Opening Up the Box

When album sales plummet, labels have to get smarter. Meet the new wave of special edition releases, which package albums with extensive and detailed extras. But what do they mean for music?

You can’t sell records anymore. For a while, this was a theory, a concept knocked around in business schools. But it’s stone-cold reality now. You just can’t do it – or at least, you can’t do it in the numbers that artists used to enjoy. And amazingly, for something that’s been coming for a long time, it still has major labels freaking out. Pick any big outfit – EMI, Universal, Sony – and watch it for a while. See it thrash around like a rhinoceros with a thorn in its toe, bashing into things and grunting furiously, wondering why on earth it can’t just dislodge the damn thing and be on its way. It’s very entertaining.

So what do you do if you’re a record label? You can’t just stop making records. No matter how good a live show gets, an artist has to have some recorded material to draw upon. And since recording material usually costs money, you’ll need to sell it – if nothing else, to recoup the studio fees. If you’re a big label, you … well, you thrash around like a rhinoceros, because that’s what you’ve always done, and you’ll be damned if you’ll change. But if you’re a smaller label – able to zip around above the rhino like a mosquito, changing direction in a picosecond – you get smart. You start looking for different ways to sell your product.

Welcome to the world of special edition box sets. A few years ago, a box set was just that: a package containing a CD or two, and maybe a poster and some extended liner notes. Old hat now. Artists and labels are beginning to get more creative with their box sets, and turning out some genuinely cool items which bring another dimension to the music. While there are certainly big questions about how these special editions are being used commercially, it’s an intriguing new trend in music.

Rob Reilly runs Get On Down, a hip-hop label based in the USA. Reilly’s an affable, fairly intense character who started his career behind the counter in a Sam Goody record store and went on to found and build UGHH (or UnderGround Hip-Hop), a multi-million dollar retail company. Get On Down might not be worth quite as much, but it certainly seems to go out of its way to make its customers feel like a million bucks. It specialises in re-releases of classic hip-hop albums. “We felt there was a real opportunity to take some of these releases with awful artwork and bad packaging, and [rework] them,” Reilly explains. “Rather than go out and look for new artists, which is a tedious and costly endeavour, we decided to go with what we knew. And we took ephemera and unreleased material that could add value to the package.”

They started with a release of Common’s classic Resurrection album – a pretty straightforward package with a double CD and a poster. But they’ve become more ambitious. Their latest release is a version of Liquid Swords, the outstanding 1995 debut album from the Wu Tang Clan’s GZA. It’s cool. Deeply cool. Called The Chess Box, in a nod to the album’s chessboard cover, it not only comes with the usual package of liner notes and photos, but also a full wooden chess set, which – when paired with the box – becomes a game-ready board. Reilly says: “We made it something that we hoped collectors would be interested in. We’re not just putting stuff out to make money. We’re putting out stuff that we would buy ourselves.”

We’ll get to that money question in a minute. Artistically, there’s no question of the value of these special editions. They flesh out a record, allowing old fans to polish their memories and new fans to have an amazing experience with some great music. And they can be quite ambitious, too. When Radiohead released their album King Of Limbs in 2011, they did it with a special newspaper edition. The artist Stanley Donwood created an actual newspaper – albeit one with an editor taking mescaline.

Designed to degrade and crumble over time, the newspaper formed the heart of the package, which not only included a CD but also had a gorgeous piece of transparent vinyl. It won a Grammy Award for the Best Boxed Set or Limited Edition Package. (And, by the way, that’s another little indicator of the rise of the box set. Since its inception in 1995, the award’s name has changed from Best Recording Package – Boxed to Best Boxed Recording Package to Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package).

Donwood’s motivation for creating the package is a complex one – which kind of suits Radiohead anyway. “I was reading a newspaper and I left it out in the sun,” he explains. “It turned yellow and crumbled, and I thought it was interesting because that’s what happens to us. And then someone had left a big pile of these old magazines and 1960s radical newspapers … and we had access to these decaying papers, and you had to handle them quite carefully. They’d become this archive of stuff that hadn’t been archived anywhere else. They’d acquired a source of value.”

The archival value is an interesting point. A great record doesn’t exist in isolation. The ephemera and stories that exist around its creation can be fascinating. Part of the appeal of inventive special editions is that they are dedicated to this process. Even if they’re put out for exclusively commercial means, rather than artistic ones, they still serve this purpose.

But the commercial aspect is worth returning to. Here’s the thing: when you’re a business-minded label executive, it seems only inevitable that you’re going to find the easiest ways to make money. Why spend time and money building up a fanbase for a new artist who, thanks to his fans being accustomed to getting their music free online, probably won’t sell that much at all? You can just take a record from an artist with an existing fanbase, bang out a special edition and watch the bucks roll in. It’s one of the most damning criticisms of the special editions market.

And you can see it in action right now at your local record store. Miles Davis will have box sets. So will 2Pac. But newer artists struggle with the special edition treatment. Staying on hip-hop, Stones Throw Records – a particularly astute and hip label – recently put out a collection of producer Madlib’s mix series, Medicine Show. It was called The Brick. And it was 13 CDs, wrapped up in a big brick. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that gets collectors drooling, is it?

To his credit, Reilly meets the money issue head on: “You really have to pull out all the stops to generate any sort of sales on any album. A lot of my partners used to work with new artists and titles. It’s a lot easier to sell an album like Liquid Swords than it is to sell a Homeboy Sandman record (Homeboy Sandman is a relatively young New York rapper).”

He continues: “You have to put a lot more money into thez new guy. The back catalogue stuff … you put it out, you do it right, make it something cool, and hopefully people who own it already can buy it again … It’s low-risk. Instead of putting something out there like, ‘I hope it sells’, you put something out and you’re like, ‘This will probably sell.’ I equate it to the sneaker phenomenon, like these Air Jordans being reissued. You know they’re gonna sell.”

He says he understands where the criticisms come from, but that part of his motivation is that he wants to bring the old records to a new audience – a decent approach, if somewhat cold comfort to Homeboy Sandman.

But do they sell? That’s the big question. Radiohead’s special edition did relatively well – Retail Gazette reported that it sold over 20,000 copies, and the band’s manager Chris Hufford told Rolling Stone magazine that it was one of the band’s most financially successful releases. But getting figures out of smaller labels (Reilly’s included) can prove tricky.

Whatever you feel about special editions, they’re not going anywhere. And while there are certainly obstacles for the format to overcome, the inventiveness that they’re showing is enormously promising. Even if you don’t buy GZA’s Chess Box, it’s kind of heartening to know that it exists.

For more information on Get On Down visit and for Stanley Donwood visit

Rob Boffard