CD boxed sets face uncertain future

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Have boxed sets lost their commercial lustre, or can the configuration still shine when managed properly?

A man looks through compact discs at a store in a file photo. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Only a handful of enticing boxed sets are due out at year’s end. Among them are Rhino’s long-in-the-works four-disc Jesus and Mary Chain collection, “The Power of Negative Thinking: B-Sides & Rarities”; the label’s multidisc Jane’s Addiction box, which is being supervised by drummer Stephen Perkins; and anthologies from Rob Zombie, Nina Simone, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton and Hall & Oates.

One of the most in-demand items is Neil Young’s eternally delayed “Archives Vol. 1,” which will come out only on Blu-ray and not on standard CDs, but it remains unclear if it will finally see the light of day by year’s end.

“Boxed-set sales have fallen off the cliff; they went from something to nothing,” says Bryan Everitt, director of music purchasing at Hastings Entertainment. “This Christmas we will have a limited selection of boxed sets, the slimmest we have ever offered.”

Everitt adds labels need to cut the prices of boxed sets.

“Unless the majors seriously look at reducing the price of the boxed set -- they still think they should cost $39.98 (20 pounds) or $49.98 -- sales will continue to slide.”

Mike Davis, executive VP/GM of Universal Music Enterprises, says that in response to those very concerns, the reissue specialist has launched a new series, Playlist Plus.

It offers three discs at an affordable price, packaged in a Digipak inside a slipsleeve without any booklets. Retail sources say the series carries a list price of $29.99 and a boxlot of $19.58. Acts appearing in the series include the Temptations, Rod Stewart, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, the Allman Brothers Band, the Moody Blues, Kiss and the Velvet Underground.

Not everyone thinks boxed-set sales are off that dramatically. An executive with one of the majors who is not authorized to speak for his company says they’re down just like CD sales are. “Everything is relative,” he says. “In this environment, you move with the marketplace. So you change your expectations and watch cost much more closely.”

The last big boxed-set hit was 2004’s four-disc Nirvana collection “With the Lights Out,” which has sold 504,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Overall boxed-set sales can’t be measured; SoundScan doesn’t collect data by that configuration.)

“Boxed sets are alive and well as long as you’re realistic about your expectations and who the ultimate consumer is,” a sales executive who works in catalogue for one of the majors says. “There are some artists where you can sell 50,000 units but there are others where you might reach the 15,000-20,000 range, so you have to plan your P&L (profit and loss) accordingly.”

While pricing is a concern, there are still certain circumstances when premium prices can still be charged. Newbury Comics head of purchasing Carl Mello cites the limited-edition box for Nine Inch Nails’ “Ghosts I-IV,” which sold 2,500 copies at $300 a pop, as an example of a project done right. Likewise, the major-label catalogue sales executive points out that the high-end version of U2’s “The Joshua Tree” reissue at $59.98 sold 37,000 units, while the regular, limited-edition version at $29.98 scanned 123,000.