Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West (it was legally changed in October 2021. Show some respect.) did not release Donda 2 as he was supposed to on Tuesday, February 22 — coming in just two days late with 16 songs now streaming from the new album. Donda 2, however, is neither on any typical streaming platform nor available in physical form.
Just like the original Donda, released in August, the hip-hop legend performed songs from the album live, this time appearing to walk on water to his original childhood home before it went up in flames at LoanDepot Park, the home of the currently locked-out Florida Marlins in Miami. An addition and upgrade to the 2021 shows, when appearing to sold-out arenas in his childhood homes of Atlanta and Chicago, Kanye also streamed the show to IMAX theaters around the country. What’s more impactful, West turned away from traditional platforms like Apple Music and Spotify to release Donda 2.
Instead, eager fans are asked to shell out $200 for Ye’s new venture, the Stem Player. The souped-up MP3 player’s main advantage appears to be the ability to split songs into “stems,” giving users the chance to amplify drums, bass, vocals, and more to develop different angles on songs via varied effects. What’s interesting is the reason why Ye did this, other than to order another shipping container full of American currency.
“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,” Ye posted to Instagram on February 17.
This move to spurn Spotify spotlights the current period of strife in a constantly fracturing and redefining music industry.
According to Spotify’s Loud&Clear data, artists are paid between $0.0033 and $0.0054 every time their song is played on Spotify. In 2020, 13,400 artists generated more than $50,000 and 7,800 generated more than $100,000 in recording and publishing royalties. Musicians will receive a fraction of that amount. And that’s only the most successful artists. Spotify cited approximately 1.2 million artists with over 1,000 listeners in 2020.
The average per-play rate on Apple Music is only incrementally higher at $0.01. This is why numerous artists including Ye, Taylor Swift, David Crosby, and Arcade Fire’s Will Butler have taken on different aspects of the music industry in the past few months. Swift, in fact, has run the gamut.
In 2014, Taylor Swift’s album 1989 didn’t appear on music streaming services. Shortly after the album dropped, she also took her back catalog down. Less than a year later, however, Swift put her first four albums on Tidal, then Apple Music, based on a promise of better compensation. She didn’t realize, however, that Apple would forego payment for streams during a free three-week trial period that everyone received. Standing up for her earning potential, as well as supporting fellow artists, Swift got Apple Music to change its stance and compensate musicians during its trial period. Swift also moved onto Spotify in 2017 for financial reasons. This didn’t mean she was done sticking up for herself, however.
In November, Taylor’s newly recorded Red (originally appearing in 2012) has signaled her triumph over studio bosses, and one studio boss in particular — Scooter Braun. Taylor began her career with Big Machine Records. After she’d already moved labels, Braun, a man Swift labeled a bully, bought Big Machine in 2019. The singer doesn’t own the music she recorded with Big Machine, so in effect, Braun still retained control of Swift’s music. The songwriter does know the songs on her first six albums, though, so Swift decided on the next best thing: Re-recording these albums.
The results of the first experiment, Red, have been an unsurprising but still stunning success. The new LP is now Swift’s 10th number-one album on the Billboard 200 charts, nine years after its original release. As of November 27, a few weeks after its release, a staggering 26 Red songs sat on the Billboard Hot 100.
Where this swift, intentional action from the megastar motivated additional music performers to stand up, inspiration also arose as an indirect consequence of another star’s actions.
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Rock icon Neil Young’s break with Spotify over its hosting of controversial podcaster Joe Rogan kindled a brewing animosity over poor pay from streaming services.
The always quotable David Crosby, Young’s former bandmate, called Spotify’s leaders “scummy people” to Stereogum, and, never to miss a chance to burn bridges, even informed young musicians to give up hope and choose a new industry.
The R&B singer India Arie was also tired of skimpy checks from Spotify when Young took his music back to the California hills. She was also critical of Rogan’s words around race, so her decision to step away felt justified even if she would be giving up money. Leaving, though, provided Arie with the same challenges as Swift as Motown owns most of her master recordings and is, at current, refusing to pull the music.
For touring musicians who depend on live gigs to make money, these pandemic years have presented a disconcerting new economic picture where a paltry platform stream might be the only way to make a buck.
Spotify’s data says that only 13,400 artists generated more than $50,000 and 7,800 generated more than $100,000 in recording and publishing royalties in 2020. That’s out of 8 million artists on the platform who released a total of 1.8 million albums and a total of 22 million tracks (including singles). That’s 0.15% of the people on Spotify who actually make a living from the service.
Music is everywhere we go. Streaming through speakers on lazy Sundays. Coming from overhead in corner markets, groceries, and big box stores. Spilling from car and coffee shop windows. Stuffed into our ears on the way to and from work and at the gym. The ecosystem that delivers music anywhere we want it has existed for about three generations, evolving from payola into a monstrous empire before crumbling and growing again in the streaming era. As has already been exhibited the ever-evolving ways to listen to music, there’s no guarantee that melodies-on-demand will continue perpetually.
Artists like Ye help to carve new roads in the technological landscape. Enthusiasts might not want to shell out $200 for the Louis Vuitton Don’s new delivery system, since it establishes new access to music. In order to sustain the old, music fans might just have to face once again opening up their wallets to prop up a fragile ecology from the people who bring our harmonies.
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