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A Real Head Turner

The 'Brain in a Box' CD collection of science-fiction themes and novelty songs moves the art of packaging up a notch. But how many people care what's inside?

November 25, 2000|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A boxed set of CDs called "Brain in a Box" has been arriving at offices throughout the music industry like a whirling UFO in the night, quietly, mysteriously--well, no, actually, it just comes in the mail. But the ambitious, eye-popping packaging for the sci-fi music collection has people reacting like the townsfolk in a 1950s B-movie when the flying saucers show up.

Some are mesmerized: "It's beautiful, gorgeous," says Pete Howard, editor of ICE, a CD collector magazine. "It was the buzz of the office; everyone was huddled around it."

Others mock it: "Who's going to buy this thing?," Alan Light, editor in chief of Spin magazine, says with a laugh. "I have it on a shelf outside my office and everybody is like, 'What . . . is this?' "

Most respond with confusion: "It was on this guy's desk and every time people walk by they look," reports Fred Graver, a VH1 executive. "But, you know, I have to claim ignorance: What's actually in it?"

What's in "Brain in a Box" are five CDs' worth of sci-fi themes and novelty songs, but it's the mad-scientist packaging that people remember--a cardboard-and-aluminum cube that, using holograms, creates the illusion that there's a purplish brain floating inside.

The new $99, 113-song "Brain" is from Rhino Records, which has made its name with kitschy and creative releases, but this collection may set a new standard for ambitious packaging. Even jaded music executives and journalists who receive dozens of albums a month are marveling at its special effects, a testament to the power of packaging.

"Packaging is hugely important," Howard said. "It makes a big difference in perceived value, and perception is reality. . . . It's not something like a book where it could look plain and just be brilliant writing or look beautiful and be terrible writing. The packaging tips the consumer that a lot of care, money and time was put into the entire project."

Howard says his all-time favorite packaging examples include David Bowie's limited-edition "Sound+Vision" in a pine box on Rykodisc ("The most ambitious special packaging I've ever seen," he says, also noting its steep $300 price in the late 1980s); Keith Richards' "Talk Is Cheap" album from Virgin Records, which was contained in a small black can with a relief of the guitarist's trademark skull ring rising up from the lid; and "Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century" on Sony Legacy, with 26 CDs, 100 years of music and a 300-page book ("Just an enormous effort").

Many of these sets are put together by designers who love their craft and the music they work with, and the projects become valentines from the designers to the artists and their audiences. Record company executives often wrangle with the designers to keep the costs and retail price down, but there is a growing segment of the marketplace for the deluxe, high-end items.

While "Brain" may be more candy for the eye than the ear, most of the deluxe boxed sets with lavish or special effects are sold on the power of their music--along with the keepsake allure of, say, a high-priced coffee-table book or sports memorabilia. Like those other items, much of the market is well-heeled baby boomers.

"For music, the growth of the teen market is the explosion--obviously it's bigger and everybody talks about it--but as far as proportional growth, the 40-plus age group is skyrocketing," says Spin's Light. "And right now those people have money to spend. There is a luxury-goods rock 'n' roll market that has emerged."

Light pointed to a four-disc collection called "The Jimi Hendrix Experience" that hit stores earlier this year wrapped in purple, flocked velveteen. "The Hendrix fans have bought the same thing repackaged 40 times anyway," Light says, "Why are they going to stop and not buy No. 41, especially if it's a little nicer?"

The top-shelf sets may also become more important as retailers try to dissuade fans from merely plucking the songs for free off the Internet. Consultants such as Jim Griffin, who has worked with Microsoft and Universal Music Group, has said that retail outlets will need to offer "beautiful talismans" to thrive in a market where consumers can get music at home with a click of a mouse.

The sets are also alluring to fans when they come stuffed with outtakes, alternate versions of songs, live tracks, rare photos, essays and other tidbits that a fan's fan loves, says Tommy Steele, vice president of creative services at Capitol Records. He points to recent Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and Ricky Nelson sets as examples of "added value" products, but he said more gimmicks, special effects and splurges will be needed to keep pace with the market.

Steele says an upcoming compilation of lounge music, for example, may include a martini glass. "There's talk of all that. I mean, after seeing this Rhino box, the bar keeps moving up. You have to keep doing something to be special."

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