Because the music industry is currently in catastrophic freefall in this age of cyber-piracy and credit crunching, fat cat record companies are all in a collective panic as to how they can retain their ivory towers of power and spin a profit. CD sales are down, the singles chart means nothing and now music fans can get their aural fix off things such as YouTube, download sites or MySpace. Faced with dwindling album sales and something of a digitalised DIY revolution, the record companies and media conglomerates have got to work out other ways to generate income, keep their superstars in the champagne lifestyle and line the pockets of the avaricious executives and shareholders.
A variety of methods – corporate tie-ins with bands and awkward attempts at assimilating into this new age of online audio activity – have been tried to keep the major labels on top, but the most exciting and interesting of the industry’s endeavours concerns CD albums. Even though bands have offered download-only releases (Radiohead for one with In Rainbows) and even swore they’d never release an album again (Ash), record companies aren’t quite ready to see the physical disc format die just yet. How can you attract ambivalent consumers to part with their cash and buy a CD? Simple: you supersize and spiff it up to the extreme.
Take thrash metal titans Metallica as a case study here. Having already struggled to grasp the changing cultural milieu when they took legal proceedings to download site Napster in 2000, the heavy metal legends have now realised that dealing with the brave new Internet age requires a bit more care. To simultaneously keep the commercial juggernaut going and present a compassionate image to fans, the band have opted to directly appeal to their audience and form a closer relationship – albeit with an attached price. In producing the hotly anticipated Death Magnetic – hyped as a fresh return to form after the “therapy” record St. Anger and its Spinal Tap-esque making-of documentary, Some Kind of Monster – Metallica took their marketing and promotion online with the Mission: Metallica website where fans could sign up to access exclusive content.
Excellent stuff for die-hard metalheads, but how to shift those album units that the band are teasing web surfers with? The answer: offer the engaged users the opportunity to get a grandstand, superdeluxe exclusive special edition of the record. Death Magnetic is available in a number of formats – download only, simple CD, CD with making-of DVD – but the king of them all is the £77 ‘Coffin Box’ special collector’s edition. It’s madly OTT; it’s morbid; it’s manna from heaven and a must have artefact for hardcore Metallica fans.
Death Magnetic is not the only deluxe article to be unleashed upon headbangers this year. The riffacious and widely revered metal gods Judas Priest decided to craft a concept album themed entirely around the 16th century prophet Nostradamus. Alongside the hope that fans won’t download single tracks but rather invest in the overall ‘concept’ (especially considering that the tracks segue into each other in an unbroken flow), the mighty Priest also put out a special edition version in a big fancy box for those who felt the need to not only have the double album on CD, but spread across three vinyl LPs with a bonus poster as well. By going for the pimped-up product, die-hard fans feel special and superior to the average apathetic downloader and get a cathartic kick out of being loyal followers of the band. Furthermore, they also take on a sense of owning a piece of history and in years time will be able to dust off their original rarity with pride (or flog it on eBay for an absolute fortune).
Metallica and their compatriots behind the Metalli-brand (I imagine them to be an army of hairy Hell’s Angels each branded with a big “M” on the forehead) are counting on that kind of dedication in the Mission: Metallica operation. So Metallica geeks and freaks, what do you get in your coffin of delights? Aside from a special edition digipack CD album, you also get a CD of demo tracks, a DVD of band rehearsals and a credit card allowing access to a downloadable live performance. And that’s not all headbangers! You also get a coffin-shaped poster, a flag, branded band guitar picks, a laminated necklace badge and a t-shirt, all sealed inside a sweet white sarcophagus that undoubtedly shreds in its innovative individuality. Right now Metallica fans across the globe – myself included – are trying to resist the urge that’s telling them to hand over the £70-odd for a piece of heavy metal history. A lack of cash and a critical awareness of the malign marketing games being played here should make sure that common sense prevails; a thrash metal fanboy streak means it may not…
As a desperate measure to make sure that record labels still shift units, it’s increasingly likely that these composite bonus releases will become all the more common as bands seek to capitalise on the anal record collector sensibility of music aficionados. The Death Magnetic coffin box from Metallica is the most ambitious and excessive so far; where does it go from here?