Boxed Set Excess

A 26-CD set, Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, reaches back to the 1890s, but has it gone too far?

Mansfield Park.
One of the more culturally imperative mainstays of the holiday season of the late 20th century is the boxed set of compact discs. They're often impressive, if only for packaging and annotation. In many cases, they're very good, maybe essential, primarily because of their archival value. But this year, it seems they've gone over the top.

In the early '90s, there were unusual, even flamboyant, boxed sets, such as a collection of pianist Bill Evans's works housed in a metal receptacle that, despite its pristine casing, was prone to rust. But this year, the watchword is size. Consider these boxes and prices:

The Rubinstein Collection from RCA Victor, consisting of 94 compact discs containing 706 recordings by acclaimed pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Retail price: about $1,300.

Bach 2000, a 153-CD set of the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach, from Teldec Classics. Featuring more than 100 world-premiere recordings and designed to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, its suggested list price is $1,199. A "light" version (which doesn't include Bach's sacred cantatas, covering 60 CDs by themselves) is available at $849 list.

Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, which includes everything from an 1890 United States Marine Band recording by John Philip Sousa to "Doo Wop (That Thing)" by Fugee diva Lauryn Hill. A 26-CD compilation of recordings made for the Columbia and Epic labels since Columbia was founded in 1890, it arrives with a companion book and lists for $329. It also is available as 12 separate multi-CD volumes, distinguished by genre.

Who buys these sets? Why compile them when, for the most part, the material is available elsewhere, if only in discrete form?

"I would hope that the audience is simply people who are interested in the history of recorded sound," says Billy Altman, editorial director for the Sony package. "To me, that was so much of the sound. Marc Kirkeby, who's in charge of the Sony archives, zeroed in on the fact that this is the story of recording technology. You're starting with a company that starts in the Washington area, because John Philip Sousa is working with the Marines, through the first flat discs, through the first 78 discs, the first double-sided flat discs, then the move to electrical recording from the acoustic recording of the '20s."

Conceived in early '98 for release through Sony's archival Legacy imprint, the Sony Soundtrack was a way to herald the millennium, Altman says. "All the major conglomerates were looking to do something to celebrate the millennium," he says. Altman, a freelance pop-culture critic, joined the project that spring, and by summer, various people throughout the company were working on compilations for all the genres.

Even though the package itself is questionably marketed with the sticker "the music of the century," it has drawn criticism as a valentine for Sony itself. "What was nice was, once artists themselves started finding out we were doing this, we were very heartened by everyone's participation," Altman says. For example, artists like Dylan and Springsteen, who never license their material, contributed to the package, and eventually the project involved the entire 550 Madison Avenue building. "Every different division was involved: jazz, pop, rock, classical, international. We all had input, and basically, everybody knew what was going on the entire time, which was fascinating. Departments that never speak to each other all of a sudden were sitting in the same conference room."

So the real goal of the Sony Soundtrack is group therapy? Altman laughs and sidesteps the issue. "As a person not of the building, not of that particular culture, I certainly came away with an understanding just of the history of the company and how this company did what it did over the course of one hundred years. You're talking about a company that goes back to a John Philip Sousa cylinder."

But to Altman, the value of the package extends far beyond the walls of 550 Madison. "As a working journalist, as a working critic, as a working historian, you don't get opportunities like this very often," he says. "I felt it was important that we try and get as much real information and useful insight, as well as the music itself. If we could document who plays on these recordings and have real experts talking about the songs and their impact on the culture and vice versa, this was a good place to do it. Insofar as what those goals were, I think we nailed it pretty well."

"Collectors want them, people want them," says Tom Cording, a Legacy spokesman. "I got a call from Lorne Michaels (the veteran Saturday Night Live producer), asking if they could purchase 20 for gifts." The company manufactured 15,000 of the compilations, 10,000 of them for the U.S. market, and Cording predicts they'll sell out. (They're often available at discount, like $240 at Virgin Records.) Besides their appeal as a corporate tchotchke, they're also being pitched to universities and libraries.

What of those who slam the project as self-absorbed -- a charge that may well stem from including, say, John Williams's Star Wars main theme but nothing by Elvis Presley or Hank Williams (who recorded, respectively, for RCA and MGM).

"Frankly, I've been somewhat alarmed by some of the reaction I've seen to this," Altman says. "It seems some thought of this as just sort of a backslapping whatever, and that is not what this is. It really is a historical overview of the entire company in, I think, the best possible sense of that word."

He also notes that Atlantic and Verve have issued similar, label-exclusive compilations, though not of Sony's scope. Then again, neither of those labels has been around as long as Sony. Longevity, it seems, supports license to box -- in a big, big way.

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