An Empire Built On Ruthlessness And Cans: The Bizarre Story Of Beats

Senior Contributor
09.06.16 5 Comments

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Tomorrow, Apple will likely debut the new iPhone 7, and along with it a host of new headphones from Beats. Beats arrived at Apple, however, through one of the most convoluted and unlikely stories in tech history. It’s a story of a major company that thought it was exploiting a celebrity only to discover, too late, that the celebrity was hustling them instead. And it’s both a fascinating tale and a warning to consumers who might find themselves suddenly being pushed, hard, to buy Beats.

The Founding Of Beats

The official story behind Beats is straightforward: Music impresario Jimmy Iovine and titan of rap Dr. Dre viewed Apple’s cheap earbuds with scorn and decided, if their music was going to get stolen, then at least the thieves should listen to it with the best equipment possible. After consulting with some of the hottest artists of 2006, Iovine and Dre launched Beats. What isn’t mentioned in that tale of “how it all began” is Monster Cable, the company which did the actual engineering of the headphones.

Monster Cable, founded by Noel Lee in the late ’70s, was, at the time, notable for overpriced cables and litigation. If you had “Monster” in your name, whether you were a mini-golf course or a thrift shop, a famous energy drink or Disney, Monster would sue. For a time, Monster’s frivolous lawsuits were a running joke in the tech press, but the jokes covered up a darker side of the company.

Simply put, Monster was a machine built on marketing, not quality. The company was just as infamous for claiming a patent on basic technological concepts as it was for goofy trademark suits, and the company’s products were notoriously no better at doing their jobs than coat hangers. In of itself, this isn’t surprising. The way cables work is dictated by physics, not marketing, and there’s little you can do to copper wires that will yield better sound or picture in any meaningful way.

Monster wasn’t selling a bad product, per se, but buying a Monster product meant you were paying a premium for the marketing. At the time, Beats was seen as the next logical step for a company built on hype. Pairing with a celebrity like Dr. Dre, and the contacts Dre could make with them for endorsements and design, would let Monster take the next step in their flashy, hype-heavy marketing style. What Monster didn’t realize, however, is that they needed Dre more than Dre needed them, and that Dre and Iovine had set it up that way by design.

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