May 15, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Playbutton: Fashionable Music Player or Portable Hipster Cred?

Maybe you remember HitClips, those little plastic players that clipped onto our clothes — the iPod of the ’90s kid. Inserting a chip would play about a minute of the latest pop song by the likes of Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys. Well, enter Playbutton, arguably the hipster’s answer to the HitClip, which has been impressing us for quite some time now. This little plastic player is much more stylish, however; it’s simultaneously a fashion statement and a music player that holds an album’s worth of full-length songs that sound good, unlike the HitClip’s tinny minute.

Perhaps you are wondering, this being What do hardware like HitClips and music-playing pins have to do with music apps?

For me, apps are proof of the increasing importance of layout and graphic design. Our constant use of computers and the Internet demands easy-to-use interfaces and a certain level of visual appeal. Like the app, the Playbutton’s reliance on the visual is part of its significance and effectiveness. By wearing the Playbutton, the pin’s art relays a message that is lost behind our white earbuds and iPods. It revitalizes the connection between music artist and individual by displaying the music we are listening to, and therefore who we are — something that apps also do, through their integration with social networks.

In today’s world of customizable playlists and downloadable singles, we’ve become accustomed to picking and choosing just the songs we like, often disregarding the remainder of the album. The Playbutton brings back the age of the album in a new medium that retains the portability our lives now require.

This return to the physicality of music is a fashion trend that Stanley Lieberson deems the “ratchet effect.” By that, he means that a style tends to move in one direction, building on existing tastes until a threshold is reached after which point fashion begins to move “backwards.”

Think of the recent trend in photography. Even “snapshot” photos  look so perfect these days that we now embrace analog imperfections through apps like Instagram. In the music industry, something similar is happening — and not only to vinyl junkies. It’s quite likely that Playbutton recognized this trend too, as its product incorporates aspects of music players of the past.

The audio files on the Playbutton cannot be changed (which drives its detractors nuts), so in some sense, it’s a portable “pin” version of an LP. However, its capabilities mimic those of a CD player, with simple controls for volume, play, pause and skip. Unplugging your headphones turns the machine off, and same audio output also serves as the jack for recharging the lithium battery.

Some will be disappointed to see that the controls are on the back, as it’s easy to imagine awkwardly skipping a song while the Playbutton is pinned to your shirt. However, I think this encourages us to properly listen to the material the way the artist originally intended — as a complete album. After all, how many of us actually begin a listening session of The xx with the “Intro” track that kicks off that band’s debut album? 

Playbutton is only available for select artists, with the most recognizable being Belle and Sebastian, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Lady Gaga, and Florence and the Machine. Customizable pins are also available for bands, companies, museums, or whoever else wants them.

Priced at about $20 per pin, Playbutton necessarily has a limited consumer base. But it seems to me that the artists it features appeal to people who would wear their music tastes on their sleeve, literally and figuratively speaking.

With previous releases of mixes for renowned hipster store Topman, and limited edition releases from artists (the sort of “superior knowledge” that has always attracted hipsters), Playbutton may have created the perfect mix of style and exclusivity for the growing hipster subculture.