Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: desirable? Good value? Worthwhile investment?

How desirable are the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets?  Do they offer good value?  Are they a worthwhile investment?

The last Bob Dylan article in ROCK ART EDITIONS concluded that the ten standard releases in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series are noteworthy for their “definitive photos and exquisite packaging”, as well as their music.

This follow-up article turns to the visual art of the four Deluxe box sets, focusing on their “rock art” – slipcases, books, photos and packaging.

The music – which ranges from very good to celestial – is largely ignored in this article.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: Vol. 8 Tell Tale Signs

After releasing Vols. 1-7 in a standard 2CD-in-slipcase format, Columbia Legacy innovated for Vol. 8 with an added-value option, an “Expanded Deluxe Edition”, with a third CD and more artefacts.

The release introduced a handy new format in a rigid card slipcase, in an attractive new size, 8 5/8″ square x 1 5/8″ thick. The slipcase holds two hardcover books. A 60pp book with liner notes and photos is a bigger version of that in the standard-size 2CD release. The extra book, Collected Single Sleeves, is a 160pp hardback, with reproductions of the paper covers which housed Dylan vinyl 45rpm records released around the world.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series deluxe box sets

Tell Tale Signs Deluxe Edition

The Bob Dylan online store offered an incentive to customers ordering from them: an exclusive 7″ single. And the first 5,000 orders were also rewarded with a Theme Time Radio Hour poster.

Sony probably had mixed feelings when evaluating the success of the release. It must have been a commercial success – it seems to have sold out pretty quickly. But it attracted hostility from some hardcore Dylan fans. Many, perhaps shocked by the novel nose-bleed price level, labelled it a “rip-off” – bad news if the intention was to roll out subsequent releases.

The naysayers perceived Vol. 8 as an attempt to extract an unwarranted premium price for CD3. The problem was probably not the new price level (about £100 in the UK, from memory), but limited added value: the extras didn’t warrant the price differential over the 2CD release.

The music on the standard Tell Tale Signs is among the high points of the whole series. CD3 in the Deluxe Edition was, frankly, rather marginal. And the second book was an odd choice, appealing to a minority of purchasers. The book was also sold separately as a “limited edition”, undermining further the allure of the Deluxe box. I bought (for £15) the copy I happened upon in London.

The release of a single CD version of Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 8 Tell Tale Signs – another  novelty – probably confused buyers further.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: the template is fixed

In hindsight, Columbia Legacy made errors with the Deluxe edition of Vol. 8.  But they proved there’s a market for high-priced, added-value product and worked out a template for subsequent releases: a rigid card slipcase, measuring 8 5/8″ square; two hardback books, the first an expanded version of the mainstream CD-sized version, also housing the discs, and a second with extra photos, vinyl cover art, studio logs and the like. They probably learned that they needed to offer more obvious added value.

Columbia Legacy also demonstrated their marketing nous by standardising the size and formatting of deluxe boxes.  It tempts collectors to buy the complete set… by buying Vol. 8 Deluxe Edition, many Dylan fans unconsciously signed up for subsequent deluxe box sets.

The next Bootleg Series release, Vol. 9 The Witmark Demos, probably came too soon to apply these lessons. It was only released as a CD-sized two disc package with card slipcase and matching booklet: a first-rate release, but not Deluxe. (In Concert – Brandeis University 1963, a seven track promo CD was offered as an exclusive incentive by Amazon, but it wasn’t part of the Vol. 9 package).

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: Vol. 10 Another Self Portrait

Vol. 10 Another Self Portrait improves on the Deluxe model established with Vol. 8. It has two extra CDs of music, “the first complete release of the August 1969 Isle of Wight Festival performance newly re-mixed from the original source” and a “remastered version of the 1970 Self Portrait album, in its entirety with original sequencing.”

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series deluxe box sets

Another Self Portrait Deluxe Edition

The musical extras might be underwhelming, but the packaging isn’t. The attractive rigid slipcase houses two excellent hardcover books. A bigger version of the standard version liner notes includes the revisionist essay by Greil Marcus (author of the notorious “What is this shit?” 1970 Self Portrait review in Rolling Stone).  It has the same exquisite front cover photo as the CD-sized booklet (uncredited, but probably by John Cohen). The second book, Time Passes Slowly – Photographs And More, is an “Exclusive Deluxe-Bound Book” of 127 pages of rare and unseen photographs, as well as magazine covers and sleeve art from worldwide Dylan releases.

The first 5,000 customers ordering from the Bob Dylan online store also received a fine poster promoting the original release of Self Portrait.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: Vol. 11 The Basement Tapes Complete, Limited Deluxe Edition

With Vol. 11 The Basement Tapes Complete, a “Limited Deluxe Edition” of 6CDs, Columbia Legacy perfected the deluxe edition format. And hit the mother lode, commercially and creatively. Sony’s bean counters must have been as pleased as the legions of Dylanistas.

Steve Berkowitz, Sony’s Co-Producer for the whole series, claims that The Basement Tapes is the most sought-after bootleg in all rock music.  He’s absolutely right: gems from The Basement Tapes kick-started the (unofficial) bootleg industry nearly 50 years ago.  It has engaged hardcore rock fans ever since.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series deluxe box sets

The Basement Tapes Complete (Deluxe Edition)

Vol. 11 The Basement Tapes Complete sets a new benchmark for deluxe back catalogue product.  The musical content of The Basement Tapes Complete is so important, so revelatory, that Columbia Legacy could probably have sold the CDs in plain paper bags, without any embellishment. To their credit, they created a very high spec package, too.

The slipcase holds two books. The one holding the six CDs has the liner notes, with several long features including a nine-page essay by Dylan guru Clinton Heylin on the origins of the recordings. The cover has the original Reid Miles artwork from the 1975 album release, with Dylan pretending to play a mandolin. (The same cover is used on the standard-sized booklet of the 2CD “Raw” version of Vol. 11.)

The second book in the package, Lo & Behold: Photographs & More has exquisite photos by Elliott Landy, as well as pictures of tape reels, record sleeves and magazine covers. The “exclusive 120 page deluxe-bound book containing rare and unseen photographs and memorabilia” is a beauty, a very desirable bonus.

If I were to buy only one of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets, it would be The Basement Tapes, because of its essential, often unheard, music and fine packaging. In my view, it’s the Deluxe Edition with most added value.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: Vol. 12 The Cutting Edge Deluxe Edition

The music of The Cutting Edge is an alternative history of Peak Dylan, out-takes from his top three albums, all recorded in a whirlwind of creative genius in a short period in the mid-1960s.

The Deluxe Edition’s six CDs consist of alt versions of songs that were immortalised on the trio of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde. One disc is devoted entirely to different versions of Like A Rolling Stone.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series deluxe box sets

The Cutting Edge Deluxe Edition

Alone among the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets, The Cutting Edge gives you an entrée into Dylan’s creative process, as he chops and changes between different tempi, instrumentation, arrangements and lyrics.

The packaging follows the by-now-familiar deluxe format: slipcase, two hardback books, one with liner notes and the CDs, the other a collection of Bob Dylan photos. The first book is a bigger version of the liner notes booklet issued with the 2CD version and the bonus  book is the 120-page Mixing Up the Medicine: Photographs and More.

Having cemented the high value deluxe format with The Cutting Edge, Sony pushed the envelope again with an ultra deluxe edition, pitched at an atmospheric price point. The Collector’s Edition 18CD version was released in a numbered limited edition of 5,000, complete with the package number on the Certificate of Authenticity, and only available from the official Bob Dylan website.

Packaged in an attractive, hefty box, the Collector’s Edition comes complete with the two books of the Deluxe Edition (though Mixing Up the Medicine: Photographs and More is longer – 170pp).

Its massive collection of 18 CDs is housed in a third “book”. The product is enhanced by memorabilia, including nine x 7″ vinyl mono singles, housed in repro paper sleeves; a piece of celluloid with a few random frames from Don’t Look Back; and semi-transparent item separators featuring artwork promoting the mid-1960s releases.

The music of Bob Dylan has always been at the centre of music biz innovation: Great White Wonder kick-started the bootlegging revolution.  The Bootleg Series created a new “official” product category.  The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 opened up a higher value niche.  Vol. 12 Collector’s Edition has kick-started yet another segment of the market, for very high value product.

Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: desirable?  Value for money?  A worthwhile investment?

So, are the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets desirable?

Yes: very desirable, both as beautifully designed artefacts and as collections of music.  They have found a ready market among Dylan devotees.  Some are more desirable than others, of course.  My favourites are Vols. 11 and 12.

Good value for money?  Deluxe Vol. 8 was released at the new high price to a chorus of outrage. But it quickly sold out. Subsequent releases contain rather more added value.  The Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets are affordable.

Value is in the eye of the beholder: if you think these box sets will give you pleasure, you’ll probably buy them.

But are they a worthwhile investment?  How likely are they to rise in value?

One or two might.  The first of the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series deluxe box sets – Vol. 8, Tell Tale Signs – has (limited) potential for growth – because it was released as a “limited edition”. Since its 2008 launch, it has roughly doubled in value. But only to about £160, according to the Discogs website. Hardly an “investment”, unless you risked buying a few cratefuls at discount on release!

It’s difficult to see increases in value in the deluxe editions of the other volumes, certainly not while you can still buy them new, from major retailers.  They’re not my idea of a worthwhile investment.

The Collector’s Edition of Vol. 12 is a true limited edition – Sony pegged the edition size at 5,000 copies and indicated that it would never be exceeded. As it’s a definitive record of Peak Dylan music, as well as a very fine artefact, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t appreciate in value.

Conclusions: Bob Dylan Bootleg Series deluxe box sets are desirable and reasonably good value, but they have limited investment potential.

Fans are eagerly awaiting the release of many more volumes in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. Most will buy the standard 2CD versions, but a growing number will switch to the Deluxe Editions. And I’d guess Columbia Legacy will roll out the ultra deluxe format of Vol. 12 Collector’s Edition: expect more very high-priced limited editions.

Columbia Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment are outstanding curators of Dylan’s legacy. Their Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets are fine luxury products. Though it’s unfashionable to heap praise on record industry “suits”, I raise my glass to Sony’s long-term Bootleg Series Co-Producer, Steve Berkowitz.

Copyright of this article, Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Deluxe box sets: text © Gerald Smith, Rock Art Editions, pictures © Columbia Legacy/Sony Music Entertainment. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.

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