Thinking outside the box

Not another list of multi-disc sonic money-shots.

Published December 24, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

It's that box-set time of year again. Fresh pine in the air,
Christmas turkey baking and music writers telling us which $78,
deluxe-packaged, historically vital, ultimate collection to stick
under the tree. Another holiday season, another list of sonic
money-shots known as the box set.

In the past, I've followed the sleigh tracks, recommending my
favorite gazillion CD collections. Should you slap down $109.97 for
the Miles Davis Quintet's Columbia recordings? Damn right! How about
the 10-CD, $160 complete Hank Williams set? Hell, yeah! Don't even
try me on the 24-disc, $407 Duke Ellington "Centennial Edition." That
dope's essential.

But it's time to come clean, even if I'm too late to stop fat men in
red suits from distributing Garth Brooks' "Limited Series" box.

First, a disclaimer. As a new grinch of music industry present, I'm a
hypocrite. Just last year, I told readers to buy that Hank Williams
box. And my shelves are stuffed with multi-disc collections.

Which is part of the point. The box set has widened the gulf between
the regular listener and the fanatic. Among the latter, I include
critics, who are blinded by one of the few benefits of this underpaid
trade: Free, or much cheaper, sets. (Reviewers could buy the Duke box
for $150.) This is in part how the product works against the spirit
of recorded music, the egalitarian idea that it is somehow reaching
the streets. Maybe that's a naive wish at a time when corporate
mergers, high-powered publicists and rigid playlists make payola king
Alan Freed look like the tooth fairy. But it's hard to deny what's
obvious just by gazing at the prices. Jazz sets are so expensive --
Bill Evans on Verve at $305; Ella Fitzgerald "Songbooks" for $223.97
-- only reviewers or the wealthy can partake.

Looking at the Ellington set's paltry sales, 600 copies at last
count, it might as well have been produced for the critics buying it
at a discount or judges sure to give RCA a Grammy for liner notes.
Same goes for the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds Sessions."
As the masterpiece from critical darling Brian Wilson, it was
reviewed everywhere and sold just 30,000 copies. Compare that to the
1.8 million who bought a set by the universally sneered-upon Brooks.

Maybe these terrible sales figures have a bright side, sending a directive to
the record companies to spend more time on proper, single-disc
reissues. Why can I buy a box that features Brian Wilson's dog
barking but none of the Beach Boys' '70s albums? Why can't collectors
buy John Coltrane's rarities without slapping down a Ben Franklin
for a set with several albums that any hardcore fan would already

I have no problem with the first-generation CD sets. They were a
natural progression from the turn-of-the-century, multiple 78-rpm
record sets. The modern box as I define it -- multiple CDs with
unreleased rarities, demos and/or outtakes -- is a different
creature, driven by the ability to cram 80 minutes of music on a
single disc just five inches in diameter.

So instead of beefed-up greatest hits surveys like Eric Clapton's
"Crossroads" (sales to date: 550,000), the record companies offer an
endless supply of unreleased archival material. The wishes of the
artist, who is either dead or doesn't own the music, are usually
irrelevant. Sometimes it's as if song order were determined on a
roulette wheel, with alternative tracks and demos meant for general
consumption. Imagine if Penguin scattered early drafts of Faulkner's
"The Sound and the Fury" throughout a new edition of the book.

Mixing vault material with completed studio work turns the music into
homework, with the booklet as textbook. Last year, Eric Alterman -- a
very sharp guy and, I suspect, a man with an excellent box-set
collection -- wrote on these very pages
of the great debates sparked by boxes. Should the Coltrane set, for
instance, be ordered according to release schedule or recording
schedule? The box phenomenon, he wrote, "has done as much to elevate
the status of jazz as any university program or foundation grant
during the past decade."

But maybe that's also why jazz has become so stale, reliant on
reissues rather than new players. And elevating the status? Whatever
happened to simple, teenage kicks?

This is why the "complete" sets also fail. Forgive the audiophile in
me, but there is a nostalgic joy I feel with certain albums. Being
29, part of the last LP generation, the connection is about an album
cover and an atmosphere that remains when a record is played
over and over. Adding B-sides and alternates -- making it "complete"
-- creates an amorphous slab where once there was a deliberate

As for my collection, well, I've already admitted my conflict. I
would never part with my Miles Davis "Complete
Bitches Brew Sessions"
set, which is bound with, check this out,
blue brass. A beautiful piece. The Hank collection, thick as most
hardcovers, is also on the bookshelf. My favorite box, though, is
still the Ellington set. Each of the 24 discs comes in a thin,
cardboard case with a fragment of a photograph on it. By stacking the
discs just right in four little piles, each layer makes up a
historical photograph. The liner notes, as always, are impeccable.
Maybe, after New Year's, I'll actually listen to it.

By Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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