As ever, no personal reviews of specific releases (plenty of people giving their tuppence whether professionally or non-professionally) but over the past few months I’ve been musing on what makes the difference between a box-set release that satisfies me and one that doesn’t. As usual this is, of course, personal opinion.
A box set or super deluxe or whatever they want to call it next, is an attempt to monetise leftovers and archived remains – at least that’s what it means to the companies who sell them. Artistic integrity, of course, plays a role and the artists involved (usually) have to be persuaded that they aren’t tarnishing their credibility and reputation with the release – they have to believe there’s something more at stake. The marketing personnel sitting in between the management decision that there may be money to be made and the artist’s decision that there’s an untold story or a tale to be better told are more concerned with making sure there’s something exclusive or something novel involved. They examine the aspects of the ‘package’ that they can use as tools to create exclusivity and/or novelty and essentially there are only a pair of options; (a) content or (b) packaging.
DVD additions, live recordings, unreleased songs, specially commissioned new tunes, remixes, alternative versions, instrumentals – whatever. It’s all a form of novelty-creation and there’s a balance between the investment versus the expected return – getting a band to record an entirely new album to accompany a release would clearly be the ultimate novelty but sinking tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands would be a poor return given this kind of recording is reserved for bands lacking a current strength of output – even the Greatest Hits is the refuge of an outfit losing momentum. Getting more mileage out of the old stuff is both the raison d’etre of these releases and a commercial necessity if they’re going to be a profitable venture.
The packaging front similarly expands and advances with ever more intricate liner notes, booklets, recording notes, reviews, commentary – preferably by someone with a brand name cachet that resonates with the target audience (“Thurston Moore has been supplied with a pencil…Prepare for content…Go!”) Advancing the art work and including memorabilia counts within this category and reinforces the case. A further element beyond the physical product is things like the creation of promo videos and other activity engaged in by the band to market and sell the release – its an extension of that item at the core.
So. What makes a good one? When creating albums artists often dedicate time to choosing the right songs, positioning them, making sense of them as a unit – but ultimately, with the exception of concept albums – there’s a fairly arbitrary set of decisions occuring related to such amorphous things as ‘flow’, ‘progression’, ‘the story’, whatever. With box set style releases, the material is all things that was rejected from or excluded during that previous conceptualisation. But there still needs to be a reason to bring it altogether – a box set always has a reason or meaning. Examples I could point to here would be (a) Siouxsie and the Banshees At the BBC, a collection compiling their radio/TV appearances (b) Jimi Hendrix West Coast Seattle Boy showing Jimi Hendrix’s progression and the phases of his musical existence (c) the Stooges Complete Funhouse Sessions bringing together the complete archive of material recorded for the Funhouse album (d) anniversary releases, commemorations, compilations of singles…It allows someone to say what an object is about.
A box set – sorry to call it this, quicker than Super Deluxe or whatever – already circumvents the simple issue of quality. The material contained is a complilation of previously released (the new box set by the Clash compiling the majority of their albums) or previously rejected material. If the release is an archive release of stuff not intended for formal release or not considered fit to be released (the Jesus and Mary Chain’s The Power of Negative Thinking box) it’s possible to try to say ‘good/bad’ but the motivations for the purchase are not based on that – there may be a minimum level of acceptable quality but the real mover is based on the ideas of secret knowledge, completion, revealed mysteries. If it isn’t about quality in that case then another option – particularly with compilations compiling previously released material such as the Jesus and Mary Chain’s 21 Singles compilation or the Nirvana box-set of singles released in 1995, is convenience. But what turns a utilitarian package, or a package of scrap material into a ‘good’ release?
There are two ways, essentially, that a box set can be a winner. The first is based on a sense of occasion – something often lacking in the flood of media these days. A higher degree of randomness in the selection can be tolerated with releases that satisfy a pent-up demand for ‘something’. Therefore, the belief that Nirvana had a bottomless vault of leftover Cobain material led to the success of the With the Lights Out release. The fact that criticisms could be levelled at its selections/non-selections, the fact that higher quality versions of some songs existed, or that other unreleased material not released officially in any other version existed, or that some of the pieces could have done with some polishing up…This didn’t matter. Ten years worth of waiting meant the audience were ready for it and pushed it to ‘best selling box set of all time’ status. Deferred gratification created a winner and criticisms seemed like sour grapes given there genuinely was a wealth of impressive, unique, unheard and excellent material there. When married to frustrated desire, to a sense of ‘the moment’, good enough was as good as perfect.
The other way a box set can win is more fundamental, it can do so by answering the questions in the mind of the audience. If a boxset declares that it is The Complete Miles Davis at Montreaux 1973-1991 then the best way for it to create satisfaction is for it to deliver precisely what it claims to; i.e, it better bloody well be every performance from Montreaux. Columbia Records, to their credit, did an excellent job of this with a twenty disc deep release and good packaging and notes. This is crucial – if the release has any kind of unifying reason or purpose then that purpose needs to be explicit, clearly expressed and obvious. Having taken control of the release and set the terms of its success, the next step is to fulfill what the declared intention or implied intention is. At the lower end of the market, kicking out a deluxe edition just by wedging on tracks off singles and some live material is fine because deluxe editions have lost their prestige and are simply intended to drive someone to repurchase. For the larger items we’re discussing here, the box sets and super deluxe editions, there’s got to be a something far greater. Lacking a precise ‘meaning’ to a release it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that an audience won’t be highly motivated.
The second way in which a box set can succeed and inspire is by being comprehensive. Decisions on an archive box set motivated by the supposed quality of a leftover, alternative version or demo are made ridiculous because by their very nature these items are all throw-aways, none of them was good enough so declaring one to be a superior-inferior doesn’t hold much water. Likewise, if the purchase isn’t motivated by long anticipation and ‘give us anything’ buying, then the motivation is simply because people want to see what’s there. In that situation, if a release only provides a certain piece of what could be shown, the result is a tease – it creates the question “but why didn’t you go all the way? Why didn’t you tell all?” Having planted that question in the minds of the audience the release has automatically failed to satisfy. That’s why it’s crucial to a good release to frame the terms of its success in order that the release can be declared complete.
There’s the issue of glut with any box set – to be complete, for example, a Sex Pistols box set would need to include multiple redundant versions of the same songs recorded over and over at multiple studio occasions, in some cases half a dozen or more. Rather than declaring defeat, however, the better solution would be to use this to justify more than one such box-set and simply declare that as the intention. Instead the Sex Box set would be better served by being shorter and therefore only containing the main studio album plus the songs that didn’t make it onto albums, while the more recent anniversary edition of Nevermind the Bollocks could have featured all the outtakes of the songs from that album. Its one possibility. By cutting it randomly with some in one place, some in another, it left each release open to criticism. Joy Division did a much better job with the Heart and Soul box set given it excludes (but acknowledges) the band’s previous punk recordings as Warsaw, excludes most of the session for their first album, but contains pretty well every other unique studio track they recorded – the exclusions are versions or in specific places rather than leaving them open to the charge of randomness.
The Jimi Hendrix compilation of BBC recordings, again, has a central reason and focus – then sets about fulfilling that purpose admirably. It can be declared a success because its there for a reason and gives the fans what it says they will. Another example would be the confined terms of Rage Against the Machine’s first album as the XX box-set. I’m biased because I adore this album but the inclusion of the complete demos from the first session makes total sense – the DVD inclusions are then added extras but, again, have a comprehensive sense of occasion with one being their first ever performance and the other being the performance given in the U.K. after Killing in the Name reached UK number one Christmas 18 or so years after first release – that book-ending of the DVDs was an excellent move and again contributed to the unified nature of the product. Without that sense of loss, or of purpose, or of completion, a release ends up unsatisfying particularly if significant information is known about the band and about what could have been included.
An unsatisfactory box set is easy to identify. It leaves out things that people want. Or it teases fans by showing that all of something exists…But then only gives them part of it for no apparent reason. It doesn’t live up to billing because it isn’t as enlightening or as dramatically different or new as has been claimed or as audiences have been led to believe. If it has no narrative, nothing that makes it OK to add one thing and drop another – no storyline – then it makes it harder to comprehend why one thing is there and not another.