50 Cent and Carmelo Anthony Talk Their New Headphones, the Beats Sale, and the Elusive Cool
NEW YORK –– On the scenic penthouse roof deck of the posh Gansevoort Hotel, the NBA star Carmelo Anthony and the rapper 50 Cent are sitting next to each other on a too-low bench, and they are both laughing at me.
I’ve just asked a stupid question, a question whose answer is so obvious that it provoked immediate and spontaneous laughter.
The question: If you were running Beats, would you have taken Apple’s $3.2 billion buyout offer?
“I mean, yeah, that’s a no-brainer,” 50 Cent said, practically nudging Anthony with his elbow.
“That’s a no-brainer,” Anthony echoed.
Chuckles aside, Apple’s surprise acquisition of the Dr. Dre/Jimmy Iovine headphone empire Beats has special implications for Anthony and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. The pair had come to the Gansevoort to celebrate the recent, felicitously timed launch of a line of water-resistant, noise-canceling fitness headphones for athletes, under Jackson’s 3-year-old SMS Audio brand. The financial opportunity is tremendous: Fitness headphones make up over 50 percent of a headphone market worth $2 billion in the U.S. alone, according to research from the NPD Group.
50 Cent wants a bigger take of that 50 percent. NPD analyst Ben Arnold put SMS Audio’s market share in the premium headphone space at under 1 percent. And so he enlisted Carmelo Anthony, and SMS Audio’s first entry into athletic headphones are on sale now, ranging in price from $80 to $230, depending on how fancy you take your cans.
Since its launch in 2011, SMS has been the other, smaller hip-hop star headphone brand, successful without being omnipresent, thriving without meriting a multibillion-dollar Apple buyout.
Indeed, for years, headphone-makers like SMS, Skullcandy, and the rapper Ludacris’ Soul line have chased Beats, in a hunt for the Cool, that elusive quality that has launched companies like Apple, Ray-Ban, and Lululemon into the stratosphere.
In its latest, and most convincing, attempt to wrangle the Cool, SMS has brought on Anthony as an investor and celebrity endorser for the Sport collection, which joins an impressive array of fashionable, noise-canceling headphones targeted at young people and hip-hop fans.
When 50 Cent launched SMS headphones, the comparisons to Beats soon followed, inevitable as the hook after a verse. (A recent CNN report stated bluntly that SMS had “coped the Beats playbook.”) Three years later, the two hip-hop impresario-led companies appear even more similar –– in their makeup, product offerings, and marketing strategies. Both are multipronged audio companies, partially owned by a mega-popular rapper, pushing multicolored headphones, at a premium price, endorsed by an NBA star who both your mom and your dad could recognize by first name alone.
There is one enormous difference between Beats and SMS, of course, and that’s the Apple logo that could soon be slapped on the Beats box. Beats is about to have billions more dollars and an enormous retail platform to shout and sell from.