Imagine a mysterious brushed-aluminum cube, big enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Its surface is studded with four unmarked buttons, and pitted with two holes, on opposite sides, that appear to be for earphone jacks. Etched on the side, a simple plea: "Don't break my love."
This is beat minimalist Nicholas Jaar's new album. If you plug your earphones in, the cube extrudes a dozen new tracks. You can't download them to your computer. They dwell only in the cube, which Jaar calls "the Prism."
This is the reality of the music business in 2012: as listeners engage streaming services like Spotify and retire their CD collections, music has become disembodied. There's little money in releasing mp3s into the wilds of the Internet, yet CDs hold no allure as collectible objects. "If you're a record label," Jaar told the Guardian, "you should be making something people can't make [themselves]."
With that in mind, a niche cadre of innovators — who understand the dwindling value of tracks alone — are generating creative efforts that are twisting old merchandising models inside out. MF Doom re-issued Operation Doomsday as a tin lunchbox, so as to honor his metal-faced persona. Last year, Connecticut MC Apathy dropped his Honky Kong project as a throwback beeper with a USB drive. Like a handful of their contemporaries — many from the hip-hop realm, others from different genres — Doom and Apathy are thinking way beyond the tracks, and are releasing music as toys and kitsch keepsakes. All this while others cry that the market is moribund.
There's something nostalgic about this trend in merchandising. Some claim to worship vinyl's rich texture, but in reality albums were always just collectibles — hardly different from any other dusty trophies that sit on shelves to make friends jealous. It's not the magic in the grooves that would compel someone to take a bullet for their wax collection. More likely it's the cover art, the liner notes, and the dopamine spike they get with every glance at their prize items.
"People have to come up with more and more inventive ideas to stand out from the crowd," says James Hills, owner of the New York and Los Angeles–based Unified Manufacturing. Unified is a leader in custom media, and has worked with the subterranean likes of Doom, as well as such marquee artists as Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder. "If you're not providing something special, then why should people buy it? It's got to be genuine. It's got to be unique. And it's got to be something that not everyone can get their hands on."