Can This Little Cube Bring Music Sales Back To Life?

The band Linkin Park has supported a curious little device called PlugAir that could boost sales of digital music. Is this next-generation merchandising or a last-ditch effort against digital music?

Thanks to digital downloads, people aren’t buying CDs anymore—especially at concerts, where albums used to be hot merchandise. For bands, translating concert-attending enthusiasm into digital downloads is next to impossible.

Machine Shop, a think tank and creative studio owned by the band Linkin Park, thinks a new hardware device called PlugAir might be the answer to helping artists while enticing consumers. "Physical products will never be completely obsolete," says Kiel Berry, EVP of Machine Shop. "With everything going digital, it just means that the role of physical products will need to change."

It was apparent very quickly that vouchers for digital downloads were a non-starter: No one gets excited about paying money for a piece of paper. Selling vinyl records at shows has become more popular for engaged fans that want something to take home, but it’s still not the long-term answer in a digital world.

With PlugAir, people buy a small plastic cube device which connects to the headphone jack of any phone and, in combination with an app, unlocks digital content instantly, giving the user the same instant gratification as buying a physical CD.

In its current, beta iteration, PlugAir is black cube that sports a 3.5mm headphone adapter, but Berry imagines future shapes could be as elaborate sculptures or collectible toys. "The possibilities are endless because the patent-pending technology can be embedded into almost any physical item," he says.

If the experiments of other music companies like Beats are any indication, digital products still need physical ones to sell well, and physical products are increasingly expected to come pre-packaged with digital content.

Other companies, like Rhapsody, have been continually trying to tie their digital service to physical products, with only mediocre success. In Rhapsody’s case, that means offering 60-day trials with partner products like headphones, speakers, and other music related items. Again, it’s one thing to have a paper coupon for headphones, and quite another to have instant access through your mobile device—so perhaps Rhapsody’s middling success isn’t necessarily a bad sign for PlugAir.

So far, the device has been used to distribute content to Linkin Park’s fan club. Most artists are aware of the current situation and are becoming increasingly desperate for a new physical/digital hybrid to sell. The real challenge, says Berry, shouldn’t be convincing touring musicians they need something like PlugAir—rather it’s convincing indifferent consumers it’s worth the hassle over a pure digital solution.

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  • mforonda

    This reminds me of Jaron Lanier's 'Songle' concept in You are not a gadget: a physical key to create artificial scarcity for digital objects (songs). He imagined a narrative where everyone showed up at a party with wearable songles which a system would identify to create a musical mix. They would allow a deeper relationship with music and greater segmentation opportunities: expensive opera songles made by craftsmen from fine materials and cheap pop songles made by toy manufacturers.

  • SHiNE

    Keep working on it fellas, I like the direction you're heading in. Having just come from the Yeezus tour, I could totally see something like this working. It would be nice for "plug air" to link me to exclusive content that I can't just download on the web. The problem is that we know how digital goes, a few people pay for it, they rip it and the rest of the net has it so why should more people pay for it. It's definitely a start, I'm interested and learning where you guys go with this.

  • marcusv

    This is...misguided at best. I can appreciate the technology behind this but the suggested uses are hard to even take seriously.

  • Oben

    I listen music all the time.. At home, on the bus, walking down the street... Anywhere when I'm alone. And I put my smart phone in my POCKET. How am I supposed to put it in there with a cube?

    Linkin Park does great music but with all due respect, this idea sucks.