By Clive Young.
Packaged media ain’t what it used to be. Much of this is due to the popularity of digital delivery systems like iTunes, but you can also point a finger at society marginalizing the importance of music in today’s world. Songs are becoming a side dish to another experience, whether it’s cleaning house, working out or pseudo-wailing on Guitar Hero. Occasionally, it seems the songs are secondary to the packages they come in, too.
Take AC/DC, a band that’s always known how to package itself (what else would you call that iconic schoolboy outfit?). In the fall of 2009, the hard rock mainstay released a $200 boxset, Backtracks, designed by Phil Yarnell of SMAY Design. The set features the usual goodies--three CDs, two DVDs, an LP and a book--but also throws in extras like a button, sticker, tour flier, track sheet, temporary tattoo, guitar pick, three lithographs, a poster and more. If that wasn’t enough, the kicker is the box itself, because all that stuff is housed in a working, 1-watt guitar amplifier. Seriously.
Artist-In-Resident takes the concept of the ultra high-end box set even higher, however, providing over-the-top editions for acts like the Pixies, Nine Inch Nails and Sigur Ros that run as high as $495, depending on what you want; for the Pixies, that means a 25-lb. box with each of the band's albums in multiple formats, a DVD, signed ephemera and more.
While a gorgeous album package is always something to behold, some folks are content with simply getting what they expect--finally. Take for instance the fall, 2009 special remastered CD re-release set that came out from a certain high-profile pop act of English working-class lads who had girls swooning back in the day.
I am, of course, talking about the 2-CD reissue of Duran Duran’s Rio (gotcha). When first released on LP, side one was remixed for US audiences; its various CD incarnations, however, always sported the UK mixes, flummoxing American fans who expected the album they grew up with. The reissue set sports both versions of side one, all packaged in a book which notes listeners can now program their CD player to the version of the album they want--a comment which translates roughly as “we know you’re going to rip this to your iPod anyway.” The second disc rounds up b-sides, remixes and demos, making the $24 set, if not over the top, at least comprehensive.
Packaging isn’t just for established acts looking to make a last-minute grab for aging fans’ wallets, however. Sure, emerging acts are more comfortable with having their music sold digitally, but there’s still ways to sell you a physical package--take hip-hop act Get Busy Committee, which released its album, Uzi Does It, as MP3 files on a USB stick. Plenty of acts have done that before, most notably Ringo Starr, but this one takes the cake (by force), as the USB drive is shaped like a sub-machine gun.
When it comes to file-formated music, that's only the tip of the iceberg, because now in the digital age, bands can slap a custom download code on any item and it becomes a "deluxe edition" album. Artists have issued album codes on items ranging from a soup can to wearables--actor/rapper Mos Def’s collection, The Ecstatic, was released in a variety of formats, including a t-shirt; each top came a custom code that could be redeemed online to download the album.
Canadian act of Montreal bolstered the concept with a $100 deal behind its album, Skeletal Lamping, where fans got a two-LP set, digital download code, a lantern, 9 buttons, wall decal, tote bag, t-shirt, sticker set, poster and “3-song rarity download card.” If you only wanted some of those items, you could buy each one itself as "an album," with its own download code. By that point, the music isn’t even secondary; it's an afterthought.
If all this fancy, digital download-based packaging seems just a bit too forward thinking, don’t worry. Some people still know where it’s really at: Cheap Trick’s last album, The Latest, is available as a $30 8-track tape.