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Playbutton lets you wear your records on your sleeve

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

Vinyl record, eight-track, cassette tape, CD, MP3.

And now, button.

Playbutton is trying something different. The New York-based company manufactures buttons, about an inch in diameter, that you can pin to your clothes – and that has five tiny buttons and a headphone jack. Playbuttons are, after all, portable MP3 players, and they come preloaded with albums. Like the xx’s self-titled debut, which is being re-released on Playbutton this summer. Or like the new Pains of Being Pure at Heart record, Belong, which is being released on CD and vinyl as well.

They’re admittedly kind of dorky, the first time you see them. After all, who wants to carry their record collection around on their jacket? But then, after holding one, it becomes really clear – you do.

“It’s certainly something that’s not going to appeal to everyone. There’s a few online forums where people have made this extremely clear, that they have no interest in it,” laughed Playbutton’s Jim Colvill in a phone interview. “But I don’t think it was ever meant for everyone. It’s meant for serious music fans, and it’s meant for people that really identify with their music. And that slightly nostalgaic way in which Playbutton operates in general is going back to something that’s almost an identity connection with music.”

Colvill isn’t just talking about being able to wear your record – although, to be fair, it is kind of self-indulgently fun to show off your taste in music in a semi-practical way. He’s mainly referring to how Playbutton operates: pre-loaded, unmodifiable, and without a shuffle button.

“Nostalgia” is the right word. It’s conceived and delivered in a way that makes digital media weirdly tangible and self-contained. Without the ability to modify what’s on the button and without a function that lets you switch around the order of tracks, the listener is basically railroaded into thinking as the album on her jacket as just that – the album as a whole. Switching up the order of your music is nothing new; hand-dubbed mixtapes and burned CDs have let people make their own playlists for decades. But it’s so easy to do so with digital media that it’s automatic, and it seems somewhat anachronistic that Playbutton doesn’t let the listener do that.

But for Colvill, that’s part of the point.

“[The album] does seem slightly devalued at this time. Which is completely fine, but it just seemed nice to really focus on that, make it something that couldn’t be changed … it was really just about listening to an album from beginning to end,” he explained. “It’s almost akin to how it was with cassette Walkmans a long time ago. You could skip tracks, but it was a slightly labourious process. You would really walk around listening to the album as a whole.

“I feel like that’s been lost on some level, now.”

That’s not to say that people aren’t listening to albums as a whole; iTunes constantly touts album sales figures as well as singles sales figures as evidence that people are still buying music, while websites like Bandcamp are designed around the idea of listeners buying whole albums. But sales, especially in brick-and-mortar shops, are down enough that a band like, say, Arcade Fire is able to win a Grammy.

Playbuttons aren’t cheap – Colvill says they’ll cost between $20 and $25, which is the higher end of what vinyl might cost you at an independent record store – so it’s unlikely that they’ll singlehandedly overturn the way people think of records. As well, Colvill claims the company is working on Playbuttons that let the listener download MP3s without uploading new ones, an action that doesn’t suggest the company is made up entirely of strict, hard-line album enthusiasts.

With an impressive slew of records from bigger indie bands on the way via Playbutton, as well as more obscure projects like a planned Playbutton from photographer and musician Mark Borthwick that will be accompanied by a book of photography, the company has plenty of ways to at least give listeners a chance to experience music in a way they’re not quite used to. And Colvill says that, as far as he’s seen, Playbutton’s enthusiasts have got that figured out.

“The thing that people latch on to the most, which is nice to see, is this understanding of music as a tangible object. With digital distribution and downloading, music has become quite devalued and impersonal, and that was really a lot of the idea behind Playbutton. Putting music back into a physical object. Putting value on music again. And it’s been gratifying to see how many people take that from it as an idea.”

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