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What’s in the Box? The Role of Box Sets in a Streaming-Music World

Once upon a time, the box set was the luxury item of the music-listening experience. It could confer importance, cement legacies, and revitalize careers. But what is a box set when all the world’s a playlist?

Ringer illustration

Consider the box set, if the name even rings a bell. The 3-inch-thick doorstop of music purchases, the big-dollar indulgence that takes up so much space on your shelf that it shames other entries into a state of insecurity. Consider the possibilities: Springsteen and Zep, The Clash and Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Bob Seger. Collections so immersive as to make a strong person lose their mind. Why box sets? Whose invention? And with what intention? In the way that Criterion Collection editions of filmmakers’ catalogs still confer gravitas, such was once the case with box sets in the 1980s and ’90s, when physical product was the delivery system for the music consumer’s experience and not just a preference or affectation. In a number of instances, the power of the box set was enough to rescue genius from the looming threat of permanent obscurity. Take Bob Dylan for instance.

Amid the ceaseless winning streak of his legacy period—the cavalcade of presidential honors, Grammys, Oscars, National Book Award nominations, a Nobel Prize, and whatever else the world has on offer—it can be difficult to remember that Bob Dylan was ever an actual, full-stop has-been. But in 1985, following a series of uneven records, erratic behavior, and an increasingly flagging audience for his new work, the sainted Dylan had become something of a joke. In 1985, Spin magazine, then in its impish infancy, referred to him (then 44) as the world’s oldest dinosaur. He himself described his predicament in the harshest possible terms in his 2004 memoir Chronicles, characterizing his stature in that era as “the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.”

Dylan eventually reversed his prospects, but the process of turning around a cultural ship of that magnitude proved daunting. The late ’80s and ’90s were filled with fits and starts as he labored as a middle-aged artist to blaze the same sort of trail he had previously done during his enfant terrible period in the ’60s. The alchemy involved transforming public perception of Dylan from a washed-up protest singer to a protean, massively prolific builder of literary worlds. And the launch point for that enterprise was the box set Biograph—53 tracks, 10 sides total, three CDs—which came out in 1985 and set a meaningful predicate for his genius.

Journalist, musician, and longtime Dylan confidante Larry “Ratso” Sloman thinks the most vital function of Biograph was revealing how many astonishing songs Dylan had never bothered releasing. It was like finding out Shakespeare had a handful of plays the equal of Othello or Macbeth stashed idly in an old drawer. “It’s incredible the songs that Dylan rejected off his standard releases which were far superior to the very best songs by other prestige recording artists,” Sloman says. “It’s a straight line from the record executives who made his hidden body of work more accessible and the Nobel Prize committee who finally ratified what we’ve all known for years.”

In conception and execution, Biograph was a literal and figurative hit. Lovingly packaged with a 36-page booklet including a revelatory interview between Dylan and rock writer and future filmmaker Cameron Crowe, the sequencing of songs dating from 1962 to 1981 made the seemingly immense aesthetic distance traveled between those eras feel more manageable. Songs like “Solid Rock” from Dylan’s gospel period sat alongside early biblical-adjacent protest manifestos like “Masters of War,” two iterations of Dylan forging unforgettable music through spiritual friction. Anarchic mid-’60s classics like “Tombstone Blues” found handmaidens in equally batshit gutbucket workouts like 1981’s “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.” Staggering, previously unheard gems were recovered, deepening the mystery of why a genius sometimes hides his finest work.

Anticipating the era of the playlist, Biograph’s songs flowed in non-chronological order, further contributing to the sense of Dylan’s work as a contiguous and ongoing phenomenon, while simultaneously condensing his massive catalog into a daunting but digestible whole. It sold briskly, eventually ascending to no. 33 on the Billboard charts, making the enormously expensive collection (even now, the CD version of the set retails for around $40) a hugely profitable enterprise for Columbia Records. It also bought time for Dylan to recapture his muse over the course of the next several years, eventually leading to the late-career trilogy of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, which saw him recapture and even improve upon the masterful music of his youth.

While Biograph wrestled with the predicament of how to recontextualize a legendary household name, the five-disc Peel Slowly and See released a decade later had something like the opposite brief: Its job was to finally and firmly establish the Velvet Underground within the pantheon of popular music’s most celebrated acts, able to be spoken of interchangeably alongside canonical peers like the Beatles, Stones, and Dylan. The implicit difficulty, of course, was that the Velvet Underground was not popular, at least in their own time. The New York scenesters led by Lou Reed and John Cale are now oft-cited as a pivotal band in rock’s history, but that was not always the case.

Until the mid-’80s, Velvet Underground LPs were largely out of print and relegated to another sort of cultural oblivion: the province of music critics, hardcore record collectors, and sometimes influential bands. That constituency guaranteed that the group wouldn’t be lost to history, but the business of a bankable legacy remained unaddressed. A spate of ’80s Verve reissues upped the band’s visibility and consecrated the cool factor, but Peel Slowly and See really put them over the top: rapturous reviews poured in from every corner of the then still-powerful music-journalism-industrial complex. A representative Rolling Stone five-star review called it “some of the most inspirational and ultimately timeless music you’ll ever hear.” In this instance, the mission of the box set was accomplished. No serious conversation about the best rock bands of the 1960s would ever fail to include the Velvet Underground moving forward.

“What box sets offer is the feeling of being a completist without having to spend all the extra time and money accumulating and exploring individual albums,” hypothesizes longtime music critic and author Steven Hyden. “The best box sets now forgo the obvious giants and delve into the fascinating minutia of music history—Dylan’s Gospel period, R.E.M.’s misunderstood glam-rock album, the major-label Replacements disaster that’s redeemed once you hear the alternate takes. Though, clearly, that’s a limited product that’s only going to appeal to super-geeky music fans.”

Following the financial coup of Biograph, the box set suddenly seemed like found money for an industry sitting on endless reserves of archived materials. At a certain point they became a little loose in their practices.

“Who would buy a 21-disc Ronnie Milsap box set?” asks the exasperated Kevin Bozelka, cultural critic and assistant professor of communication arts and sciences at Bronx Community College. “I mean that literally. Who are these people? How do they approach such a behemoth?” This is the other side of box sets—their enigmatic tendency to cover artists who might have difficulty selling one record out of a bargain bin, let alone five in a single package. Bozelka, a self-diagnosed music hoarder who has been aggressively collecting records for three decades, has many thoughts on the format. At times, box sets have left him burned.

“Most artists simply do not have enough compelling music in their oeuvre to justify the enterprise. A friend told me the four-disc Jackson 5 box Soulsation! included some unreleased funk deemed too raw for the band’s teeny-bopper demographic. That was a lie. Revenant’s Captain Beefheart box, Grow Fins, is one of the most shameless ripoffs in recording history.” Bozelka has identified a problem: If box sets are indeed reverential artifacts assembled with time-capsule consideration, why are there so many cheapo cash grabs?

“The liner notes for Rhino’s The Disco Box are more useless than the music, which just reshuffles the label’s Disco Years compilations,” Bozelka further enumerates with respect to his grievances. “Even two-disc sets can be ripoffs. Rhino’s 1991 two-disc Bob Wills anthology could fit on one disc if they shaved off just one song.”

Bozelka has a point.

What does the box set even mean in this disgraced age of obscenely infinite storage? So much of the mystique of the box set’s classic period was a by-product of its sheer size and cost. A welter of packaging and materials that felt consequential by default, simply because someone had even bothered to go to that much trouble.

In the digital age, that sense of awe around a great amount of material is a relic—many major artists release, like, six records digitally every year. Maximalism at every sensory level is the marketing plan for any musical aspirant. What is the contemporary artist’s equivalent of the prestige box set? They’d have to blow up a planet.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the box set’s tragicomic impracticality, there remains certain circumstances in which it feels like the ideal means of dissemination for a major project. Maybe one of those is Hard Luck Stories, the new Richard and Linda Thompson multidisc collection. Containing six LPs recorded between 1972 and 1982 amid an ever-escalating series of artistic and domestic hardships, the box set’s epic-novel format feels appropriate to the immense emotional stakes and weight of the music. Too thorny for the contemporaneous folk movement that made stars of James Taylor and Cat Stevens, and not flash enough for the incipient escapism of Elton John and T. Rex, the Thompsons dwelled in the commercially complicated zone between the early prog of their first band, Fairport Convention, and the incipient anger of early punk.

Hard Luck Stories is the full meal: eight CDs, 30 never-before-heard outtakes, some excellent live material, and a 72-page booklet. All of it is beautifully designed, and the tactile experience of simultaneously listening to the Thompsons growing gradually apart alongside a marvelous gallery of photographs chronicling the same is wrenching. But is it necessary? For all their mythic Sturm und Drang it doesn’t take a lot to see that the troubles of two lovelorn folkies don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

This is the box set’s dilemma. It doesn’t exactly know how to behave. Is it an anachronism, a prestige item, or a quick buck? “It is the preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly,” goes Bertrand Russell’s quote from 1939. “I’m just as much a slave to capital as whoever bought that 29-disc Golden Earring box set. Probably even more so,” adds Kevin Bozelka, just last week.

A burden and a short cut. A pathway to prestige or a one-way ride to the junk bin. Consumer culture in 2020. What’s in the box?