Boxed Sets Are Bigger Than Ever—But Who Buys Them?
The new ‘Jazz & Blues Art Box’ comes with 230 DVDs, roughly 400 hours of music and a $8,400 price tag.
Will Friedwald June 20, 2017 5:06 p.m. ET
The massive set comes in a cabinet; only 5,000 are being produced. Photo: Hank O’Neal
Back in the days when music was sold only on LP or CD, a large-format package was merely expected to serve as a delivery system for the performances themselves. (Perhaps that’s why one of the first big sets that I ever owned, the 20-CD “Frank Sinatra —The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings” from 1995, was housed in a small suitcase.) Now, in the age of sound files and streaming music, any kind of physical medium seems like a fetish object, and the package in which it is contained even more so. Clearly, size matters, and the past few years have seen huge boxed sets covering the complete catalogs of such legacy artists as Elvis Presley (60 CDs), Johnny Cash (62), Miles Davis (72) and Tony Bennett (76).
But these pop, country and jazz packages pale besides those collecting the works of classical superstars, such as instrumentalists Yo Yo Ma (90 CDs) and Arthur Rubinstein (94). And even they are dwarfed by packages representing composers, such as “ Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition” (200 CDs) released last fall. With 240 CDs dedicated to the conductor and a $1,330 list price, “ Herbert von Karajan : Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon,” issued in Japan, is surely a contender for the biggest and most expensive package yet.
The latest entry in the big-box stakes is “The Jazz & Blues Artbox,” produced by the Swiss jazz impresario, trumpeter and entrepreneur Hans Zurbrügg with the cooperation of Swiss TV. Here are the numbers: 230 DVDs containing that many concerts from the Bern Jazz Festival from 1983 to 2002, a total of roughly 400 hours of music, as well as 96 interviews with the artists (included on the DVDs as bonus material), 20 booklets (one for each year), and, as the press release puts it, one 344-page “large format” book, all housed in a “tasteful cabinet.” Only 5,000 copies are being produced. More than ever before, you’re not just buying music (and video). You’re buying furniture—even real estate. The list price is $8,400; no, it’s not exactly an impulse purchase. (You’ll also need a home theater; watching this on a standard-size computer monitor or TV set just won’t do.)
Excerpts shown in a teaser trailer on YouTube and at a launch event at the New School earlier this month are enough to make this jazz fan’s mouth water: Joe Williams challenging Dizzy Gillespie to a blues/scat battle with the full Count Basie Orchestra as backdrop; Art Blakey appearing with an all-star version of his Jazz Messengers including Freddie Hubbard and Benny Golson ; Sarah Vaughan reacting to the presence of trumpet great Clark Terry in her audience. While the earlier concerts showcase already established greats, like Benny Carter and Woody Herman, gradually more younger stars become visible, like Bill Charlap playing piano with Gerry Mulligan’s last great quartet and Wynton Marsalis leading his 1990 sextet with Wycliffe Gordon.
The interviews are also priceless, such as Mulligan explaining the origin of his famous “pianoless” quartet, and Art Blakey recalling how he was originally forced to switch from piano to drums by a gangster at gunpoint. (When the lights came back on at the New School after an excerpt from this interview, Mr. Marsalis, who was also present at the launch event, told the house, “Yeah, Art liked to make up stories like that.”)
Still, this boxed set raises the question of whether some of these packages have now grown so large as to be parodies of themselves. I personally don’t know any jazz fan who has the means to purchase such a package. Then there’s the time factor: Only younger jazz fans are likely to have the time left in their lives to watch, listen to, and enjoy all this amazing music. (As of this writing, 156 of the sets have been sold.)
Seeing as they’ve released remarkable performances in a package that’s so enormous and overwhelmingly expensive that virtually no one can afford it, one has to wonder what purpose it actually serves.
Whatever the motivation, unless the producers start to release some of the music in smaller sets or find some other way of distributing the music, like through streaming or subscription services—which Mr. Zurbrügg has said that they do not intend to do—the best that dedicated listeners can do is hope our local libraries invest in a set and pray that no other jazz fan gets there before we do.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.