Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sometimes it's not the product, it's the package it's in

Consumer-packaged-goods companies have long relied on packaging as the last frontier of innovation for aging products. Think of the cupholder-sized containers of Cheetos you can buy now. Or the toothpaste tube that stands upright.

But for content, packaging has not been a priority. And with music, technological advance has made packaging progressively worse. From the LP to the CD, credits and lyrics shrunk to unreadability. With downloadable music, even that small amount of text and photos went by the wayside. Music was simply a bunch of bits. It's no wonder that recorded music doesn't have the magic it once had.

A group called FM3 has once again brought honor to music packaging. As profiled in the recent New York Times Magazine, FM3 has sold 50,000 units of a release that had sold only 1,000 copies on CD. How? By packaging it in a plastic device called a Buddha Machine.

The Buddha machine is a self-contained unit with a speaker and a volume dial. It looks like an old-style portable radio without the tuner, and is based on a device that FM3's Christiaan Virant saw emitting chants in a Buddhist temple.

The novelty of the device created a buzz that has lasted since 2006. Writes Rob Walker in the Times article:

The public radio show Studio 360 featured the device in 2006; FM3 toured Europe again with a performance built around the Buddha Machines; and bloggers keep finding it anew, attracting music fans, design fans, gadget fans and those who view it as something like a fashion item.

It may be a mystery exactly why the Buddha machine has been so successful. But by finding an innovative way to bring its music to the people, FM3 has shown that plain old content, packaged cleverly, can capture the public's fancy.

(Photo: a whimsical Buddha machine schematic from the FM3 website)