Unlimited editions: how the music box set has managed to survive

High-profile new box sets from Beyoncé, Radiohead and the Beatles are appealing to an audience still willing to spend big on physical media

For an album that is barely a year old, it’s somewhat astonishing that Beyoncé’s Lemonade is already getting the box set reissue treatment. But this marks a blurring of the lines between opportunistic cash-in and retrospective recalibration as art statement. Lemonade was the biggest-selling album of 2016, according to IFPI numbers, with global sales of 2.5m – but now you can preorder a $300 version with a lemon yellow vinyl edition, a 600-page hardback book on its creation, poems by Warsan Shire and a foreword by the academic Michael Eric Dyson. Keepers of the Real Music flame will no doubt roll their eyes in despair, but the How to Make Lemonade collection marks a step change in the music catalogue business, where anniversaries are no longer measured in decades and consumers are not stuck on the other side of 50.

A more traditional catalogue reissue comes in the shape of OKNOTOK, the 20th anniversary box set repackaging of Radiohead’s OK Computer. It sells for £100 ($130) and the bait for collectors includes Lift – seen as their great “lost single” – and two other unreleased tracks, plus a 104-page recreation of Thom Yorke’s assorted scribbles and doodles from the time. This is perhaps partly a readdressing of a past wrong as the band were understood to be dismayed by Parlophone’s 2009 repackage of that album (and the others in their catalogue) after they had, out of contract in 2007, released In Rainbows on their own as a limited-edition box set and pay-what-you-like download. (They put the CD version out later that year on XL Recordings.)

Here we have two albums that symbolise two different strands of the catalogue marketing business – one traditionally tied to a big anniversary that follows an increasingly familiar path and another that has, wonderfully, dispensed with convention and set its own course. But that’s only the tip of the catalogue iceberg as, with downloads and streaming adding new format types, the very notion of catalogue is changing and the market for such big-ticket reissues is very different from what it was even five years ago.

Catalogue marketing really took off in the 1980s and 1990s as the CD, while ostensibly the “format of the future”, became a catalyst for a regurgitation of the past – and mostly in a shoddy manner. “It was catering for a market at the time by an industry that was looking at things in a different way,” says Tim Fraser-Harding, president of global catalogue, recorded music, at Warner Music Group, of that first flowering of the retro music business. “The back sleeve just had instructions in four languages about how to take care of your CD. Now there is a lot more care and attention.”

Back then, it was deemed enough to remaster for CD in a slapdash way and put what looked like a poor photocopy of the original sleeve on the front and then stand back as the cash rolled in. By the turn of the millennium – and coinciding with the start of the CD decline – there was a gear shift and it became about aspirational luxury products, featuring quality remasters and a glut of additional content, ranging from packaging based on the original tape boxes to sprawling essays. By 2015, it was down to a fine art, with Sony/Columbia pulling together the $600 Bob Dylan 1965-1966: The Cutting Edge set that ran to 18 discs and scooped up every note he recorded in the studio in the period. This was followed by the 36-disc The 1966 Live Recordings, which features every known recording of his controversial electric tour of that year.

For the fans of certain acts, the clamour for the past seems insatiable, and labels will pull out all the stops to feed them. But how many times can they drop the bucket down the well before they start pulling up cobwebs and dust?

“It’s not a case of going back to the same well – as you’d get diminishing returns very quickly there,” suggests Richard Hinkley, co-managing director of Universal Music Catalogue. “It’s a question of drilling new boreholes, if you like.” He cites two examples of major reissues on his books this year – the 50th anniversary edition of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, and the 30th anniversary edition of U2’s The Joshua Tree – as showing the different narratives that can be wrapped around such releases.

“Sgt Pepper gives a unique opportunity to get a feel for the behind the scenes of the record-making process,” he says. “For The Joshua Tree, the approach is as much about the emotional resonance of the album and that moment of time.”

As the catalogue market has itself matured, it is not about doubling down on an ageing audience, but rather using new real-time digital insights to direct what can now be considered catalogue and worthy of release.

“Streaming has led to a democratisation of music consumption in a way that we have never experienced before,” suggests David Rowe, the other co-MD of Universal Music Catalogue. “The byproduct of that is more data than we have ever had to interpret and to react to when it comes to the marketing and promotion of the catalogue for which we are responsible.”

This means that the shape of catalogue is changing and not being solely defined by a certain level of maturity in either the release or the audience. “Traditionally, box sets have been older artists and older albums,” says Rowe, “but now relatively recent catalogue is as important to us as the older box set projects.”

While luxury box sets were once for an older and more affluent audience wishing to replough the furrows of their musical past, the Lemonade reissue is a sign that a younger audience, who were previously seen as digital natives and uninterested in physical product, wants a piece of the action – but only if it’s reshaping the parameters.

“There is a clear resurgence in demand for high-end physical music products – both vinyl and box sets,” says Rowe. “There is nothing to say that that love is exclusive to a particular generation. It is absolutely understandable that fans of Beyoncé who downloaded or streamed Lemonade could also be interested in a beautiful physical manifestation of that album. I don’t think that is exclusive to a particular generation.”

Beyoncé in particular and digital in general are offering a fresh spin on a format strategy that was at risk of settling into a particular routine. Streaming, rather than killing off the need for catalogue marketing for anyone under 35, has given it a new window of opportunity and one that is, psychologically and ideologically, linked to the blurring of the past and present that Record Store Day’s limited-edition runs also represent.

Truncated versions of the expensive physical box sets will appear on streaming services and, along with double-CD and intermediary box sets, show an increasingly detailed segmentation of the different audiences here. They can all coexist and one format is not a way of up-selling consumers to more expensive versions – they are all a destination in and of themselves.

“I wouldn’t say we are looking to lure people from a streaming environment into a physical box set environment,” says Rowe. “We are looking to delight fans – whatever their chosen format is. That means we have to provide a suite of releases which satisfy them depending on their chosen way of consuming it. I wouldn’t say it’s an up-selling process. But what I would say is that the availability of the data that we do have from things like streaming platforms allows us to identify opportunities – either for other formats or for brand new projects that we might not have had before.”

As the definition of catalogue changes in line with new technology and shifting audiences, so too do the opportunities. The drilling no longer has to go to the inner or outer core; it can go to the upper and lower mantles now.

“When I arrived at Warner Music four and a half years ago, there were two physical releases on the schedule,” says Fraser-Harding. “Now we are putting out 300 [a year]. There is still a huge amount of work to do. There are still some classic albums that have never been properly revisited.”

Within all of this, albums no longer have to wait it out in batches of decades in order to have their classic status conferred on them, as long as something new and different is being done with them – as Lemonade has shown.

The past used to be a foreign country. Now it can be the next street over.


Eamonn Forde

The GuardianTramp

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