Kanye just erased the creative endpoint
Kanye West knows how to make things happen, including making us rethink what music is and moving away from seeing it as linear and static. First there was his announcement that Pablo’s life was a “live, breathe, change creative expression”, And now there’s his Donda Stem Player – which we talked about here last week. Transformational change does not normally happen in one big wave, but rather is triggered by disruptive outliers, things that at the time may seem like borderline cases of no consequence, but act as icebreakers for the ensuing paradigm shift. Digital entertainment in the broadest sense is part of its bend overphase, where audiences engage with content, whether it’s just commenting on a YouTube video or creating your own TikTok video. With simple yet powerful tools, it turns out that consumers also love to be creators. It used to be images and videos, but now it’s audio, and Kanye’s Donda Stem Player could prove to be a crucial step in that journey.
Formats don’t have to be the way they always have been
The future is always much more like the past. The Ford Model T looked more like a horse-less cart than a 1950s car. Change takes time. Digital entertainment business models have undergone drastic changes, but the content itself is much less so. We believe that TV shows, movies, and music are clearly defined things that have always been that way, but, in truth, they were defined by analog technology in the 19th century.e century. Now that linear TV programs, radio, and CD players are entering their final stages, traditional formats need not continue to dominate. The creatives who claim that a 45-minute drama and a 3.5-minute song are simply the best formats, do it because it’s all they’ve ever known. Yes they do, but that doesn’t mean other formats can’t work as well. Just look at the album. Many artists still enjoy creative building, but only 21% of music streamers regularly listen to albums on streaming services. Music fans have already decided that this format is not part of their future.
Smooth audio erases the creative endpoint
The Donda Stem Player, designed for Kanye by Kano, takes this concept and works with it. This, as my colleague, Kriss Thakrar, identifies, is its fluid, and it fits into the Agile music that we first identified in 2011. Analog entertainment formats were inherently creative full stops. When an album was recorded, it was done – final. It didn’t matter if the artist’s creative vision had changed, as the songs remained the same. It sounds quite natural, but until the era of recording it would have come across as a creative anathema in popular music. Before the recordings, a song was never the same twice. It only existed in the form of a live performance that was played in the moment and survived in the listener’s memory. The songs have evolved and changed. Whether it’s centuries of evolution in European folk music or decades of American blues and jazz. Then the recording came along and the songs became petrified – the fluff of creativity.
Kanye took his first shot at the creative stop with his continual updates to Life of Pablo. Not everyone understood it. Many fans just wanted it to sound like it did when they first heard it. It takes time for people to understand the change – a pretty literal change in the case of Life of Pablo. Now, with the Donda Stem Player, Kanye has erased the creative endpoint. Donda will never sound the same twice, and it’s now literally in the hands of her fans.
In some ways, making a physical kit seems like a pretty retro move in this digital age, but the subtle but crucial idea here is to make the Donda Stem Player a real instrument. It is the ultimate form of designer culture, by transforming songs made with instruments into an instrument itself. How very meta!
In 2015 I published my book ‘Awakening’, which was part of the digital music industry’s history and vision for the future. Some of my predictions haven’t aged as well as I would have liked, but some of them still look good. One of them was the DISC concept. I proposed that the future music formats be:
I’ve been primarily targeting the digital realm, and we’re already seeing it happening, whether it’s lip-syncing TikTok videos, Facebook Audio Studio, Clean Bandit’s Splice sound pack, or apps like Voisey and Trackd. But I also suggested that it could apply to physical formats in order to free music from its smartphone channels. One theoretical proposal was works of art that would allow the user to change songs by walking between them, triggering a vocal part here, a drum beat there, etc. It’s not millions of miles from the Donda Stem Player.
A lean future
The whole world of music isn’t suddenly going to switch from static streams to interactive widgets, but the change is coming. A year from now we may be able to view the Donda Stem Player as a fun gimmick, but if we do, it’ll be because we haven’t found the Model T Ford yet, rather than the underlying principles being wrong. . Of course, most of the music you listen to will most likely remain indented and static, but not all of it. As the audience leans more and more, more of them will want to create as much as they consume, just like they do with social video today. There is one thing we can be sure of – the future of creativity and music consumption is changing, and Kanye has just played his part, again.