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Box Sets - Do We Even Care Anymore?

Welcome to WEEK 258 of MUSIC is not a GENRE (Video #84 & S4Ep23)

Box Sets – Do We Even Care Anymore?

I recently had a conversation with a fellow musician who brought up the point that technology often drives music development. It’s a topic I covered in an older podcast episode, and one I’ve been fascinated by for years.

This usually refers to things like amplification, electric instruments, synthesizers, recording devices, digital tech, etc. We often overlook the fact that the way music is delivered to people has done just as much to shape what that music has become.

The earliest recording technology used to disseminate music widely was very limited both in sonic quality and duration. One side of a 78-rpm disc could hold only about 3-5 minutes of music. This was the standard until the late 1940s, when 33 1/3 took over and 12” sides could be much longer.

From the late 1890s until that point, whatever was recorded either had to be a very short musical piece, or a longer piece broken into many shorter segments. When the first box set came out – ca. 1894 (YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT), the few recorded music connoisseurs who existed were into classical music. Most of those pieces were way longer than 3-5 minutes, so they were segmented. To get, say, a full symphony or even one movement onto shellac (the most common material used for 78s), you’d have to divvy it up into SEVERAL sides. It might take at least six sides, or three discs, to complete that movement. Meaning for a whole symphony you’d need a good dozen discs.

Which is why box sets have existed since the beginning of commercial recorded music. They HAD to. It’s also why, when single songs became more popular than symphonies, they had to be 3-5 minutes long. Look no further than this fact to understand why that is STILL the standard length range for a pop song of any kind. And when 33 1/3 gave companies the option of having 23 or so minutes per side, that’s when the idea of an “album” morphed from describing a collection of discs – a.k.a. “box set” – to one disc; and also why until the CD era albums could be no more than about 45 minutes total.

As for box sets, they continued to pop up as music changed. In fact, the very first ever 33 1/3 album sold was a box set – again a classical piece, in June 1948. That said, today when we think of box sets (if we think of them at all and don’t just create streaming playlists), we usually think of collections of songs or albums from one artist or genre or era. It took decades for the music industry to have enough of a history of recorded material to warrant box sets like these, which is why they became so popular on vinyl and cassette in the 1970s, and on CD in the 1980s & 1990s (the first being Bob Dylan’s Biograph in 1985) – the true heyday of box sets and recorded music in general. Right before the crash.

Where are box sets today? Oddly enough, they’re about where they were way back in 1894, meaning anyone likely to buy ANY physical music – CDs, or vinyl for the retro minded – will get one of those boutique box sets with the booklets & B-sides & outtakes & all the rest. They’re collector’s items. I have several, but truth be told while I fully absorb the books, I usually just stream the contents.

I’ll be putting out an extended set of REC music later this year – the hits & favorites since REC’s inception. Until then, the best example of a box set in my catalog happens to be the latest REC release:

REC – The Weird Objective – A Five-Album Multi-Genre Box Set

Are you into box sets? Which ones do you have? Are there some that are as precious to you as a family heirloom, or are they all pretty much passe and collecting dust? Which do you think are the best box sets in history?


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