Unpacking the digital boxed set concept

Still on the subject of Apple’s latest iPod announcement, one element that got less attention than others was the introduction of the concept of the digital box set — in this case 400 U2 tracks bundled together and downloadable with a single click, plus $149. Steve Jobs describes this just over 28 minutes into this stream of the event.
Such commentary as there has been has focused on the pricing, since 400 tracks for $149 works out at a lot less than the ‘standard’ $0.99 per track. But I find pricing boring: the idea of reducing unit price for bulk purchases is not an innovation to set the pulse racing.
What’s interesting about the digital box set is that it recreates the idea of a collection — remember how many people have been saying that downloads herald the end of the album — though I think this first example of the genre is a fluffed opportunity.

In the physical world, boxed sets have worked by offering something unique, something that will hold special appeal to serious and casual fans alike. Extra unreleased tracks have often been part of this, and the U2 bundle includes 25 of these. But alongside the extra music, boxed sets usually include something special in the packaging (admittedly often a mixed blessing, because it means the packages rarely stack neatly on a shelf), extra artwork, or a book and increasingly a DVD that provides some historical and cultural context for the music.
The Apple/U2 announcement keeps the digital and physical bundles distinct. You don’t even get the special edition poster, and its scrawled incantation from Bono the shamrock shaman, with the boxed set: you have to get the $349 special edition iPod if you want that. That may make sense logistically for the suppliers, but it doesn’t make for a great sell to the punters, who must be tempted to wait for those 25 unreleased tracks to become available via some other means.
What I’d be interested in doing is defining the unique material that would make a ‘digital boxed set’ something really worth its name. Something that would draw together the tracks on offer and give them an identity as a collection rather than a marked-down bundle. My instinct says that this is achievable, even if the unique material had to be mainly or wholly digital.
IPods may not be great for reading text or watching video. But the vast majority of iPod owners have computers with access to the web (that’s how they get most of their audio material). So give them access to material either on the web (and thus potentially dynamic) or multimedia download files. This could follow the example of excellent resources like Radio 2’s Sold on Song site. It could include ‘making of’ features. Or any other criticism, either commissioned or collected and licensed.
And the advantage of this digital material is that, as a marketing tool, you could unbundle some of it from rest and from the tracks in a way that doesn’t make economic sense with a physical boxed-set booklet. Making some content available free of charge could promote sales of the full collection.
As it stands now, a serious U2 fan with all their previous albums is faced with paying $149 for 25 unreleased tracks plus the 12 on the new album. That’s not such a good price per track after all. And if they want the videos and interviews on the bonus DVD that comes with the new album in its physical incarnation, they’ll have to buy it on CD as well. Apple and U2 have set the benchmark for the digital boxed set very low indeed: it must get better from here.

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