Of Refrigerators, Trunks, Tuning Forks, and Marbles

residentsThe most expensive box set ever released is actually a refrigerator. $100,000 for a refrigerator full of music and memorabilia from 40+ year old cult band The Residents – but it’s a refrigerator all the same. The most surprising thing about the box set is that it sold.  In September, a man going by the name “Tripmonster” purchased the box/frig and plans to set it up in a home studio he’s building. Either he’s got lots of extra money or he’s re-mortgaged his house.

As we can see, some music and a booklet isn’t enough to float a box set these days. There needs to be more to tempt the consumer to buy a physical product, as opposed to a music download.  The refrigerator box set is just the slightly ridiculous trajectory things have taken. But it’s been building to this for a while.  Since early box sets like 1986’s live recordings collection by Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton’s Crossroads box from around the same time, the stakes have steadily grown. With the rise of download culture and the demise of the record and then the cd, the box set has become the record industry’s last saving grace. It’s the last way they can make an appreciable profit from a physical product, since downloads are so easily shared, bootlegged/copied and don’t have high profit margins to begin with.

gratefuldeadIn the last few years, packaging and “extras” have gotten more and more extravagant. Witness the Pink Floyd Immersion sets, which include marbles, coasters, and a scarf. Or the Grateful Dead’s Europe ’72 – sixty  compact discs and a hardback book housed in a full-sized replica steamer trunk (I’m still waiting for the genuine box of rain to go with the Dead’s 1970 song “Box of Rain”). How about Bjork’s oak-encased Biophilia complete with 10 multi-colored tuning forks specifically tuned to each song on the album? Daft Punk is set to issue a deluxe Random Access Memories with a film strip, design schematics for building a robot helmet and body, and silver and gold USB drives loaded with music. All in a cloth-bound box with genuine gold foil logo, of course.

These boxes are usually limited editions, partly due to production cost, but also to justify the high purchase price.  Sometimes things go awry, though, as with this year’s John Martyn collection The Island Years. Originally promoted as a close to $300 limited edition of 1500 copies, demand proved to be higher than predicted, so the limited edition amount was increased by a few thousand more.  This caused lots of discord on Martyn’s Facebook page among some of the fans who had already ordered the set, and now felt their limited edition set wasn’t limited enough anymore.

john-martyn-the-island-yearsTo make matters worse (or better, depending on your viewpoint), through an error or intentionally (nobody seems to know for sure) the whole 258 song set was put up for download across European sites like amazon.co.uk and play.com for the U.S. equivalent of $3.00. It was taken down within a day or two, but not before quick acting Martyn enthusiasts who couldn’t afford the price tag of the physical set snapped it up. As of this writing, it’s not available for download anywhere anymore, at any price.

What does the future hold for the box set?  We can expect to see prices increase, limited editions become more limited, and extras become more extravagant to get your attention.  After all, The Residents only had to sell one refrigerator to equal sales of a few thousand units. The fact that somebody actually bought it changes the box set playing field.

Anybody for a Jefferson Airplane collection housed in a psychedelically painted jumbo jet, with life-size wax dummies of the band as crew members, lovebead necklaces with each album cover reproduced in miniature on the beads, a giant stuffed white rabbit that plays “White Rabbit” from its mouth, and the lyrics to “Somebody To Love” etched in invisible ink on a gold-plated bong?
Oh, a USB stick containing their albums will be in one of the overhead luggage compartments, too. Probably.


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