Kanye West has not lost his competitive streak, as should be obvious from recent social media posts, when he proudly noted that he was trending above the Super Bowl — on Super Bowl weekend. Yet he seems to not be prioritizing having his upcoming album, “Donda 2,” debut at No. 1 on any charts. Rather than be able to claim any bragging rights for streaming or sales when it comes out Feb. 22, he’s deliberately limiting its listenership to one device … one that can only be purchased from him.
So how much will it cost you to listen to “Donda 2” later this month? About $230 — assuming you don’t already own a Stem Player, a handheld device that he began selling last fall, which he now says will be the exclusive platform, and hardware, for the forthcoming album.
The device can only be obtained through a single website, stemplayer.com, with a base price of $200, plus $10 for shipping plus taxes that in California work out to just over $20. For an audience that has become accustomed to a base price of “free,” or modest monthly subscription fees that allow access to most of the world’s recorded music library, that three-figure fee may count as a hefty up-sell, especially if it’s a single new Ye album that’s being used as bait.
“Donda 2 will only be available on my own platform, the Stem Player,” he announced Friday, adding for emphasis: “Not on Apple, Amazon, Spotify or YouTube. Today artists get just 12% of the money the industry makes. It’s time to free music from this oppressive system. It’s time to take control and build our own.”
West is not just billing it as the sole way to hear “Donda 2,” but also selling it as a device that can “customize any song” and “split any song into stems,” so that users can take other tunes, as well as his, and isolate vocal, drum and bass tracks from one another, as well as save, play back and download distinct mixes that the listener has created.
Some music fans may be distinctly reminded of Neil Young’s ill-fated Pono player, which was advertised as offering the ultimate in high-def sound, not the ability to create distinct mixes. But Young never made it so you could only hear his new music on the Pono.
West is positioning this as his move to take back power from the big streaming services — including ones that he’s had exclusive deals with recently.
“I walked away from Apple right after having the most No. 1s in Apple history,” he wrote on his current choice of social media platform, Instagram, Friday. “Songwriters have been really hurt by streaming platforms. Some say I’m the only one who can make this change. So as the leading innovator in music of the past 20 years, I’m putting my own work on the line to change it.”
West seemed to be trying to disprove that the Stem Player is in any danger of falling to Pono-like disinterest by posting Instagram photos of just what kind of money he is raking in from sales of the device.
According to a Thursday afternoon IG post, in the last 24 hours, West had sold 6,217 units of the Stem Player, adding up to a gross of $1,359,262.69. “That’s faster than I’ve ever sold any T-shirt,” he wrote. “God has a plan. New frontier.”
Over the life of the device, since it first went on sale Aug. 25, 2021, net sales have added up to $8,628,505.32. By the standards of some of West’s other product lines, that may count as chump change — but the Stem Player received little publicity before today, and West clearly foresees these numbers skyrocketing now that he’s dangled “Donda 2” as bait and is making a show of boycotting streaming services for the first time.
“Everyone that is supporting our revolution is changing the game for all artist(s),” he wrote. “We no longer have to bow to people who don’t even truly care about music.”
West has not explained how this development might help other artists — and whether he thinks he’s leading the way for fellow performers to create their own devices, or whether he plans to ask others to make some of their albums Stem Player exclusives too, or whether he just believes he’s opening up a new frontier in general. What’s hard to avoid here is that, although last year’s “Donda” album already comes loaded onto the Stem Player and the sequel will somehow presumably be downloadable only to it as well, other releases that can be played through the device will mostly still come through the DSPs that West says he is out to disempower.
As for how to ability to remix or un-mix albums works, a demo video on the Stem Player shows four series of light-up panels on the handheld device, which the user can swipe — after first setting controls with some side buttons — to turns vocals, bass, drums and other music elements up and down.
“We currently have 67,000 available and are making 3,000 a day,” West noted, as part of his campaign to make the Stem Player’s numbers completely transparent.
One possibility the artist may have to face is that, however many Stem Players are sold as a result of the official exclusivity of “Donda 2,” the album could wind up being the most bootlegged album of all time, if fans decide they can’t absorb the $230 and don’t have ethical compunctions about illegally disseminating it. Even then, West may be able to claim a moral victory, if none of the proceeds are going into the DSPs’ pockets, even if that also means no streaming income going into his.
Fans have had mixed reactions to the Instagram posts, with some complaining about the high barrier to entry just to hear a new album and others happy that his steady stream of new IG posts about the device has replaced the more worrisome stream of all-caps posts about getting back together with Kim Kardashian and wanting to beat up Pete Davidson that caused his No. 1 trending on Super Bowl weekend.
West continues to claim that he turned down a $100 million offer for Apple Music to host the upcoming album exclusively, which Apple has not commented on. Earlier in the week, he posted that Tim Cook refused to personally meet with him, which was his reason for turning down the alleged deal.
“No one can pay me to be disrespected,” he wrote Friday, in making the claim about spurning Apple again. “We set our own price for own art.”
West has suggested that he will webcast a premiere performance of the album on the night of its release, Feb. 22, as he did with several events leading up to the previous “Donda” album. Tickets for that show are now on sale via Live Nation. Little is known about what form that might take, except for one thing that seems fairly certain: It won’t be on Apple Music.
Late Friday, West posted a screenshot of a private text conversation, as is his wont, this one with someone identified as Randy from Live Nation. The exec is seen as having urgently texted West: “Ye, not sure you read the above, however, we are running out of time to pay the vendors for the load in. We need you to approve $2M NOW since the wire cut off is in 15 min. This show needs to be filmed!!!”
West responds, “Ok. I’ll cut the check since Apple pulled on their streaming deal.” It’s not clear from the context whether West previously had a deal with Apple to stream the concert that the company “pulled out of” after he started taking Apple on publicly in recent days, or whether that would have been part of the $100 million offer for exclusively hosting the new album that he has been saying he rejected.
West captioned the image of his text exchange with the Live Nation exec by writing: “I love how Apple only sees artist in only one way. They’ll sit with Daniel Ek but won’t meet with Ye. I remember me and Virg were with Daniel Ek in the club in Stockholm and he told me he could tell I get more pussy than him.”
More Instagram updates will undoubtedly be coming from West’s account throughout the weekend.