In early 2014, Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog division, manufactured about 3000 copies of a 3-CD box set devoted to Michael Bloomfield, a second-generation blues guitarist. Bloomfield is influential — he had played with Bob Dylan and Paul Butterfield, but the albums he put out under his own name only sold a few thousand copies in the U.S. in 2013, according to Nielsen Music. So Legacy executives were surprised when their Bloomfield set, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands, sold so well that they had to manufacture more within a month. The set, which also includes a DVD documentary, has now sold more than 9,000 copies.
Some of the hottest new music is old music—in elaborate, and sometimes expensive, new boxes. During the third week of November, the No. 1 title on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart was The Cutting Edge, a two-CD set of 50-year-old recordings by Dylan. It sold 14,000 copies (according to Nielsen Music), impressive for a catalog release in the age of streaming. Even more impressive: A six-CD version that cost more than $100 sold 6,000 units, and a gargantuan 18-CD Collector’s Edition, available on Dylan’s website for $600, sold 2,000.
Even as labels focus more on streaming and digital downloads, execs tell Billboard that box sets continue to sell as well or better than they have in years, mostly at independent stores and through Amazon. (Nielsen Music does not track box sets as a sales category.) In some cases — a collection of David Bowie’s early albums, a deluxe reissue of Bruce Springsteen’s The River released in December — the prices are close to or more than $100. Those price points seldom work for big-box stores like Target.
“There’s still a real, viable physical market for the right kind of releases that appeal to certain fanbases,” says Legacy president Adam Block. “There’s an appetite for exciting presentations of music.” That presentation is almost always physical: Even the 2-CD Dylan album only sold a thousand digital copies. Consumers interested in reissues seem to prefer a hands-on experience.
Mark Pinkus, president of Warner Music’s catalog imprint Rhino Entertainment, says that the label had begun moving away from the physical-music business in 2010. But the following year, it released a $450 73-CD Grateful Dead box set that sold out its limited run of 7,200 copies in four days. Now Rhino releases a major Dead project every year, including 30 Trips Around the Sun, a $700 80-disc compilation that came out in September. Its other recent releases include collections of Bowie and Aretha Franklin albums, as well as a box set devoted to the Velvet Underground album Loaded. (Universal has released deluxe box sets devoted to the band’s other three albums over the past three years, and it released a four-disc live collection on November 20.) “I’m very happy I work here,” Pinkus says. “Otherwise I’d be broke.”
Of course, not everyone is in the market for $700 worth of Grateful Dead concerts. So labels are amortizing their marketing costs by releasing sets in multiple versions at different price points: An expensive one for hardcore fans, a basic version for mainstream consumers, and sometimes vinyl as well.
“There’s a consumer at every level of interest and if you’re going to address one you might as well address them all,” Block says. “There are fans for whom Bob Dylan is the only artist who matters, but that would leave out a lot of other people.” In some cases, the expensive versions sell more than one might think: When Columbia released a project devoted to Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, a deluxe set that listed for more than $100, it sold more than 100,000 copies, about half as many as a much cheaper 2-CD set.
The reissue business is good enough that Pinkus says Rhino is moving ahead with a box set devoted to the Trio recordings of Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt that the label had been considering for a decade. “The market is more ready for it now than ever before,” Pinkus says. “These box sets have become a specialty market and we’re gone after it.”
The box set business is more expensive than it looks. Even if labels have rights to archival music, they still need to commission essays, clear rights to photos, and manufacture a physical object consumers will spend money on. It’s also hard to know the life expectancy for a boomlet that depends so much on physical stores. And only so many artists have enough fans to support a $100 reissue.
For now, though, reissues are surprisingly reliable. “Some of these bands are franchises,” says Ken Shipley, co-founder of the Numero Group, which just released an impressive set of recordings originally put out by the punk label Ork Records. “Ten years ago, if you told Universal that the Velvet Underground was a franchise, they would have laughed you out of the room. Now they’ve put out a box set a year for the last three years.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.