Image Credit: Pieter-Jannick Dijkstra
Kanye West, now legally known as ‘Ye’, has recently dominated headlines due to his highly public divorce, frequently publishing Twitter meltdowns aimed at a slew of celebrities ranging from Billie Eilish to Pete Davidson. While public attention has been firmly focussed upon the living nightmare he has concocted for his PR team, Kanye has inconspicuously made several worthwhile points about the music industry. The rapper’s latest album, ‘Donda 2’, is being released via the Stem Player – a musical device manufactured under his Yeezy brand which gives users the ability to divide songs into four distinct tracks, allowing them to isolate the vocals, samples and beats which constitute each song.
While this may seem like simply a fun gimmick, the Stem Player also provides a platform for a concept far more interesting. West is using it to realise his idea of a ‘living breathing album’, editing and adding to songs in real time, allowing the audience to listen along with his creative process. This idea is in fact not entirely novel, as he made significant alterations to his 2016 album ‘The Life of Pablo’ after its initial release, in a move described by critics as “the death of the traditional album”. The Stem Player takes this concept much further, as it is in connection with West cancelling a reported $100m Apple Music sponsorship to release ‘Donda 2’ independently, thus doing away with any control exerted over his music by external companies and their executives.
This move toward total independence is in line with previous, deeply controversial statements he made describing the music industry as a “modern day slave ship”. West was quoted as saying in 2020: “When you sign a music deal you sign away your rights. Without the masters you can’t do anything with your own music. Someone else controls where it’s played and when it’s played. Artists have nothing [except] the fame, touring and merch.” While this statement is profoundly contentious, with some understandably taking offence at the comparison made between physical enslavement and financial obligations laid upon wildly successful artists, it echoes sentiments common within the music industry. According to Forbes, Spotify holds upward of 36 percent of market share but “1 million streams will net an artist in the $3,000-$6,000 USD range. Artists on the service average less than a penny per stream.” By comparison, a million streams through Google Play Music would fetch approximately $12,000 USD. This uncomfortable fact led the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers to launch the “Justice at Spotify” campaign in 2020, with over 30,000 artists asking Spotify to raise the amount of revenue per stream.
One rival to this model has been Jay-Z’s ‘artist-owned’ platform Tidal, which launched in 2015 in conjunction with other artists including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and (once again) Kanye West. The streaming service offers the highest-fidelity audio quality of any music streaming service and claims to compensate artists at a rate of $0.01284 USD per stream – the only service to pay over a cent per stream. However, the lack of an option to listen for free with advertisements combined with a high subscription fee led to low user uptake. In March 2021 Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey purchased a majority stake in the service through his payment processing company Square (now Block Inc), ending the platform’s short run as an artist-owned service. That being said, sceptics have argued it was never truly artist owned but merely marketed in this way in order to drive sales.
This begs the question of whether the streaming model can be advantageous to artists at all, or whether the industry is doomed to continue exploiting all but the most successful of artists for their work. I would argue that the streaming model can indeed offer benefits as compared to previous forms of media such as record or CD sales. The primary reason being that streaming platforms mean that signing to a label is no longer absolutely essential in order to ‘make it’ as an artist. British musicians who have used streaming services on their rises to fame include Skepta and Gerry Cinnamon, both of whom currently retain all master rights over their respective music catalogues. However, these artists are clearly the exception rather than the rule. The signing bonuses offered by labels in return for rights over royalties and masters remains a practical necessity for most artists, as this capital is needed to buy recording time in a studio and create music videos, amongst myriad other financial obligations. While there are innovative possible alternatives to the almost uniformly exploitative streaming model, many of these are driven by individual artists who, despite their considerable individual resources, cannot realistically compete with the power held by traditional streaming services and the labels that back them.