ACHOF Resources – Box Sets and Special/Limited-Edition Packages – An Overview

Posted February 4, 2022 by Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com

This is the first part of a multi-part series on a part of the music-making-and-selling business that’s enjoyed a resurgence over the past several years and, at least from my point of view, is one of the best ways to see the full extent of both the creativity and marketing savvy of the people tasked with producing these products – those being what the Recording Academy has labeled “Boxed or Special or Limited-Edition Packages” (AKA “Box sets”, “enhanced packages”, “Record Store Day special releases”, “Fan Collections”, etc.).

In this initial posting, I’ll provide you with an overview of the topic, give you a little history (including some personal takes on the subject) and perhaps better-define the breadth and depth of the offerings that have come to market since the early days of the rock/pop music business. Later, I’ll describe what each of the participant’s roles are in creating these packages and then spice that section up with a number of quotes and anecdotes I’ve collected from some of the most-prolific (and awarded) players in that game.

Now sit back and relax while we begin our journey through the exciting world of “special products”…

Mike G’s copy of The Who’s Live At Leeds record package

Introduction

It all started – for me at least – back in 1970, when I was in my mid-teens and had purchased a record by The Who (The Who: Live At Leeds) that, after I’d opened it, awarded me with what I thought were authentic items related to the band that had been mistakenly wrapped into the gatefold sleeve (I was prone to episodes of fantasy as a youngster, it seems). “What luck!”, I told myself, thinking that, in addition to the new disc, I’d received pilfered copies of their set lists, employment contracts (and rejection letters from some venues), hand-written lyrics, transportation receipts and more – plus a fold-out poster – all for $3.99 at my local E.J. Korvette’s store. It’s as if I’d found a DaVinci painting on back of a black-light poster I bought at the local head shop.

Later on, after I’d found out the truth and dealt with the realization that I wasn’t going to be rich, I continued to be surprised from time to time at some of the unique and special things I’d find in or on the records I’d bought. The poster I found inside my Sgt. Pepper’s LP, the libretto packed in the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack record (w/Ian Gillan, my hero), the pop-up pyramid that emerged from my Ambrosia album (Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled, back in 1976), the lenticular (enhanced 2-D) cover image on my 1972 Captain Beyond album  and, most scandalously, the pair of white panties that wrapped the disc in my Alice Cooper/School’s Out record package – all were examples of things my favorite musical acts had bestowed upon me to keep me happy and more-than-ready to buy the next album when it landed in the “New Releases” end-caps at my local music emporiums.

It wasn’t until my early-to-mid teens (in the early-to-mid 1970s) that I discovered multi-disc sets. Following in the footsteps of many middle-income kids who, like me, had little spare cash (until the next time I’d caddied 18 holes, delivered Sunday papers or shoveled the elderly couple’s driveway), I jumped on the chance to expand my record collection in a major way when Columbia House (and, later on, BMG) Record Club offered to ship me 10 or 12 (or was it 100?) records for only $0.99 (plus S&H) as long as I promised to spend every last cent I’d ever earn each month going forward on either the “Selection of the Month” (chosen just for me, at “regular club price”) or something else in their flyers. Once in a while, I’d find an interesting multi-disc set on sale and, in a mental effort to reduce my per-record costs (including S&H) down to where I’d normally find them back at Korvette’s, I’d purchase these special packages. Early on, these were mostly compilations/greatest-hits packages but, as time went on, there’d be something that grabbed my attention because, in addition to the music included, there’d be “bonus discs” of unreleased studio recordings, books packed with historical information and interviews, behind-the-scenes photos and pages of lyrics and, from time to time, cool gimmes such as stickers, keychains and the occasional poster or other wall hanging. What value!

As time went on and I began to earn enough money to return to my local record stores, I’d buy less and less frequently from the clubs, typically limiting my purchases to box sets, and only when they were on sale but keeping my eye out for something truly unique. Several career moves introduced me to some of the other collectible recorded music products that’d ultimately find their ways into my music collection (e.g., Japanese pressings and other imported records when I worked for a large record distributor in the early 1980s and then the audiophile pressings and the “Original Master Recordings” sold by Telarc, Mobile Fidelity and others I offered my own customers when I ran what was then called “a stereo store” in the Chicago suburbs for a while), if I recall correctly, one of the last purchases I made from a club was the ultra-fancy (and Grammy-winning) Sound + Vision box set David Bowie put out in 1989.

The Author’s personal copy of David Bowie’s Sound + Vision box set

Man, what an artsy box that was, with a ghostly portrait of DB appearing to float on plastic above the package’s contents (it is still a prized possession, enjoyed even more after finding out that one of the nice people I had a chance to work with when I was in the music TV business – Lars Murray – was one of the people responsible for that set. Take another bow, Lars!). Although my working in the music-promo business would ultimately stop me from buying many (any?) records at retail for quite a few years (always happy to trade a Fuse t-shirt for something nice from the local label reps), my interest in packaging design and imagery – which ultimately led to my next career as a music art gallery owner and writer – has never waned.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve been privileged enough to have been able to interview numerous award-winning designers and one of the things on my yearly “wish list” of interviews has been to have the chance to talk to the people/teams who’ve designed the products that earned them their Grammy and other industry awards. For the past several years, these efforts paid off via in-depth interviews I’ve been able to do with a good number of the people who won the Grammy Award in the “Best Boxed or Special or Limited-Edition Package” categories, including Susan Archie, Masaki Koike, Fritz Klaetke, Jeri and Glen at SMOG Design and Lawrence Azerrad, among others. Then, couple of years ago, I was asked by the nice people who run the Making Vinyl Packaging Awards to participate as a judge in their competition. While I was happy to be asked and to participate, what I wasn’t prepared for was the exposure to the amazing work being produced these days by the huge number of talented designers, art directors and all the others involved in the creation of packaging for today’s retail music products. In particular, I was floored by the ingenuity and creativity shown by people working to create what are these days some of the most-sought-after products by collectors and music fans – those being the box sets and limited/special-edition packages being produced and promoted by the musical acts and record labels (those both well-established and relatively new to the market), working hand-in-hand with the design firms and manufacturing concerns active in the area today. Once I saw the great talent and imagination on display and dedicated to bringing these special products to market, I knew that it was time for me to do the research – talking to folks working  in every part of the recorded music business (from the “early days” up through to the present) who’d be able to provide me with a look back to the beginnings of the category, answer questions about how and why these products are conceived, designed and produced and then expand our collective knowledge about where they think these products are headed in the future.

Being the detail-obsessed creature that I am, I came up with a basic approach to this research which gave me the data I’d need to present you with a backgrounder before bringing you an overview of today’s market, told by both this research and the knowledge and opinions of people “in the know” – i.e., the creatives, label execs, music marketing folks, record retailers and, ultimately, the art and music fans who buy and collect these products. I’ll try to detail some of the history of box sets and special/limited-edition packages (with some of my findings quite both enlightening and quite obvious),  define what products belong in these categories (and, later in the discussion, how they’re broken out in the various award shows that include them) and relay insights on how these products are produced – from concept to design to finished goods – before they’re promoted and delivered to the people who ultimately buy and enjoy them. I’ve also included a bit of info on how the value of these packages are extended using today’s digital technologies and content distribution platforms.

Of course, I’m always interested in hearing from my readers about their own opinions and experiences regarding their favorite examples of the art, so please feel free to share those on any/all of the ACHOF’s social media outlets (LinkedIn, Twitter, email) as that’s the way, in many instances, we all learn more about the thing(s) we’re most-passionate (and opinionated) about. So, let’s get started on our short journey through the history of this most-fascinating part of the recorded music business.    

Part 2 – A Brief History

In the beginning…record albums were quite literally albums of records. After recorded music migrated from one format (the cylinder) to the flat discs most of us grew up with in the early 1900s, these high-RPM products (ultimately standardized at 78 RPM and 10” in diameter) were limited to delivering short performances of 2-3 minutes per side until the late 1930s, when 12” discs added almost a minute to the playable time (it was also at that time that some records featured music on both sides of the disc, doubling the playing time). In general, though, early 1900s musical or spoken word performances had to be limited to single songs or compositions, and when longer time periods were required, they were delivered in multi-disc sets. This limitation would be somewhat overcome – also beginning in the late 1930s – as both record companies and those that sold record-playing machines began to experiment with ways to extend playing times via the development of several related items – vinyl (vs. shellac) records, which allowed for the packing of more, smaller grooves (“microgrooves”) on to the surface; lighter and higher-quality phono cartridges and styli, which reduced the wear and tear of the grooves cut into those vinyl discs, and then the recording/production processes that allowed record-makers to slow playback speeds to 33-1/3 RPM, extending playing times per side to approx. 20 minutes. These long-playing records – dubbed “LPs” – were introduced to the buying public by the Columbia Record Company in June of 1948 and set the standard for LPs still in use today.

As the quality of the delivery medium also improved over that early 20th-century timeframe, the way that record producers/manufacturers chose to package their products also matured. Early records were shipped and stored in simple paper sleeves with cut-outs in the center to allow you to see which records they were via the information printed on their labels. Since records were quite brittle, around 1910 some record companies chose to offer optional albums for sale, with covers made of cardboard, leather or similar materials and containing a number of empty paper sleeve into which consumers would slip their records, allowing them to be stored safely upright on shelves.     

The word “album” is defined as “a book of photographs, mementos, or a collection of some other kind…a photo album is full of pictures, and a stamp collector’s album contains stamps from different countries. Another kind of album is a collection of songs” or music, and so the word was already in use as a repository for anything you might want to collect and keep organized, therefore lending itself nicely to those marketing recorded music, particularly as they began to offer collections of music. Let’s say, for example, a label produced a package containing six 78RPM discs of Souza marches or highlights from a famous opera and wanted to be able to easily sell and deliver these sets at retail. Just prior to World War II, it was common practice to offer these collections in specially assembled albums, with these packages looking much like photograph and scrapbook albums and sporting little or no promotional imagery or information. In 1940, after Columbia Records staff designer Alex Steinweiss approached company executives with the idea of coming up with unique artwork to promote each new release, the bean-counters ultimately relented to allow “the new guy” to experiment by creating a cover for a new record by popular song-makers Rogers & Hart titled Smash Song Hits by Rodgers & Hart. That package featured a hand-drawn theater marquee done by Steinweiss and, on account of the resulting uptick in sales the record enjoyed, he was allowed to continue down this path. After the War, as long-playing vinyl records (AKA “LPs”) were first being introduced, Alex worked with the engineering crew at the label to come up with a way to package and promote printed cardboard sleeves for these lighter and more-durable discs that put his artistic talents on full display and, since then, album packaging – and the imagery featured on it – has gone on to show the important symbiosis between the album jacket and the music packed inside it.

An early Columbia House special package – Home For Christmas

Single LPs expanded to dual-disc “double albums” delivered in “gatefold” sleeves, which were also used by enterprising marketers to produce single LPs packaged with “bonus materials” – booklets, posters and other flat items (ala The Who Live At Leeds record discussed at the beginning of this article) – and then, ultimately, taking advantage of advances in record packaging technology to produce the first modern box sets.

Vinyl records are packaged as boxed sets for two main reasons, the first being that the boxes are simply elaborate containers for multiple LP/disc sets, such as George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, a three-LP classic released in 1970 in the wake of the breakup of the Beatles (and recently re-released in several collectible 50th-anniversary packages). Led Zeppelin’s four-LP The Song Remains the Same from 1976 was essentially a boxed soundtrack of the concert film of the same name, which captured the band performing live in 1973 at New York’s famed Madison Square Garden.

More recently, artists have created boxes for their music simply because there’s no other practical way to conveniently deliver it, as you’ll see later on in the sub-section titled “Biggest/Most-Expensive Box Sets” where you’ll find the details of some enormous collections and the sky-high prices that some were willing to pay to own them. You’ll find that the practice of boxing multiple vinyl records has been taken to immense lengths by certain producers of classical recording packages, as evidenced by the two collections at the top of the list, both containing over 200 discs (!!).  

The other reason main reason a record company or musical act sets out to create a box is when they want to re-release individual discs in what are now better-known as “special edition” packages. The past several years (2017-present) has found consumers faced with an over-abundance of these collectable packages, with many records from rock music’s “golden years” (1967 – 1972) celebrating their 50th anniversaries. Of course, there have been earlier examples of these retrospective collections, with the British label Parlophone releasing a set of 14 EPs from The Beatles – each housed in its original picture sleeve – in 1981, only 10 years after the band’s break-up. Subsequent releases have offered collectors and fans re-mastered works, records enhanced with alternative versions (which had originally been left on cutting room floors), records originally released as mono recordings now re-mastered in stereo (and vice-versa), live versions of studio albums plus a number of packages offering up complete (or more-complete) live sets, such as Mosaic Record’s 2008 box set that included all of the recordings – in their correct order – from Thelonious Monk’s two-night stand at LA’s It Club in 1964 and Rhino’s huge 38-disc set documenting the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, released in 2020 and quickly selling out all 1969 copies of the limited-edition package, which came packaged in a silkscreened plywood case.

Part 3 – Definitions – Box Sets and Limited-edition/Special Packages

When considering how to hand out awards for creativity, industry groups have, over the years, worked to come up with ways to define what goes into these products, separating them from the standard-issue albums/gatefold two-record sets. The first major award competition to include Box/Limited-edition sets – and provide a definition for these products that judges could use as a reference – was the American Recording Academy’s Grammy Awards which, in 1994 (the 37th Annual Grammy Awards event), handed out the first award in this category to Chris Thompson, the art director for The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks. The category was originally called “Best Recording Package – Boxed”, then was renamed “Best Boxed Recording Package” in 1997, eventually (in 2003) being christened “Best Boxed or Special Limited-Edition Package”.

Here’s the text of the current definition posted by the Recording Academy for this award category (from the Grammy.com site) – “BEST BOXED OR SPECIAL OR LIMITED-EDITION PACKAGE – AN ART DIRECTOR’S AWARD FOR BOXED SET, SPECIAL PACKAGE OR LIMITED-EDITION RELEASES SCREENING CRITERIA. This category recognizes excellence in the field of art and packaging for new special edition, or limited edition, or boxed set packages in any configuration, of any genre of music, released for the first time during the eligibility year (even if recordings were previously released). The elements judged in this category include the package design, photography and/or graphic art of the entire package as well as any materials included. The packaging must be predominantly new: If the album art/packaging has been previously released, or the recording is being reissued with only minimal new design elements, is not eligible Limited edition and special package releases must still meet the general distribution requirements to be eligible.”  https://www.grammy.com/sites/com/files/bluebook_ga_category_rules_package.pdf

Another organization that awards those who’ve created notable examples of multi-disc (LP and CD) record packages is the Colonial Purchasing Group, the team that produces the Making Vinyl’s Packaging Awards. Originally known as the ALEX Awards(“Celebrating the Best Vinyl Record Art” andnamed after the late album packaging innovator Alex Steinweiss), this packaging competition was initially held in 2003 to honor achievements in music product packaging. Then 86 years old, Mr. Steinweiss accepted a lifetime achievement award at the inaugural gala in Los Angeles. The awards, on hiatus since 2006, were relaunched in 2017 as part of the Making Vinyl industry trade show and included a sterling panel of judges, handing out honors to art directors and album art producers in the categories of “Best Illustrated LP Cover”, “Best Photo LP Cover”, “Best Gatefold” and several others. The awards were re-named the “Making Vinyl Packaging Awards” the following year as the group expanded the scope and number of categories, which now includes categories for singles, CDs and special-edition packages, including one called “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done” that highlights the use of cutting-edge technologies and materials.

Screen shot of the winner in the “Best Vinyl Deluxe Set” category at the 2020 Making Vinyl Packaging AwardsPrequelle Exalted by Ghost, on Concord Records

Some of the definitions for the Box/Limited-Edition set-related awards (as found on the MakingVinyl.com site) include – “BEST VINYL DELUXE SET” – Recognizes the quality of the packaging, as well as booklets, posters, inner sleeves, etc., and how all the elements fit together aesthetically that goes far beyond a standard, single LP release (e.g., multi-record boxed set); “BEST VINYL REISSUE PACKAGE” – Recognizing stellar packaging of a “classic” album that improves on the original, and record must have been re-released on vinyl in the past during the eligibility period; “BEST BOOK + MEDIA PACKAGE” – Recognizing that record labels and book publishers both are getting increasingly creative in coupling printed material with mixed media (e.g., books, records, CDs, and cassettes).

A number of other countries also hold yearly music industry-related award shows (the Juno Awards in Canada, the Echo Awards in Germany, the Mercury Prize and the BRIT Awards in the U.K., the Independent Music Awards in the U.S. and others) that also include categories for music packaging, although awards specifically for box/special-edition packages are not broken out. Several international design organizations and publications also laud album packaging as part of their overall annual design competitions, such as the D&AD Awards and the CommArts awards but, again, don’t specifically highlight box or special-edition sets.

For example, the D&AD organization in the U.K. allows entries in three categories and sub-categories that include judging for recorded music packaging – In the “Graphic Design” category, Records (“Record Sleeves and Album Covers”) sub-category (#2407) they’re looking at stand-out examples of “commercial visual design for all platforms. Includes data visualization and printed, digital, environmental or motion design”. In the “Illustration” category, sub-category 3606 “Printed Materials” includes work done for album covers and recognizes “exceptionally crafted illustration, for commercial design and advertising projects, where the craft brings a creative idea to life”. Finally, in the “Typography” category, sub-category 4006 “Printed Materials” also includes work done for album covers and looks for “exceptionally crafted typography, for commercial design and advertising projects, where the craft brings a creative idea to life.”

Taking advantage of the trained eyes and minds of some of the world’s best-known and knowledgeable practitioners in the art direction, design, illustration, photography and typography categories, these organizations have helped define, at least from design and production standpoints, what makes for a well-crafted package. The record buying/collecting public, on the other hand, has told us what their favorites have been over the years via tallies of the best-selling or fastest-selling (in the case of limited-edition packages, where a specific number of packages are reserved for sale to collectors), and while there has been some overlap between those sets that have won design awards also being commercial successes (such as the Woodstock 50th anniversary package by Rhino Records that both won a Grammy in 2020 for its design team and sold out its entire run – at $800 a pop – almost immediately), it’s less-than-certain these days that the sun will shine in this way on many well-regarded packages.

That’s the end of Part 1 of this article. In the next posting, I’ll include some information on some of the biggest and best-selling sets and then treat you with quotes to a series of questions on the topic I posed to a dozen or so of the top producers of these products, giving you an insight into the thought processes of those involved in selecting projects to back and creating the most-attractive (and saleable) packages designed for both casual and hard-core collectors. Until then, please let me know whether you have any questions about this topic (and, even better, if you can add some additional details to what I’ve shared to this point) curator@albumcoverhalloffame.com

Unless otherwise noted, all text and images included in this article are Copyright 2022 Mike Goldstein and AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – All Rights Reserved. All of the trade names mentioned in these summaries are the properties of their respective owners and are used for reference only.

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