Boxed-In

I’ve said it often enough around here and I’ll state it again: We collectors are nutcases.

There was a time when I collected books, “contemporary horror fiction” to be precise. It all started when I got my first limited edition of some book and it continued with lots of other limited, numbered, lettered and whatnot editions, plus a trillion other “normal” books which were – at the time – virtually impossible to get in ol’ Germany. I can’t quite recall how I chanced upon him, but Robert Weinberg, who had a thriving mail-order business way back when, sent out these highly-tempting monthly catalogs from which I invariably bought more than I could afford. For years.

To cut things short, I stopped for two reasons: Weinberg retired from the business, I didn’t feel like hitting the Internet for endless hours each week to find those editions I didn’t know anything about and, quite frankly, I was running out of space (hey, tell me something new).

Despite being an electronic gadget aficionado, a geek, freak and otherwise demented character, I do still believe that a well-written, -designed, and -produced book is the epitome of intellectual and haptic enjoyment. Amazon’s “Kindle” not withstanding, nothing beats holding a hefty volume of fiction or non-fiction in your hand, enjoying its production quality. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I get a kick out of a nice book.

The problem was and is that many of those collector’s editions were a drag, really. Heavy, because they were printed on heavy stock, somewhat fragile because one didn’t even dare to leave “eyeball tracks on the paper” (as Stephen King once put it) because one did not want to risk ruining the satin or high-gloss cover, bend a page of heavy-stock paper or smear the signature of author(s) and artist(s).

I mean, you couldn’t roll around with these in your bed, as I liked to do, and you certainly refrained from reading them sideways to avoid creasing or (gasp) cracking the spine.

Impractical, to say the least.

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When I started “collecting” music in earnest, I invariably went for the hundreds of lavishly-produced boxed sets, special editions and other more or less rare (and more or less complete) items. They often promised a complete run of some musician’s or band’s recording sessions of some phase of their recording career, they screamed “never before released!”, maybe contained a fold-out poster, usually held extensive liner notes and/or entire books detailing each track, burp and fart on disc, threw at the listener endless alternative takes and/or presented music previously issued with improved sound quality.

Many of the boxed sets I bought do hold an astonishing range of excellent music, anally retentive liner notes and artistic flourishes, but it didn’t take me long to pull out the CDs contained within in order to shelve them in simple jewel cases (with privately produced and printed covers), perhaps remove the contained booklets (if possible) to a “notes” shelf … and relegate the boxes themselves to a dark corner of some storage room.

Why?

Boxed sets are actually a pain in the ass.
Really.

I remember buying a CD player because I had gotten tired of the “analog dance”, you know, the one that entails getting the LP, pulling out the inner sleeve, pulling the LP from that, removing the turntable’s dust cover, putting it on, cleaning it … and firing up the turntable. Every once in a while, one had to fine-tune the speed, exchange the needle, dust the darn thing down, etc. Yeah, I know, modern life has turned us all into “hand-to-mouth” imbeciles, but I often got irritated when I had to do the “dance” simply to listen to a track or two off some LP.

With the CD boxed sets, I actually let that kind of drag back into my life and because of that, a lot of the music simply didn’t get played around my place. I got all excited when the box hit my doorstep, I virtually gloated for a day or two, read everything, played everything, enjoyed it all … and then shelved it. When the time came to actually pull it out again to listen to tracks 3, 7 and 10 on disc 1 and tracks 13 and 14 of disc 7, I was faced with trying to pry the box open (often enough, the designers of said boxed sets already made that simple activity an extended chore), get – for example – the cardboard replicas out (usually piled on top of each other or securely fitted into some cardboard slits or foam thingies), trying to pull the CDs out of those overly tight cardboard sleeves without scratching the hell out of the platter or getting a million fingerprints on there, … You know the game if you’ve ever dealt extensively with those kinds of contraptions.

The industry and its designers had forced me to start “dancing” again, sometimes for so long that I just lost interest in the music, and one day I decided to put an end to it all.

Finito.
Away with the shite.

So, I threw all of the boxed sets on the living room floor, got myself a moving box full of jewel cases, tore the CDs from their original sleeves, gave them a jewelcase each … and printed several hundred covers.

A month’s work, if that was enough.

Nutcases.
All of us.

Examples?
Off the top of my head?

I’m sure many of you know them well (and have screamed your lungs out at them):
WORK! DAMN IT!
OPEN UP! YOU FRAKKING BOX!
WHO DESIGNED THIS SHITE ANYWAY!?
I PAID FOR THIS CRAP?
AHHHHHRRRRGGGGHHHH!

Sony produced the ultimate breakdown-inducing box, Louis Armstrong’s “The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings”. What a piece of excrement. Yes, it’s a nice box and yes, it’s got a nice booklet, but (just like everyone else) I got one which housed the CDs so tightly that they could only be removed with residue on the playing surface. Most discs were unplayable. Yes, I could have entered into a heated mail exchange with the monkeys who put that one out … I just relegated the box to the furthest corner of my shelf and decided never to buy a Sony box again.

Verve’s “The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions”? Looks great … and sucks. It’s housed in some metal encasing that sucks up each sweat particle from your hand and proudly displays it in form of ugly dark spots from the moment you look at the damn thing.

Speaking of Verve: “The Complete Jazz at the Philharmonic on Verve” comes in a wooden box that came apart at the seams as soon as I decided to breathe on it and their “Complete Louis and Ella” accordion thingy had to be CUT open to reveal it’s contents (which are predestined to enter scratch heaven the minute you try to pull out any CD).

The acclaimed Mosaic boxed sets? You know, the ones that you have to pay the USA’s annual budget for on eBay once they’re out of print? Great boxes (!), but those jewel cases are so flimsy (and I must certainly be too motorically challenged) that half of them came apart, broke, cracked and whatnot the minute I touched them. Whenever I get a Mosaic box, the very first thing I do is remove the discs to normal jewel cases. Every. Single. Time.

Even my all-time favorite, the “Jazz in Paris” series, whose first 75 and latter 25 CDs were housed in boxes for collectors, were shoved into said boxes with the shrink wrap on. Take it off and the digipacks started sliding back and forth. Luckily enough, after a complaint, I once received two copies of the elusive Chet Baker CD (and one replacement too many for another faulty disc) that had been pulled because of copyright reasons and I use those today to fill the two boxes.

I could give you another 50, 100 or 200 examples.

As nice as many of the boxed sets are, they invariably turn out to be a real drag in everyday consumption.

Impractical.
Designed to death.
Useless.

Today I think thrice before shelling out thew dough for any of them and if I do want one, I usually wait a year or two to get it at a seriously reduced price.

Or I wait for the Spanish scam artists to steal the mastering, throw it all into a simple jewel case and sell it for one-tenth of the price. Yeah, I know, the lavishly produced booklet is usually missing and the liner notes suck (if they are at all present), but the Internet is one’s best friend in situations like these.

So, am I deaf, dumb and blind … or do you get screaming fits like I do?
Do tell.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. It’s not as much box sets for me (I tend to avoid them because they’re a pain to store), but now it’s people trying to get clever with low numbers of CDs. A few recent examples:

    The Doors, Live in Boston (and Live in Pittsburgh, released the following year): Live in Boston is a 3CD set, but housed in a jewel case sized digipak. I have no issues with digipaks as a whole, but as soon as you try to stick the CDs in a sleeve that goes into the digipak like an LP, instead of a plastic tray, then I get annoyed. Live in Pittsburgh is bad, too, in that it’s not even a standard CD case size.

    David Bowie, Live in Santa Monica ’72:
    Also not in standard size. Not even a CD case. It’s a mini-box set with one disc. Seriously. It’s slightly larger than a CD case, and you lift the top off to reveal a CD in an envelope and the liner notes inside of the CD. The sides of the box aren’t even marked, either, so even though it fits in my CD rack, it’s not even identifiable.

    Anyhow, end rant.

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  2. I have quite a few of these non-standard releases as well. One special one comes to mind which is both beautiful and irritating: Gavriel Lipkind. Johann Sebastian Bach – 6 Suites A Violoncello Solo, Snza Basso. Edel Classics 2006.

    This release, which has won the packaging “Oscar” is beautiful to behold … and stinks like hell. I’m talking cat excrement in the corner type of smell. It doesn’t really help to have such a wonderful package when – every time you open it up – the whole populace within a 6 mile radius drops dead.

    I also have a whole bunch of these Japanese cardboard releases that require as much fiddling as old LPs used to, and I have some digipaks that are just a pain to store.

    Add to that the tendency of many of those non-standard cases to topple over if not held upright by a mass of standard jewelcases next to them and you have another corner of collecting hell.

    Yeah, boxes aren’t the only nuisance. 😉

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  3. I love box sets notwithstanding all of the legitimate complaints you have made. I love Japanese mini lp style cardboard re-issues notwithsatnding your comments.

    We don’t need rows and rows of beetles so that parking would be more co-ordinated etc etc. Fiats(!!!!!!) can be fun once in a while

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  4. @ C Ho

    Have a look at the gallery (Universal boxed sets). Although some of them drive me wild at times, I still like them. Those are examples of sets one can show off to other people who usually raise their eyebrows in appreciation. The Verve designers are one really quirky bunch of people though. 🙂

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  5. Complete Rusty Bill Evans On Verve IS THE WORST OFFENDER

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  6. Yes, it’s certainly up there, but I recall some nutty collectors epitomizing the charm of all that accumulated rust … probably in defense of their purchase decision (as far as I recall, the box was damn expensive). 🙂

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  7. …and musically there are far better Bill Evans boxed sets than the rusty Verve – in my opinion, of course 🙂

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