In discussions around the web about Apple’s acquisition of Beats, there is some legitimate curiosity and bafflement about how Beats’ brand and product aesthetics and business model play with Apple’s. But it seems like we’re also dancing around something else.
There is a question implicit in the puzzlement I’ve heard from many quarters that comes as much out of comparing the quality of Beats hardware to that of Apple devices, as it does from comparing Dr. Dre and the colorful, black, urban culture he’s emblematic of to Tim Cook and the staid, white, corporate-tech culture he hails from. That question is: “Why would Apple buy an urban life-style brand?”
The main answer is that the acquisition is a reasonable hedge against the waning power of Apple’s a la carte music model and a bet on curated music subscription. Another thought worth considering is that it represents a validation of Baratunde Thurston’s comedically delivered observations on why black people matter as culture creators and consumers. Beats is valuable because black (and I mean black in a sense that’s somewhat broader than just a fact of pigment) is cool and hip-hop is pop-culture. In the tradition of Samsung-JZ, Blackberry-Alicia Keys, this is Apple’s bid on cultural relevance and credibility.
In the digital sphere, spaces where black culture thrives are successful ones, and cultural memes rooted in black culture penetrate deep into the mass culture (or are appropriated by it, depends how generous you’re feeling). On the consumption front, black consumers have a pretty much unparalleled propensity for conspicuous consumption. Between the two dynamics, you have a demographic that disproportionally shapes the presiding popular culture and the consumer marketplace.
Enter the Beats acquisition. This development is kind of landmark in the sense that it represents black business personalities and culture creators (Dr. Dre and Will.i.am) profiting from the commoditization of black culture, and the preferences of black consumers, in a way that doesn’t often happen.
While Black culture provides valuable inputs into our digitally mediated mass culture (for a quick point of reference, look up the top 100 memes in any given year), black people almost never have an ownership stake in the platforms that mediate and monetize it. Whether it’s on Twitter or Vine or Instagram or Youtube, the platforms themselves and businesses that operate in their ecosystems, profit from black culture, but rarely do black cultural creators see significant dividends.
Given this dynamic of digital culture creation, the casual undervaluation of Beats by many Silicon Valley types is a curious blind spot. It leads me to wonder what other digital businesses, like Worldstar Hip Hop, a repository of culture with outsized influence, should be on our radar. The likes of World Star often suffer from mediocre design and under-developed tech, but have a competitive advantage that’s hard to quantify but certainly capitalizable: Blackness.
P.S. For the sake of brevity and because it’s not my job to do your research for you, I’ve put all of this rather bluntly and without citations but glad to provide data behind much of it at some later date, maybe, if I feel like it.