The New Celebrity Music Economy

The founder of a company that helps stars like Dr. Dre make headphones and more explains the collaborative process

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Lady Gaga displays the Polaroid GL10 Instant Mobile Printer as she unveils the Polaroid Grey Label of products she co-designed at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center January 6, 2011.
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High-tech apps, gadgets and gear are quickly becoming the hottest new accessory for celebrity musicians, including Katy Perry and 50 Cent. January debuts alone include Polaroid and Lady Gaga’s Grey Label digital photography gear, Ludacris’ Soul headphones and Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am's new range of smartphone applications and creative partnership with computing titan Intel. Stranger than these seemingly mismatched pairings, though, is how such collaborations actually come about, says the industrial design firm behind some of the field’s most successful consumer products.

According to Robert Brunner, founder of San Francisco-based engineering outfit Ammunition, who developed both Grey Label and the best-selling Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, much of the genesis for these ventures starts with artists themselves.

“For it to work, the artist needs to have an interest and be passionate about the products and business area, ” Brunner says. “With Dre and [Interscope head] Jimmy Iovine there was a belief about wanting better sound platforms for music for their audience, so we helped them create a platform to do this. For Lady Gaga, there is a love and respect of the original Polaroid brand and passion about the creation and sharing of images, so she connected with them to work together. We became involved to help create the first products. Now it’s become a full effort to help Polaroid to return to its roots of innovation.”

Profit is obviously a motivator as well, as evidenced by Beats by Dr. Dre, which has sold hundreds of thousands of units, with models retailing for as much as $349. Nonetheless, Brunner says that manufacturers such as Monster Cable and Sleek Audio are less interested in pure numbers than pioneering new markets, gaining a reputation for creating premium products and extending brand awareness.

“One reason [for these partnerships] is always the desire to connect with artists’ audiences,” he admits. “But increasingly, another primary goal is to tap musicians’ creativity in new ways. Dre drives the sound performance of every Beats product and brings his producer’s ear and audio beliefs to the creation process. Gaga brings her design vision, ability to define trends and understanding of the social nature of imaging. It’s about bringing new ideas, viewpoints and energy to areas the artist usually does not participate in.”

While the actual extent of celebs’ project participation varies, Brunner says that most focus on defining the overall experience end users will have with products, including establishing their general look, feel and interface. Most of the technical design aspects predictably fall to engineers. But Brunner says that Dr. Dre is extremely fastidious about defining the acoustic aspects he wants featured, while Iovine focuses on branding and design. Conversely, Lady Gaga prefers to concentrate on aesthetics and how gear can fit into modern cultural and social contexts. Working in tandem with celebrities, firms like Ammunition handle technical specifications, prototyping and manufacturing, going back and forth to create a gadget that fits the artist’s signature vision.

“I see our role as deeply collaborative,” he says. “This only works if we respect their ideas, and they respect our expertise as well.”

To this extent, says Brunner, celebrities do actively review development progress, and weigh in regularly with input and feedback on finer product details. He describes the actual process of physically creating and defining an aesthetic for a tangible good as one that begins with initial brainstorming and discussion. Afterwards, specific concepts and rough models are generated by the design team. Once complete, these early stage creations are reviewed by the artist, oftentimes directly in person, and feedback provided. Multiple rounds of development and product remodeling follow, with celebrities’ primary interactions at this point confined to phone calls or emails. After a final concept has been locked in and prototypes provided, artists review preproduction models for final approval and tweaks.

“It’s a back and forth thing,” admits Brunner. “One of our challenges is always helping the artist to understand what it takes to build a great product, and what the challenges, constraints and technical and ergonomic issues are. But if it’s a shared responsibility, it usually goes well.”

The shape of products is typically defined, he says, by an intersection of the experience creators hope to achieve, customers’ expectations and the item’s ultimate retail cost. As for those high prices, that’s another story. Despite shoppers’ constant emphasis on bargains, he says that focusing on cost savings alone often leads to an inexpensive product with an unsatisfying experience. Brunner says the push to add premium features that help consumers recognize value. “People thought we were crazy to go out with $300 headphones,” he laughs. “Now we can’t make them fast enough.”

Historically, he says, celebrity-branded products were often seen as an easy payday that required little to no active effort. And while some still are, he confesses, the artists who take this approach today usually don’t last long at retail. The musicians with the most successful branded gear “roll up their sleeves and dive in.”

It’s easy to see why, as creating a new gadget generally takes a year of active commitment. Schedules can run longer though if it’s a concept neither party has experience working with (or be shortened if the design involves modifying on existing technology). Dozens of people are typically involved, from program managers to mechanical engineers, software engineers, marketing professionals and factory workers (who handle tooling, production and assembly). Ultimately, he estimates as many as 50 to 100 professionals’ hands will have touched development before a product even hits the factory floor, even though only one name will ever adorn the box.

Creative clashes are rare, but do happen, Brunner admits. “I’m not interested in being a pair of hands for somebody, no matter who they are,” he says. “And it won’t work if I’m just creating my vision and ignoring the artist either. The audience knows when either situation occurs, either through an unresolved or ill-conceived product. Part of it is a process of getting to the spirit and soul of an artist, and crafting a great object and experience.”

“Looking forward, I can see more things happening, where artists really jump into a company and actively drive product development,” Brunner says. “But if everybody wants their name on the genre, it becomes a veneer. You’ll probably see more [copycatting] before it goes away. But on the plus side, I’m hopeful we’ll see more meaningful stuff, too.”