Why the Beats Pill is suddenly everywhere

How one pill-shaped piece of audio equipment went from mere product placement to a pop culture phenom

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Yesterday, Nicki Minaj dropped the music video for “Pills N Potions”, the lead single off upcoming album The Pink Print. In between weeping digitally-enhanced tears and carrying around the Game’s head like a basketball, there’s one visual standout: a Beats Pill speaker, tumbling against a backdrop of pills. 

You know you’ve made it in music if the Beats logo starts popping up in your videos. In an age of ubiquitous product placement, the Pill has been unusually successful – it’s appeared in music videos for pop big hitters like Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke as well as more underground artists like Yelawolf and JUCE.

Namechecking Beats by Dre in a verse is the 21st century equivalent of dropping references to your favourite gold chain – it’s become a status accessory and a pop culture phenomenon in and of itself. While most products jar when they appear in videos, there’s been something weirdly uncanny about how the Pill has spread through rap, hip-hop and commercial pop without sparking an eye-rolling backlash a la Lady Gaga’s placement-heavy “Telephone” video.

Luke Wood, the president of Beats, considers himself pretty unsurprised by its success. But then again, when you’ve got Nicki, one of rap’s biggest artists, pretty much inserting your brand into a song title – would you be surprised? We spoke to Wood about how a headphone brand became a cultural touchstone, and why it’s changing the industry.

DD: Some product placement can feel way too forced – PlentyOfFish’s appearance in Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” video comes to mind.

Luke Wood: One of the things that’s helpful is that Jimmy Iovine, Dre and myself made music videos for many years. I’ve made a hundred videos in my life; Jimmy’s probably made 500. We have a good sense of how to make visual content. And all we want is for the artist to do what’s right, so we’re not interested in having our stuff just be on screen for a certain amount of time. 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.

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The Pill in the "Work Bitch" video from Britney Spears

DD: Interestingly, the products have become a kind of status accessory in a music video. Instead of a rapper rolling in a Lambo, they pick up a Pill.

Luke Wood: If you look at the history of the music video, it’s always been about that. Whether it’s car culture or fashion or sneakers, even instruments. 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.

DD: You were in A&R for years and worked with bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana. How’s it changed? 

Luke Wood: I started in an era of the music business where record companies had control of the distribution and there was a much more robust economy. The truth is there was artist development. People just signed groups like Sonic Youth beause they were great and there was no pressure for immediate commercial return. In the current economy, you have a much shorter time frame to have success from an investment standpoint. I think of an artist like Elliot Smith: Elliot never had to worry about his email list, his Tumblr page, his Instagram or his FB. Elliot would go home and write songs; that was his job. That’s very different to the challenges facing artists now.

DD: Do you think that’s changed for the better? It feels like musicians are moving towards closer association with streaming sites, hardware like Beats and other kinds of deals and sponsorships. 

Luke Wood: 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. That’s a really fun playground for certain kinds of artists and it creates a really vibrant cultural life. 

DD: Looking back on the Pill, are you surprised by how well musicians have taken to it?

Luke Wood: No. We built the Pill because we found ourselves constantly in situations where we wanted something other than a headphone. We’d be somewhere and we wanna hear music; like in my bathroom this morning getting shaved and dressed, I had the greatest jam to Otis Redding and the new Parquet Courts album. 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. And I’ve also found business professionals who swear by the Pill for conference calls, so there’s a lot of hardcore business being done on the Pill.

DD: I’m sure Dre would approve. 

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