Then there was the look. Once designers took over, they also became things of beauty. The Herbie Hancock clear cube comes to mind. Rhino's Fifties single box (with trading cards and every CD set inside a 45" record) or the Rhino sci-fi box with a hologram of a green human brain on its side were both classics. The most recent Ray Charles box (again from Rhino) which looks like the portable record player that Elvis used to carry around in the 50's, may be the best of them all.
It always seemed to me that part of the point of being in a "box" was that they’d be durable and convenient but no. Years later I find myself wishing some of the damned things had been better thought out. I have boxed sets—Randy Newman, Posies, Los Lobos—that are now in pieces, and require quick hands to reassemble and get back on the shelf before all the pieces scatter. Led Zeppelin's Complete Studio Recordings, one twenty four fitty via Amazon, is my idea of how to do a boxed set. No muss, no fuss just a small box with a sturdy lid. Lay it on its side and when you need a shot of "Nobody’s Fault But Mine," flip up the lid, pull out the extra heavy book, each holding two CDs and notes, and light the fires.
During a visit to my local used record emporium yesterday, I noticed something very peculiar, namely that boxed sets, once the Cadillac of CD ownership, the top of the schwag heap, the pride of major labels whose designers often created sets that manufacturing couldn’t reliably produce (the Sinatra suitcase being the most outrageous example), have become noticeably less desirable. The used record stores had tons of them sitting around. Friends in the used record biz tell me that they’re finding them harder to sell, which means they are less likely to buy them.
A further expedition to three or four more used stores in NYC confirmed all this for me. I saw used Bear Family Boxes, which are without question the finest expression of the boxed set art form, sitting forlornly, where in days gone by, they were an unusual and welcome find. I remember being thrilled to find used copies of both the Smiley Lewis and Webb Pierce Bear Family boxes. A used copy of the Louis Jordan Bear Family box, my favorite boxed set of all time bar none and one I had to buy new, was perched high on a shelf where no one could reach it. When I asked why it was effectively being put into no sale limbo—with the Bear Family boxes, if you can't look at the booklet, it ain’t gonna sell—I was told they’d had it on a lower shelf for years and no one looked at it that much. So much for letting the good times roll.
None of this is meant to be gloom and doom. It's just another example of the record biz needing new ideas `cause the old ones, the ones they lived on for a couple of very good decades, have gotten a little stale.
The boxed set could, and in the case of some labels, already is being revived by adding video, more outtakes and perhaps even unreleased live tracks.