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Music box sets with bells and whistles

Ultra-deluxe collections from the likes of Elvis Presley, Miles Davis and Hank Williams are priced at up to $1,200. Retailers recognize they're not for the average fan.

December 27, 2010|By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times

Ultra-deluxe box sets for Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and others are priced at up to $1,200.

Scanning the upper stratosphere of this year's end-of-the-year holiday-centric music releases, it's tempting to think some record company execs decided it's time to head into full kamikaze-dive mode.

Despite so much news revolving around the record industry's struggles to sell 99-cent singles and $9.99 album downloads, several labels have recently cooked up ultra-deluxe box sets for Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and others priced at $200 up to $1,200.

"We don't carry them," said Tom Gracyk, manager of Freakbeat Records in Sherman Oaks. "We want to stay in business."

He's referring to elaborate projects including "The Genius of Miles Davis," a 43-CD set packed into a replica of the celebrated jazz trumpeter's instrument case (original list price: $1,199; now selling for $749), the 30-CD "The Complete Elvis Presley Masters" set ($749) gathering all 711 tracks released during the King of Rock 'n' Roll's lifetime plus more than 100 alternate, unreleased and live recordings; and Time Life Records' 16-CD "The Hank Williams Complete Mother's Best Recordings … Plus!" set ($199).

Retailers like Gracyk aren't the only ones who recognize that this wave of music releases dripping with bells and whistles isn't for the average music fan.

"Make no mistake, these are specialized items," said Adam Block, Sony Legacy senior vice president and general manager. "They are not intended for the masses, nor are we targeting the masses. The decision to proceed or not in the development of projects like these stems from a number of contributing factors: First and foremost is the content that exists and the richness of the experience we feel we can create. We have confidence in our ability to reach first the hard-core fan, then beyond that the collector community."

Many music executives and retailers noted that there has long existed a small but well-heeled population of collectors who feel compelled to own everything officially issued on particular artists.

"Even though the economy is down," said Mike Batt, owner of Silver Platters record store in Seattle, "there are still enough music fanatics that are fortunate to have so much money they don't care what an item will cost to make a market for these items.

Record companies often have that niche market in mind when exploring specialized projects. The "Elvis Complete" box had a first pressing of just 1,000 copies, which quickly sold out. A second run of 1,000 is under way. The Miles Davis set is limited to 1,955 copies — the number reflecting the year Davis signed to Columbia Records. But with the demise of so many physical retailers in recent years, labels have turned to virtual marketing, in some cases employing 3-D visuals, to give potential customers a closer look online at what they're buying than they could get in the old days when Tower Records or Virgin Megastores might have stocked them.

To spread the word about the Hank Williams set, encompassing 72 15-minute radio shows the country music titan recorded in 1951, "We took out ads on national TV, in national print media, and we worked closely with NPR," said Mike Jason, Time Life's senior vice president of retail. "A lot of the marketing focuses on the online part, and the offline component drives people to the website. We have become a direct-response culture, and we spend huge amounts of time trying to figure out what else we can do to share this with a broader group of people."

One way labels and musicians are doing that is by abandoning the one-release-fits-all mentality of the past. "Consumers in this day and age expect options," Block said. "We're finding more and more that there's a 99-cent Elvis Presley fan, a $90 Elvis Presley fan and a $900 Elvis Presley fan. That's what often drives the selection: How deep a physical experience is that fan looking for?"

An act doesn't have to be an icon of rock, country or jazz known and loved around the world for decades like Presley, Williams and Davis to join them in the box-set stratosphere.

Richmond, Va.-based heavy metal band Lamb of God created a variety of releases this year to mark its 15th anniversary.

"Every time we've put out a record we've tried to do something unique," manager Larry Mazer said. "For the 15th anniversary we decided to put out something that goes from the casual fan to the hard-core fan to the ridiculous collector-type fan."

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