Stem Player loaded with Kanye West album Donda
Image via Instagram/@donda_stem_player

Is Kanye West’s Stem Player the Future of Music?

Streaming platforms cause music artists to lose a lot of money. A solution may be on the horizon, provided the creator lives up to his promises.

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Stem Player loaded with Kanye West album Donda
Image via Instagram/@donda_stem_player

Streaming platforms cause music artists to lose a lot of money. A solution may be on the horizon, provided the creator lives up to his promises.

So what exactly is the Stem Player? What does Kanye West mean when he says the music industry is hostile to artists? And will the Stem Player have the chance to change everything?

Kanye’s Stem Player has been around for a few months, but it hadn’t seen too much attention outside of the hype factor from people sharing videos of it when “Donda” first came out last year. However, it reentered the news a few weeks ago. Kanye announced that the Stem Player would be the exclusive platform for his upcoming project “Donda 2.” He claims that he is giving artists economic power by creating a direct-to-consumer pipeline for music releases, emphasizing how streaming hurts artists. Kanye has made this point many times before in turning down crazy deals like a $100 million Apple exclusive to release a few albums.

What is the Stem Player Exactly?

In the grand scheme of things, the Stem Player isn’t a versatile professional tool for serious production. However, it’s capable of creating interesting sounds in the hands of the right person. In terms of design, the Stem Player is just a tiny disc with four sliders and a button in the center. Each slider controls a different stem of the music: vocals, drums, bass and instrumentals. This noise isolation effect, plus various sound effects and loop controls, allows users to remix any song they put on the Stem Player.

While it works great with the pieces pre-packaged from “Donda” and relatively stripped-down hip-hop productions, as the complexity of a song increases, it starts to struggle to parse the different parts. It uses AI algorithms to separate the stems, just like Audacity or Adobe. It’s a useful technology but not that accurate, and this sort of effect often destroys audio quality in the process of removing the background sounds. The reviewers at PCMag wrote, “While the sim player’s features are pretty neat, the utility it brings to the table doesn’t justify its price point.” So overall, the Stem Player is a fun and novel way to listen to music, but it isn’t going to revolutionize how artists make it.

The Problem With the Industry

To understand what Kanye is trying to achieve, one must know that streaming services pay frighteningly little to the artists. On Spotify, artists are paid an average of $0.004 per stream — meaning they need to get 229 plays to earn a dollar. On the other hand, artists make about $.007 per stream (requiring 136 streams to make a dollar) on Apple Music. Still, almost a penny per play isn’t much because the money filters down through intermediaries: labels, publishers and distributors. Simply put, streaming doesn’t pay enough.

Often artists don’t get paid for streaming — it’s considered separate from their record deal. It’s created an environment where even popular artists have to scrape by and scramble to establish alternative income streams. It’s not right for so little income to go to the ones responsible for the music in the first place while the people who work at Spotify and Apple Music make off like bandits.

But Kanye isn’t the first artist to recognize the issue and act against it. As the problems with streaming fluctuate in and out of public consciousness, a few musicians have taken a stand — most notably Jay-Z, when he launched his own streaming platform, Tidal, back in 2014. Eight years ago, Jay-Z’s music wasn’t available on any platform except Tidal until his 50th birthday back in 2019. Kanye himself used to be a co-owner and shareholder in Tidal. He even released “The Life of Pablo” exclusively on the platform but later left his position because of a financial disagreement with the board of directors. But most importantly, Tidal pays artists $1 for every 80 streams, which means a lot more money goes to the musician compared to almost any other platform — two times more than Apple Music, three times more than Spotify and six times more than YouTube.

And for years, people like Taylor Swift resisted putting any of their music on Spotify. Swift talked about the unfair treatment of artists and refused to include her music on the platform. Yet, in 2017 her music appeared on Spotify without a statement explaining her decision. So what’s so different about Kanye taking on the big money of the music industry? It’s a daunting task, and we’ve seen just about everybody cave over time, but it seems like Kanye might have a plan. The $200 Stem Player is a bit of a stretch for most consumers, but this could inspire people to follow his lead and make some profound changes.

Will Kanye Do Different?

Kanye clearly doesn’t need every single listener to buy his Stem Player. It’s not taking money out of his pocket when people pirate the album because he’s making millions of dollars a day off selling these objects. And if his goal is to continue making more money, his plan might be working. Before releasing “Donda 2,” Kanye posted the sales report for the Stem Player on Instagram. And if the numbers can be trusted, he sold a shocking number of units in the 24 hours after he announced “Donda 2” would only be available on the Stem Player.

In the post with the sales report, Kanye sold 8000 of these things, making around $2 million in just one day. He said in a caption of another post, “songwriters have been really hurt by streaming platforms. Some say I’m the only one who can make the change. So as the leading innovator in music for the past 20 years, I’m putting my own work on the line to change things. I’ve already won by not being afraid to move.”

It’s not entirely clear if this is a genuine move on Kanye’s part or if it’s only a marketing gimmick. Is everyone who bought a Stem Player going to regret it in a few weeks or a month when “Donda 2” appears on Spotify overnight as a wholly finished album? This had happened before with “The Life of Pablo” when Kanye said it would never be anywhere else but Tidal. Now, the Stem Player costs 10 times more from the consumer’s perspective. Although he talks about transparency, artists’ rights and this and that, how long exactly will this last? Does this truly represent a new movement within the industry?

It’s tough to say. Mainly because “Donda 2” isn’t a finished project right now. It’s a bizarre situation because he already made all of his money, and at this point, he could kind of just run off with it. But at the same time, from an artist’s perspective, this is an exciting moment. Whether or not this optimism is founded remains to be seen. This could be another example of a billionaire making bold statements to cave on them later. Maybe he’ll pull a Jay-Z and put “Donda 2” on Spotify in April. It’s easy to be cynical about things like this because generally, individuals have a poor track record against multi-billion dollar industries. Still, many believe that if anybody can take on the streaming industry and give the artists back their power, Kanye West can.

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