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7 October, 2008


Steven Wilson's latest solo album, the first to be released under his own name, is now available for preorder.  I don't recommend buying it.

To be more precise, the 'special edition' of 'Insurgentes' is now available in two formats, for despatch in late November, but I recommend avoiding them in favour of a standard retail edition expected in early 2009.

The 'special edition' is offered in two formats:

  • A CD with a second CD of 'outtakes', plus the same music in surround sound and higher resolution on DVD-A. The DVD will also include an 18-min extract from a forthcoming full-length documentary film.
  • The music from both CDs on four 10" vinyl records, with no more than 12 minutes on each side.
Both formats will be packaged in a large hardback book of photographs by Lasse Hoile and Susana Moyaho. This means each package will weigh 1.6 kg, and a collector wanting both formats would receive two books.

You may be starting to see the problem. Whilst the prices of the items themselves are on the 'expensive' side of 'reasonable' (the CD edition costs £34, whilst Marillion is offering 'Happiness is the Road' as two CDs in smaller hardback books for £30), posting large items of such extreme weight, in special protective packaging, is expensive: 4.75 within the UK is okay, but 11.65 (£9.05) to mainland EU or $25.49 (£14.55) to the USA becomes questionable. And that's for the CD/DVD edition alone; a US collector ordering that and the vinyl would pay a startling $162.59, of which $51.89, or 32%, would be postage.

SW, Carl Glover and Burning Shed (the artist, designer and retailer) don't set international postage costs, so it's been justifiably said that they can't be blamed. Yet that's disingenuous: they didn't define the costs but have admitted that they were fully aware of what they'd be. They had an opportunity to say "we'd like to do this but it'll cost too much to distribute" – but chose not to. That decision was entirely their responsibility, and they have to accept the consequence: that alienating the fanbase could (should?) harm all involved.
Ordinarily I'd have been happy to spread the word about 'Insurgentes' without any particular caveats, but as you see, all I'm now inclined to do is criticise the excessive packaging & consequent shipping costs – I'm not even bothering to mention the music and it's no accident that I'm withholding links to related websites.

I have no objections to the existence of collectors' editions which the... less committed (aka rational) might consider overpriced; if people want to literally buy into an artist's aesthetics, that's fine, so long as more reasonably-priced editions exist too. 'Luxury' elements should be ancillary, such as additional artwork, minority-interest formats or, indeed, coffee-table books, whereas the core content (all the music) should be available to everyone (who's willing to pay a fair price – I'm not talking about free gifts!).
In that situation, calls to "stop whining – buy it if you want, don't if you don't" might be fair, but that's not the case here: it currently seems that the only way to legally obtain the music on the second CD would be to buy one of the hardback editions.

My own preference for the special edition would have involved the release of three distinct products:

  • Two CDs and a DVD-A in packaging like the 'FoaBP' special edition (the discs in a digipack plus a perfect-bound booklet, both in a thick card slipcase). No hardback book.
  • Box set of vinyl. No hardback book.
  • Hardback book. No music.
Then people could have chosen the combination they wanted (or still waited for the retail edition), and collectors wanting both the CD/DVD and the vinyl wouldn't require two copies of the book, cutting unnecessary costs for everyone.

'Insurgentes' is also an ongoing film project, with Lasse Hoile producing a documentary about the making of the album. A stated theme is:

... the album as art form, applying the same aesthetic vision through the writing, performance, production, artwork, lyrics, videos and beyond. The film looks into the issues of creating, packaging and marketing music in an era when iPods, mp3s and download culture are changing and eroding perceptions of exactly what an album is supposed to sound and look like.
A discussion of devaluation of 'the album' as a physical object would indeed be interesting, but when the response seems to be hyperinflation of 'the album' into a lavish artefact, I don't feel able to condone SW's vision. Not at my expense.

An overreaction? In isolation, perhaps, but as not even the most extreme example of an ongoing trend not limited to SW's albums (as Porcupine Tree and other projects, particularly Bass Communion), it does need to be challenged. It's reaching a point where an album's 'special edition' is the primary release, with a nominally mainstream 'retail edition' actually being a cut-down afterthought released several months later, if ever. Again, I don't object to a collectors' edition being made available to a comparative minority, so long as that's alongside a less elaborate, unlimited edition for everyone else. One shouldn't have to pay extraordinary prices for additional cardboard just to hear the music – it's a game with which I'm rapidly losing patience.

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