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February 23, 2015

Earplugs, a New Dance-Fest Must-Have?

Forget glow sticks—the latest must-have accessories being pushed to young festivalgoers are high-end earplugs.

Startup Doppler Labs has signed a deal with Anschutz Entertainment Group’s Goldenvoice promotion division to distribute more than 100,000 free pairs of its Dubs branded turquoise soft-molded earplugs—valued at $10 each—at AEG’s Coachella festival in California this spring. Pink, blue and teal-rimmed versions of its higher-end “acoustic filters” will be on sale at the event for $25 a pair.

Doppler, which says it has sold 70,000 pairs of its high-fidelity earplugs in stores such as Best Buy Co. and Guitar Center Inc. since it launched late last year, is hoping image-conscious young ravers will don the curvy inserts as a “fashion statement,” according to Doppler’s co-founders, Chief Executive Noah Kraft and Executive Chairman Fritz Lanman.

The earplug market has never been a big growth industry, with manufacturers mostly catering to the elderly or consumers that need protection for professional reasons, such as military members and gun enthusiasts. But the boom in electronic dance music, better known as EDM, has helped make the world a louder place, said Mr. Kraft, while creating a new potential market for hearing-protection products.

Mr. Lanman said the company expects its reception among festivalgoers will be helped by the increasing popularity of wearable technology aimed at health—from smartwatches to smart athletic shirts. Earplugs are the first and most basic of the “hearing-optimization” products that Doppler is planning to develop; future products will likely use chip technology that gives users more control over how they filter various sounds or types of music, said Mr. Lanman.

The plugs that the company is giving away in Coachella welcome kits, by contrast, are effective as far as hearing protection goes, but they don’t ensure the same acoustic richness and clarity that its more sophisticated audio filters can, Mr. Kraft said. Goldenvoice and Doppler declined to disclose the financial terms of their deal.

Electronic-dance-music conglomerate SFX Entertainment Inc. is in talks about a potential deal with another earplug manufacturer, according to a person familiar with the matter, after enlisting New York-based EarPeace to create branded earplugs for SFX’s Electric Zoo and Tomorrowland festivals.

The global earplug market is worth about $600 million, according to calculations by Doppler Labs’, whose investors include Dutch DJ Tiesto, music producer Quincy Jones and composer Hans Zimmer.

Still, it isn’t clear how much young EDM fans want to protect their ears. Derin Alemli, founder and CEO of earplug maker DownBeats, said he has sold 60,000 pairs of high-fidelity earplugs, mostly online, since starting in November 2012. He promotes his brand at nightclubs and dance-music-themed events such as the Groove Cruise, a cruise-ship dance party that sets sail from Miami and Los Angeles. But the future of the business, he said, lies in bundling earplugs into concert ticket packages.

“We’ve found that the live-event channel is not very good,“ Mr. Alemli said. “The reality is that fans don’t make those safety decisions at that moment.”

Some earplug manufacturers doubt that concertgoers will ever embrace plugs as a fashion accessory. While Chicago-based Earlove trumpets its “attractive carrying cases,” Earlove founder Carolynn Travis said that her new, stemless “Discreet Profile” earplugs are proving more popular with youngsters than the original, slightly larger versions of her high-fidelity plugs, which protrude slightly from the ear. EarPeace, meantime, now makes its high-fidelity plugs in three different skin tones.

“When I started, I couldn’t give [the earplugs] away,” Ms. Travis said. “But it’s just a matter of time before it’s like sunscreen—and then it’s going to be a money grab.”


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