 30-disc set last year took home more than 800 songs -- every master released in chronological order plus more than 100 rarities -- and a book by Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick.

Josh Walker, an assistant manager at Nashville record store Grimey's New and Preloved Music, recently sold about 20 copies of The Beach Boys' "The Smile Sessions" box set (he was among the buyers). Walker says the real gems in the box-set world are the ones that come reimagined and packing truly over-the-top rare items.

He calls the Beach Boys set, named Spin Magazine's reissue of the year, "beautiful." Inside there's the double-disc set of the original music, three more CDs of all the sessions with Brian Wilson orchestrating the music, a vinyl copy of the original album, two 7-inch single replicas and a coffee table book with Wilson's insights.

"The packaging is above and beyond," Walker said. "It looks exactly like a storefront and it's got this little window and it's inset with these little people selling smiles. So from the get-go, the package is nice."

Single albums getting the box set and deluxe reissue treatment like "Smile" are the biggest trend. You can get the expanded edition of The Rolling Stones' "Some Girls" for around $150, too. Similarly priced releases this year included Nirvana's 20th anniversary "Nevermind" box set and Pink Floyd's "immersion" set for "The Dark Side of the Moon."

But these don't even come close to the most elaborate items out there. Legacy Recordings, which put out the Presley and Bennett box sets, also released the $20,000 "Fifteen Minutes: Homage to Andy Warhol." Creator Jeff Gordon is quick to point out the deluxe edition, which includes three CDs, four vinyl LPs and 17 signed original silkscreens, is a unique creation for art-world collectors. Only 85 were made and they are selling, Gordon said (a cheaper standard edition goes for $600).

He solicited artists, musicians and former acquaintances of Warhol's to create a piece of art and a sound recording to accompany it. Patti Smith read a poem. Another recorded contribution includes a 40-minute conversation between two of Warhol's friends and former employees talking about their old mentor.

The originals are now on display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The fact Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment's catalog division, was interested in the project indicates to Gordon there are many possibilities out there for cross-pollination and even expanding the form.

"I think there are a lot of people out there who appreciate something like this," said Gordon, who served as both a producer and curator on the project. "In a couple of years, you'll see these things going for $40,000, $50,000 and $60,000."

The trend of pricier box sets seems incongruent with the musical landscape: Many people buy their music digitally, and downloaded singles now rule over albums. When an act's catalog can be downloaded in moments, who is purchasing these lavish collector's editions?

Rising country star Eric Church counts himself among those fans. His favorite box set chronicles the entire history of seminal rock group The Band, complete with previously unreleased tracks, live cuts and covers he'd never heard before.

"I love (box sets), but I'm old school and probably in the minority," Church said. "I like those kind of things. I still like to go back and listen to albums in their entirety. I love obscure tracks, live tracks, `Live at the Fillmores.' I love that stuff. ... I feel like it's a great experience for fans, especially musicheads, to get their hands on stuff like that."

Billy Joel likes the way his new 16-disc box set, "The Complete Albums Collection," presents his career. However, he has some qualms about the steep price.

"I don't know who can afford to buy a box set for $290 or whatever it costs," Joel said in a recent interview. "It's not exactly a bargain. It's a lot of money. It is expensive, especially for people who are used to downloading something for 99 cents. You compare this to that, and you're in a different league all together. But I'm just glad that the original art form is available so people don't just think of me in terms of the top 40 hits. ... I like my music to be heard in the context that it was originally conceived."

(Sony does have its own website, Popmarket.com, where they offer box sets at a reduced price for a limited amount of time -- sort of like Groupon for music).

Elvis Costello recently panned his new set, "The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook," on his website: It's listed on Amazon.com for more than $250. He said "the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire."

He told fans the pieces of the set will be available individually at a much lower price in 2012, then took the "unusual step" of suggesting the Louis Armstrong "Ambassador of Jazz" set instead. It will be cheaper, he noted in a blog post.

"Frankly the music is vastly superior," he wrote.

Rich Greenbaum, a record collector, frequent reviewer on Amazon.com and a 56-year-old school counselor from West Sacramento, Calif., loves finding new sets, but doesn't love the extras that are starting to drive up prices.

"I'm not interested in the fluff," Greenbaum says. He cites as an example Pink Floyd's new "immersion box set" for its classic album "The Dark Side of the Moon," which comes with marbles, a scarf and coasters.

"Sure, it's got the triangle with the rainbow through it (the logo)," Greenbaum said of the extras. "But I would've traded that any day for a double disc of a Pink Floyd concert featuring `Dark Side.'"

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AP Music Writer Nekesa Mumbi Moody contributed to this report.

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Follow AP Entertainment Writer Chris Talbott at http://www.twitter.com/Chris--Talbott.

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