Some Thoughts on Beats Pills as Product Placement


“That’s some great unintentional symbolism right there: a woman is literally being choked by modern music. They are literally forcing these Beats Pills down our throats now.”

That’s a quote from Luke Giordano’s This Song Sucks review in regards to the above scene from Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch”, one of the many, many, many mainstream songs in the last couple of years to feature a Beats Pill in its music video for no apparent reason. If you don’t know what a Beats Pill is by now, it’s a portable speaker, like one of those dock-station gizmos you can buy from Aldi for about ten to twenty pounds, except the company Beats made it. That’s about it. Oh, and it has a little Blur-style ‘b’ on the front and a price-tag that’ll have you eating sawdust for a month if you’re strange enough to buy one. And sometimes they’re pink.

But why the sheer prevalence in modern music videos? Respect for Dr Dre, co-founder of Beats Music? Wanting to jump on the latest trend? Nah, simple product placement is my guess. That’s the gist of it, really: the Almighty, All-Consuming Dollar. It’s not like product placement is a new thing, either, but the utter ubiquity of these dorky speakers is still pretty startling. They’re so blatantly placed, too, as if the video makers figured that all they had to do to get us to splash out on these things is dangle them in front of our noses like a carrot or a hypnotist’s pendant. What’s also startling is just how little people care about this, as if we all unknowingly agreed to simply put up with this tasteless marketing spam without a fuss. Are we really all that okay with this nonsense? Or are we all all just bored and exhausted of shouting and pointing? If that’s the case then congratulations: we’ve shown capitalism that all it needs to do to crush us into place is wait until we tire of fighting back, at which point it gets to move in and do whatever it flaming well pleases. Just ask the reservoir where Capel Celyn used to be.

Okay, maybe I’m overly dramatic here: this isn’t a surprising turn of events, by any means. Product placement in pop culture has been getting more and more aggressive over recent years, two significant examples being Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video in 2010 and the last Transformers film (whose very existence is basically product placement). With that last example in mind, maybe it’s actually not a bad thing that Beats is everywhere: instead of lots of obnoxious products being shoved into our face we merely get the one, like a King Rat situation where the big rat keeps all the little rats in place. Still, it’s pretty shameless; and though I’m not sure we needed further confirmation that the modern music industry is little more than QVC set to better (or worse?) music, here it is anyway.

(And yes, music videos are expensive to make, largely because the music industry is in a hole it arguably dug itself, so the video creators need a way to finance these things and, sometimes, have to sell themselves out a little to cover the costs. But did they ever consider, y’know, just spending less money? Surely there’s a way to make a striking, provocative piece of footage without spending the average yearly expenditure of a small European country? If these people were just a little more creative and… you know what, never mind.)

So let’s look at a hilarious exercise in self-justification from Beats president Luke Wood, via Dazed, in which he discusses the rise of the Beats Pill and its increasing presence in music videos. Firstly, I’d like to mention the opening statement from the interviewer in which she un-ironically informs Wood that, in contrast to the Beats Pill, “some product placement can feel way too forced,” making her either a dedicated kiss-ass or the most naive journalist I’ve ever encountered. Wood’s response:

The great thing about the music video is music, and music has to come from somewhere. So just like a Fender Stratocaster has the perfect place in a rock video, headphones and speakers are perfect in a music video.

Well, that’s a false equivalency right off the bat: the Stratocaster doesn’t play the music, the guitarist plays the music using the Stratocaster. It’s not a speaker, it’s an instrument: the very thing needed to write and make the music in the first place. You can’t write a song on a Beats Pill. If that’s what you’re going with, show us your Pro Tools rack in your video instead, or the poor engineer having to rush out the next Ariana Grande single. A better equivalent would be the amplifier the guitar is plugged into, except that’s also a stretch because amplifiers are necessary components for the electric guitar sound – it’s how we hear the ruddy thing – whereas most devices that can play music these days come with their own internal speakers.

His claim that “music has to come from somewhere” is a strange one, too, because rock videos don’t always show the band playing; and it’s a rare thing indeed to see pop artists playing any instruments in their videos. Besides, if the Pills weren’t there it’s not like we’d be saying, “hey, what’s going on? Where’s that music coming from?” How dumb does corporate America think we are?

Here’s another quote on the nature of the Beats Pill as a “status accessory”:

I made rock videos for a very long time, and it was never a mistake what kind of guitar they were playing in the video. The guitar player thought for a long time, “What do I want to say about myself in this song? And the guitar says that.” I think everything has semantic value.

Yes, and the Beats Pill says a lot about the video’s maker, too. It says, “Beats paid us lots and lots of money to put this in our music video.” Also, yes, I would imagine guitarists are usually concerned with the semantic value of their guitar in a song, given that “playing said guitar” is often their only role within it. Are we really putting “guitarist” and “person who holds and/or turns on unnecessary portable speaker” on the same pedestal now?

The discussion trails off a bit from here into Wood’s time in the industry and the changes he’s seen, which could have made for an interesting interview on its own. Instead it’s inserted into this nothing of an ego massage, which quickly rolls back to Beats and the changing musical landscape. On whether things have “changed for the better”:

Some artists are truly multidimensional and their vision transcends making a recorded artefact. For many artists, it’s an incredibly rich time because the canvas is everything: it’s installation, video work, TV, broadcasts, live events, theatre. For an artist who likes to play with visuals, you can change that every day through Tumblr or Instagram.

You know, I wonder if I should send that into Pseuds Corner in Private Eye and earn myself a tenner? At least half of those things he lists have been around since the Seventies (heck, Alice Cooper built a career on incorporating theatre into the medium of the rock concert), so why does he seem to refer to this as a recent occurrence? I should note at this point that the article’s title is “Why the Beats Pill is suddenly everywhere” and at no point has the interviewer made any attempt to actually squeeze an answer out of the man as to why this is. I mean, it’s fairly evident, but a concrete answer would still be nice.

And finally, on whether he is surprised by how well musicians have taken to being paid huge whopping sacks of cash to endorse Beats Pills:

No. We built the Pill because we found ourselves constantly in situations where we wanted something other than a headphone.

Like a portable speaker, which is not a technology Beats “built” by any means. Ever since they figured out how to make regular size speakers smaller, we’ve had what the Beats Pill essentially is. Besides, most of these people are likely to have an iPhone or some sort of smartphone, which I’m sure also play music out loud if you remove the earphones. Come on, even my battered old iPod Touch from five years ago can do that.

We’d be somewhere and we wanna hear music. […] Usually I’d be bored out of my mind with no music. That’s what the Pill does for people, especially artists who travel constantly.

So yes, the interview itself is effectively product placement as well (as is this post if you think about it, but let’s not). Weirdly enough, he doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining why I actually need a Beats Pill. If you’re an artist constantly on the move, I would imagine you already have some accessible method of playing music, given that you rely on the medium to earn a living. If you’re in the car and want to play some songs off your iPhone or whatever, just buy a cheap auxiliary lead and connect it to the radio. Some cars even come with Bluetooth so you can beam the music without any fiddly cables. So you ask, “but what if I’m on a train or a plane, or even walking down the street, and I need my jam”? Then respect the other passengers or passers-by who might not want to listen to the latest Calvin Harris single with you and use your headphones, you git.

Okay, look, if you own a Beats Pill or are thinking of buying one, kudos to you. I don’t want to discourage or dishearten you in your purchase in any way. Truth be told I can see how they might be useful, particularly if you’re hanging out with your friends and you want some loud, clear music playing as a soundtrack. But it isn’t anything new and, from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t give you any better sound than that cheap Aldi speaker I mentioned earlier in the post. Please, combat corporate America today and simply think about your purchases.

This has been an Archbudgie public service announcement. You may now resume your internet duties.


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