Kanye thinks his Stem Player device is the next step in music tech — and he’s willing to risk it all to prove it.
It must be nice to be so rich and famous that you can quite literally fuck around and find out. That’s what Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, is doing with the release of Donda 2. Ye announced on Instagram that the new record — set to be released on February 22 alongside a “Donda Experience Performance” to be held the same day in Miami — will only be available on his new listening device, the Stem Player.
The announcement is a welcome return to Ye discussing music on his social media, rather than his chaotic posts about his personal life, but true to form it’s still a bit of a shocking revelation. Ye wrote, “Donda 2 will only be available on my own platform, the Stem Player...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.” He added in an additional post, “I turned down a hundred million dollar Apple deal. No one can pay me to be disrespected. We set our own price for our art. Tech companies made music practically free so if you don’t do merch sneakers and tours you don’t eat.” While the move is a massive protest for artist rights, it’s also a big gamble — but yet again, Ye has the clout and prestige to gamble like that.
The Stem Player was released last August in congruence with the release of the first installment of Donda. The beige, palm-sized, circular device looks like something out of a mid-budget sci-fi film and was created through Yeezy Tech’s partnership with Kano Computing. What makes the Stem Player unique is that it was ergonomically designed so that users can remix songs right from their hand. CEO of Kano and frequent collaborator with Ye, Alex Klein, told Complex of the inspiration behind the device, “The technology intent was always clear: How do we make a device that’s super small, loud, that brings people together, and allows you to take the music and hold it in your hand or in your pocket?” He added that the device is meant so people can “create and not just consume.” The device comes preloaded with Donda, but any record can be uploaded to the Stem Player and remixed from there. It begs the question of if artists want fans to have such an easy ability to remix their songs, and even more broadly, if they want fans’ focus to be on remixing along with simply listening. But like with most things Ye, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks — Ye will do it anyways.
The Stem Player is currently priced at $200, and the fan reaction so far to the news is mixed. Some are seeing it as another one of Ye’s innovative strokes of genius, but other avid listeners are feeling priced out of getting to experience Donda 2. It speaks to the complex web of privilege that is tied up in artist rights. For an artist to make these big moves that draw attention to the need for change in the industry, they have to not need the money that their record would make otherwise. Of course, there are the artists who’ve proven they can still make their money when they ditch streaming, like Ye’s frenemy Taylor Swift did with 1989 — but there’s a big difference between asking fans to buy instead of stream an album, and asking fans to buy a $200 media player. People are also pointing to 2016 when Ye released Life of Pablo to TIDAL in what was supposed to be an exclusive partnership, but within a couple of weeks TLOP was available on other streaming services, angering fans who’d signed up for TIDAL just for the record. You can only imagine how angry fans who pony up the money for the Stem Player just to get Donda 2 will be if the same thing happens, but yet again, Ye probably doesn’t care. He is the master of his own universe, and while his insistence on fair equity in the arts is admirable, as usual, it’s a weird way to go about it.