Squeezing cash out of nostalgia

Andy Miller

Andy Miller on the mechanics of the box set

01 December 2018 09:16

Let’s turn the clock back fifty years. It’s December 1968 and you are, I don’t know, 12 years old. Christmas is coming and you have been asked to write a list so that Father Christmas – and your mum and dad – knows what to get you. Let’s assume you are a pop fan: like most 12-year-olds you listen to the newly-launched Radio 1 and never miss Top of the Pops on Thursday evenings. On Saturday mornings, you go into town and buy your favourite singles from the electrical shop or Woolworths with your pocket money, 7s 6d each. You don’t buy LPs because, at 32s 6d or thereabouts, they are too expensive – and, besides, the currency of pop is the seven-inch single. But you are getting older and your tastes are growing more sophisticated. Plus, more of your favourite groups are issuing LPs that don’t have their recent hits on them. Last Christmas, you were given Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles. You have played it and played it because it’s ‘psychedelic’, ‘fabulous’ and has some really catchy numbers on it too, such as ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, none of which have been in the pop charts. So, like your heroes, you are getting quite into the idea of LPs as desirable items in their own right – and birthdays and Christmases are the times to gather them in.

In your best handwriting you write down six LPs that you really, really want for Christmas this year. The Beatles’ new one, obviously, even though it has two records in it and is therefore more expensive. When you went into town on Saturday, you saw that the Rolling Stones have an LP out too; like the Beatles’ one it has a white cover but, unlike the Beatles’, it also has a title: Beggars Banquet. As you carefully note this down, you wonder why ‘beggars’ doesn’t have an apostrophe before or after the ‘s’, but then remember that the Rolling Stones are rebels and do what they want. There is an apostrophe in Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, the LP by the Small Faces that came out in the summer, but that seems to be the most normal thing about it. It’s a weird title and the cover is a circle, not square. One of your pals got it for their birthday and says Professor Stanley Unwin is on it too! You loved ‘Lazy Sunday’, which was a big hit, and there wasn’t much weird about that, it was just funny really – good chorus too. So on to the list the Small Faces’ LP goes, even though, now you come to think about it, that apostrophe in Ogdens’ is actually in the wrong place.

Although you know Father Christmas won’t bring you six LPs, you decide to fill out the list with three slightly more unusual choices. You think the Kinks might have a new one out and even though you haven’t really liked much that they’ve done since ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – you thought ‘Wonderboy’ was weedy and swapped it for ‘Lady Madonna’ – they usually have good tunes with clever lyrics. ‘KINKS’ NEW ONE,’ you write. Then there’s the stuff your elder brother likes, which you hear coming out of his bedroom. He says the Jimi Hendrix Experience has put out a new LP which, like the Beatles’ one, he refers to as ‘a double album’. The title is Electric Ladyland – another weird one! – but for some reason he won’t show you the cover and you haven’t seen it in Woolworths, even though it came out weeks ago. Finally, there’s one by a band who have the weirdest name of all: they’re just called ‘The Band’. They haven’t been on Top of the Pops and you only know about them because your brother and his friends keep saying they are ‘important’. ‘MUSIC FROM BIG PINK’, you write, even though it doesn’t look right. Big pink what? But you are getting used to this sort of thing. You hand the list to Mum and get on with your homework.

(A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, you excitedly unwrap a couple of LP-shaped packages, tearing off the brightly coloured paper, only to discover that Mum and Dad have bought you the Best of the Seekers and the original soundtrack to The Sound of Music. Your face is a picture.)

The boxed set: heritage merchandise targeting middle-aged completist music fans, nostalgic for something they may not necessarily have experienced in the first place.

Whoosh! It’s December 2018 and now you are a sixty two-year-old bloke. Or maybe you’re thirty and well into the vinyls (sic). Or perhaps you’re in your fifties and a regular contributor to the letters pages of magazines like Mojo and Classic Rock. Every year you still make a Christmas list (you like lists). Mum and Dad are dead which means: a) no one is going to buy you a Seekers album unless you ask for one, which actually you might, the Seekers being rather underrated in your expert opinion, and b) you will probably buy the items on your list yourself and redistribute them to partners and children to give you on Christmas Day.

As in previous years, your Christmas list this year is dominated by boxed sets based around music you already own. Coincidentally, it is the fiftieth anniversary of those six albums you asked for back in 1968. This is what your 2018 list looks like:

The Beatles – The Beatles (‘White Album’) Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition
The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet 50th Anniversary Edition
The Small Faces – Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition
The Kinks – The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society Super Deluxe Box Set
The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland Deluxe Edition 50th Anniversary Box Set
The Band – Music From Big Pink 50th Anniversary Edition (Super Deluxe)

These six expanded editions, consisting of different combinations of vinyl LPs, CDs, DVDs, books, posters and reproduction memorabilia, is going to cost you approximately £500.

In addition, you have your eye on further boxed sets by John Lennon (Imagine: The Ultimate Collection), Paul McCartney (Wings Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway), Bob Dylan (More Blood, More Tracks), Kate Bush (remastered album catalogue), The Moody Blues (In Search of the Lost Chord), The House of Love (The House of Love), Manic Street Preachers (This is My Truth Tell Me Yours) and Bobbie Gentry (The Complete Capitol Masters). The version of Red Rose Speedway alone will set you back by ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY POUNDS STERLING. And it’s Red Rose bloody Speedway, an album you (and I) love, but which ought to cost £2.99 from a spinner in Boots the Chemist, and has now got not one but multiple renditions of ‘Little Lamb Dragonfly’ on it, which should entitle the listener to a significant discount.

Altogether you’re looking at an outlay of approximately £1200, plus the expense of more shelving, plus a difficult few months as you struggle to pay off your Super Deluxe credit card bill, all set to a soundtrack of live rehearsals, home demos, monitor mixes, instrumental outtakes and twelve alternative versions of ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, which your partner probably will.

This is one way at looking at the phenomenon of the boxed set: heritage merchandise targeting middle-aged completist music fans, nostalgic for something they may not necessarily have experienced in the first place, and at a premium price, AKA ‘Rinsing The Dads’. The journalist David Hepworth recently suggested on his Twitter feed that, in most cases, these boxes get listened to once before being filed away on a shelf, and he has a point. Indeed, many a music fan’s spare bedroom resembles the tape vault at Olympic Studios in Barnes – or would do if Olympic Studios in Barnes were not now a cinema. The spirit of this music was supposed to be the three-minute thrill, goes the argument, not the five-hour slog; pop art vs pop artefact. But it wasn’t always like this.

As a young but daily growing Bob Dylan fan in the 1980s, these are a few of the thrilling three-minute singles Bob and his record company subjected me to: ‘Union Sundown’, ‘Emotionally Yours’, ‘Band of the Hand’, ‘Silvio’. Needless to say, none of these were hits. A true artist, Dylan once said, is always in the process of becoming; for most of the 1980s it felt like Dylan was an artist in the process of becoming unlistenable. (Other opinions are available on request.)

In November 1985, however, Columbia Records released a career-spanning Bob Dylan boxed set entitled Biograph, a 53-track compilation of hit singles, album tracks and rarities, 18 of which were previously unreleased, over five LPs. We are used to such extravaganzas now of course, but at the time, this was pretty much unprecedented. The spirit of rock ‘n’ roll may have temporarily deserted the maestro, but here it was in vintage non-album singles like ‘Positively 4th Street’ and ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?’, in emotionally raw outtakes from Blood on the Tracks and Desire, and especially in a hair-raising Rolling Thunder-era live rendition of ‘Isis’, which remains 5 minutes and 21 seconds of the most exhilarating, pop-eyed, shamanic lunatic music Bob Dylan has ever captured on tape. (“If you want me to… YESSS!!!”: case rests.)

The success of Biograph – it actually charted in the US, reaching no. 33 on the Billboard album chart – not only paved the way for Dylan’s long-running Bootleg Series, but for many other artists and record companies seeking to augment and exploit their back catalogues. Coinciding with the new compact disc format, hits could be remastered, deep cuts reappraised and vaults ransacked for previously unreleased nuggets; pop music and its original consumers entered middle age together in harmony. Ten years later, this trend probably reached its zenith with the Beatles’ Anthology project: not a boxed set as such, but the staggered release of three double albums of (mostly) archive music, a multi-part documentary series on VHS and a lavishly illustrated book. This was the lucrative strategy that underpinned the music business in the 1990s: backlist as aggressively-promoted frontlist. And this strategy worked, until the Internet wrecked the business model.

The music business remains a business, just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and if you are a certain sort of music fan, those pre-teen patterns of behaviour can be hard to break.

Two decades on, recorded music generates little of the income it used to, which is why the handful of consumers still willing to hand over money for a new copy of Wings Wild Life, say, are being charged a premium price that makes up the massive shortfall represented by all of those happy to listen to it on Spotify for almost nothing (which still isn’t many). The music business remains a business, just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and if you are a certain sort of music fan, those pre-teen patterns of behaviour can be hard to break. To quote Paul Weller, ‘I just like going to the shops. I always have done.

And there is something to be said for the boxed set compiler’s art. The producer Andrew Sandoval has just masterminded the massive The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society retrospective. It is available in several permutations – two different CD versions, vinyl, download and the so-called ‘super deluxe’ set referred to above. The intention is to appeal both to the hardcore Kinks kollector and the casual listener alike, who can choose which version they want to buy. The strategy seems to have worked because, fifty years after it was released, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society has just appeared on the UK album charts for the first time ever.

Sandoval is a huge fan of the original LP. He approached this release as an opportunity to show how the music continues to resonate with both its audience and its creators, in particular Kinks frontman and chief songwriter Ray Davies. Far from placing the album under glass, the sequence of finished tracks, outtakes, different mixes and demo tapes, culminating in a suite of live versions recorded by Ray Davies in 2010, makes something new of these well-worn songs. ‘Thank you for the days’ meant one thing to the 25-year-old who sang it back in 1968; fifty years later, it means something quite different for both audience and performer alike. Taken as a whole, the box set is both fascinating and moving to listen to and to immerse oneself in. Far from demystifying the original LP, the boxed set reminds us – or reveals to us afresh – that this misty, murky artefact was made by, and for, human beings – human beings who once bought their singles from Woolworths, never missed Top of the Pops and who are still just about here, listening.

Andy Miller is an author and the co-host of the Backlisted podcast (backlisted.fm). He is on Twitter at @i_am_mill_i_am.

Andy Miller © 2018