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Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Updated: February 12, 2:39 PM ET
Speakerheads

By J. Freedom Du Lac
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 18 Music issue. Subscribe today!

LEBRON JAMES IS on the floor, on his back, beginning his pregame stretching routine, in which outsize body parts will be yanked this way, then that. It is riveting, and it is redundant, because it is the same thing every night, in every city, before every game, save for one detail: The songs do not remain the same.

Hines Ward
Beats became an athlete's must-have accessory.

So here now is LeBron on his Samsung Galaxy Note II, flexing his DJ muscle as trainer Mike Mancias works him over in the visiting locker room of Oakland's Oracle Arena. Tonight's soundtrack is all raw, aggressive rap by Young Jeezy, ASAP Rocky, Rick Ross, Chief Keef, the songs carefully selected by LeBron for LeBron based on how LeBron happens to be feeling -- and how he wants to feel when the game begins. "I'm 'bout to go ape s--!" he shouts, making like the rapper Fat Joe, which will help him make like LeBron James.

If you want to know how the three-time MVP prepares to play, you have to get inside his headphones. Tonight, the custom-designed pair of Beats by Dr. Dre that James wore into the arena have been replaced by a Beats by Dr. Dre speaker, which several teammates are trying to tune out by covering their ears with their own Beats. "You don't want no problems!" James barks, now making like Dom Kennedy, whose song "My Type of Party" is blasting. "You don't want no problems!" he repeats.

He appears to be getting frothed up, an hour before tip-off. Routine stuff, he says. "I know where I want to be before each game, and the music is how I get there," he says. "I allow myself to feel the music and get lost in my preparation."

It works. James scores 21 of his 25 points in the first half of a blowout win against the Warriors on Jan. 16. He logs his 5,000th career assist in the first quarter. Late in the second quarter, he becomes the youngest player in NBA history to reach 20,000 points. He Tebows on his way back to the locker room at the half.


YOU'VE NOTICED ALL these people wearing seamless, U-shaped headphones with little b's on the big ear cups, right?

Beats by Dre are ubiquitous, which surprises even the Doctor himself. "We were just trying to uplift sound and change the way people listen to music," says Dre, the rap icon who started Beats with music mogul Jimmy Iovine. "Our thing was to make music sound the way we hear it in the studio. We had no idea this was going to happen."

Has he seen the Internet photo of the guy who'd shaved his head and left a hair-on-scalp b-branded headphone above his ear? He has. He chuckles. "That's crazy," Dre says. "That means something." It means that Beats has gone from zero to full-blown cultural phenomenon in less than five years. Four years ago, $59 million worth of premium headphones -- those priced at $99 and up -- were sold in North America, according to market research firm NPD Group. In 2012 $850 million worth were sold across the continent. Nearly two out of every three pairs carried the iconic Beats by Dr. Dre logo, a lowercase b in a custom font based on Avant Garde Gothic. Today the company -- officially known as Beats Electronics -- makes six over-the-ear headphones (the cheapest sell for $200 a pair), four earphones and three speakers. It has partnered with Chrysler, HP and HTC to put its Beats Audio technology in cars and computers and on mobile devices, and recently announced plans to launch a Beats music-streaming service.

In the market-share game, 64 percent is a mercy-rule-level rout. It's also an indication that Beats, which does more than triple the business of second-place Bose, is selling more than mere product. Behold Beats brand affinity. "Think about Apple," NPD analyst Ben Arnold says. "They sell great hardware and a great platform, but there's also the strong identification with the brand. That's happening with Beats as well. I've even seen tattoos of that 'b' logo. That's a logical step." He's not laughing. "Remember in the '90s when Polo shirts were huge and guys were getting the horse tattooed on their chest?" Arnold asks. "Or they were getting the Jordan Jumpman cut into their hair? People are doing that with Beats too."

As music migrated to mobile, Beats became an athlete's must-have accessory -- Breathe Right strips for the ears, only more stylish, as fashioned by ex-Apple designer Robert Brunner and his firm, Ammunition. Tune into any sporting event and you're likely to see a team getting off the bus with half the roster crowned in Beats, individual players doing warmups in Beats, guys sitting in locker room folding chairs, in uniform, in game-prep mode, in Beats.

Tom Brady wears them. Matt Kemp wears them. Serena wears them. Beckham wears them. Most of the NBA wears them.


LeBron James, Dr. Dre
LeBron played no small part in putting Beats by Dre on the map.

"F--- SNEAKERS, LET'S make speakers," Iovine is said to have told Dr. Dre in 2006, when the rap legend was thinking about getting into the celebrity-shoe game. Iovine had another idea, centered on the pair's core competency: sound.

In 2008 James and Iovine had gotten together with their shared financial adviser, Paul Wachter, to discuss a documentary film project. Iovine was simultaneously developing the headphones, and he knew that James was fanatical about music, that he'd grown up listening to Dr. Dre's proffer, that he was an ascendant cultural influencer. He was the perfect Beats test subject.

So Iovine gave a prototype of Beats Studio headphones to James' manager, Maverick Carter, to pass to James while he trained for the 2008 Olympics. James asked for more, to outfit the entire U.S. Olympic basketball team before it left for Beijing. The hype was immediate. TMZ noted that Dr. Dre "influenced the USA Olympic basketball [team] as much as Dr. J." Other media coverage followed. So did queries from other athletes, James says. "I started hearing from people who wanted to know: What are they? Where did I get them? What's that 'b'?"

Then they asked how they could get their own.

Eventually James, Iovine and Dre entered into a formal business relationship; the details have never been disclosed, and the company, which is privately held, will say only that James "has a business relationship with Beats."

He is profiting from the brand's explosive growth while promoting the idea that the right set of headphones (theirs!) can heighten your focus and, in turn, help you become a better athletic performer. In fact, James has been better, according to almost every statistical measure in the four-plus seasons since he began wearing Beats, than he was in his first five in the league. He has won all three of his NBA Most Valuable Player awards in that period, and he has played in the NBA Finals twice, winning once.

Gotta be the Beats!

Gotta be hocus-pocus too, no?

Iovine, a sports nut who has courtside Lakers season tickets, has become convinced that Beats can "really help these guys focus and get them to push even further because they have more emotion and feeling than other headphones." And, he says of athletes, "these f--ing guys feel everything."

I wondered whether there was any scientific merit to the idea. After all, aren't they just headphones? Looking for a neutral opinion, I call Dr. Greg Dale, the director of sports psychology for Duke athletics.

"It's really a great marketing idea," he says. "It's not much different from when Air Jordans came out and everybody started wearing Michael Jordan's shoes. But it's not 100 percent hocus-pocus. Typically, when you ask an athlete what it looked and felt like when they played their best, they'll say things like 'smooth' and 'fluid' and 'rhythmic.' If you can use music to help feel those sensations, that's huge."

As with other noise-canceling headphones, Dale says, Beats might be beneficial in another way. "The headphones could enhance your ability to drown out external noise and help you focus on what's relevant to you. That's critical to consistently high levels of performance. But just because you use this equipment doesn't mean you're going to lock in like LeBron James. He's disciplined himself to get into game mode using music."


THE ENTRY WAY TO the Beats empire is a white-walled lounge that looks like a giant storage box and smacks of curated cool: The magazines at the receptionist's desk are about sports and music, and the coffee-table books are all urban art and graphic design. Beats is headquartered in a glass office complex two miles inland from the Santa Monica pier. The staff has ballooned from 35 to 209 people in the past year, prompting Beats to lease a second floor in the building; soon it will move to a larger space across town, out of the shadow of the Interscope Records offices where Beats was birthed.

The action is centered in an open area that's littered with sports and music paraphernalia -- baseball bats, BMX bikes, Lil Wayne cardboard cutouts. Omar Johnson, the high-energy multitasker who was hired away from Nike to run the marketing department, occupies a glass fishbowl in the corner and scribbles strategy ideas on his windows.

Beats has been celebrated -- and derided -- as a triumph of marketing, but that's the wrong narrative, Johnson says. Beats stand out because they've been tuned by Dr. Dre and Iovine, music men with golden ears.

Before Beats, Iovine says, people in headphones weren't hearing new recordings the way they should be heard -- modern music is often recorded much differently from songs made in earlier decades, with digital instrumentation, the introduction of subwoofers and so forth. "Even in good headphones," he says, "there was a lack of feel for contemporary music."

In other words, old-school headphones didn't do enough to pump up the bass, a criticism that could never be leveled at Beats. In fact, audiophiles complain there's too much boosted bass in Beats, and they have charts to prove it. But Dr. Chris Kyriakakis, who researches audio signal processing at USC and co-founded an audio technology company called Audyssey, says the bass levels are key to Beats' success. In focus groups, he says, "untrained listeners are sold on elevated bass, just like untrained viewers are sold on televisions that are brighter."

Iovine says critics are enamored with charts when they should be using their ears. "It's a human thing, not a math problem," he says of tuning. "We're not deaf."

It doesn't hurt that Beats look good; even the company's most vocal critics tend to give them points for style, which is important to Iovine, who complained that headphones used to look like medical equipment.

The secret ingredient to getting Beats on sport stars' heads, though, is the athlete-relations program Iovine started and Johnson has ramped up. Or, as Iovine says, "Omar put it on steroids." Because when icons and influencers wear Beats, others follow. Kobe Bryant wore the first pair of customized Beats to a news conference in late 2008. Today the company keeps in contact with scores of athletes and often designs personalized headphones using information gleaned from conversations with them. "They're telling me about their grandfathers, about their grandmothers, their wives, their girlfriends, their kids," Johnson says. "They tell us what motivates them."

One football player shared a favorite quote from his grandfather, and Beats etched it into a pair of headphones for him. Others share details even their wives don't know. Sometimes players take off their shirts in Johnson's office to show off tattoos, which gives the marketing team more clues. "I always tell my team: You've gotta get the s-- that's not in Wikipedia," Johnson says.

Every week of the season, the company sends a unique pair to Cam Newton; the colors change, as do the customized messages and designs. They might have a Superman theme, or they might say fear me on the underside of the band. "I'm like a kid on Christmas Day when I open that box every week," Newton says. "It's an exclusive club."


IT'S MIDDAY TUESDAY at San Francisco's Palace Hotel, and Dr. Dre is making a rare house call. He has jetted up to San Francisco with Iovine to visit with James, who has a day off between road games. The music is blaring, and LeBron is too, rapping along -- decently, and at high volume -- to "All Gold Everything," by Trinidad James. "Let's go into the studio, man!" Dre says. Everybody laughs.

"Aw, tsssss," James says. "But hey, listen, if Doc lay the track and my big bro Jay [as in Jay-Z] write me some lyrics? I would absolutely do it. I can't fail. How can I lose?"

There are no advanced statistics to prove it, but LeBron James just might lead the NBA in music affinity. He's obsessed with listening to it, talking about it, trying to find the next new thing that he might use to help him get into game mode. He has difficulty articulating what, exactly, he's looking for. But he knows it when he hears it, and it's usually a rap song with a hard edge and lyrics that would make your mother blush -- though, he says, he pays more attention to "rhythm and feel. It's that loud motivation, where you're just like: Okay, let's get it."

"Same for me," Dre tells him. "It's how it makes me feel."

Often, James says, he'll pick songs to try to rally his teammates -- "a song that will hit home and help us prepare for battle." During Miami's title run last season, James began playing Big K.R.I.T.'s Southern rap anthem "I Got This" with regularity in the locker room. It became the Heat's unofficial theme. "I listened to it all the time," James says. Why? "The words, the beat, the feel -- all of it worked for me."

"That record is about dealing with all the doubts," Big K.R.I.T. says. "It's like, 'Yo, I handle my biz, I got this -- even when people don't believe.' It probably hit home for LeBron because of the amount of hate he'd gotten and the Heat had gotten."

Visiting with Dr. Dre has turned James into a kid again. And James still listens to at least one Dre song regularly: "Still D.R.E.," now 13 years old, maybe more relevant to him than ever.

"It's not just the music but what he's actually saying," James says. "People are always trying to throw rocks or say you're not the best. I love that song, man. I listen to it at least weekly." Dre grins. James does the same, then adds a coda, speak-singing a Snoop Dogg lyric from the song: "I'm representing for them gangsters all across the world."

"Mission accomplished," Dre says.

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