AM Investment Strategies
AMS Spring 2023

What Could Kanye West’s Stem Player Achieve with 3D Printing?

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Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, has rarely been out of the news over the past decade. The globally famous producer and artist has an apparel brand Yeezy that may be worth as much as $4 to $5 billion. Since 2015, the Adidas Yeezy shoes have sold out quickly, and he has sold over 21 million records and had over 100,000,000 downloads.

Ye is also a style leader and has been quite eccentric in his opinions and pronouncements. His public discourse over his ex-wife Kim Kardashian and brief presidential campaign have been worrying. Indeed, as a friend you’d probably want to put an arm around him and have a good talk to someone who is clearly sometimes in a world of hurt. However, as a public figure, the creative whirlwind gets a pass and is treated as a spectacle. This is a bit troublesome, since someone so famous is clearly a walking industry and those around him may not want to really do what is best for him in the short term for fear of stopping the gravy train.

With a net worth of perhaps $1.8 billion and thirty million followers on Instagram, every little thing he says and does could become successful. And, indeed, for all of the randomness there has been an incredible amount of success for Ye and those in his orbit. The cultural significance of Virgil Abloh and his reshaping of fashion was possible due to him being propelled to fame by Ye, for example.

What is the Stem Player?

Now, Ye has moved on to making an MP3 player, available for $200. This device will be the only way to listen to his new album Donda 2, at least initially. As distribution models in the music industry go, this is a typically radical approach for Ye and it is difficult to imagine anyone else taking such a quixotic approach.

About his new device, Ye stated:

“Donda 2 will only be streaming on my own platform, the stem player. You can download new music from stemplayer.com. You can play 4 different elements of the track: vocals, drums, bass and music. It also has a MP3 player available. We currently have 67,000 available and are making 3,000 a day.”

Stem Player is a service, but also a device. Shaped a bit like a lovable hockey puck, it has a soft skin and lacks a screen. Retailing for $200, it will play music from the platform, but also allows you to remix those songs through the use of buttons that split tracks into “stems” to which you can then add to or change. You could potentially add samples, change the bass or vocals. You can control loops in real time, perform lossless mixing, make live samples, save songs, and share your mixes. It features 8G of storage, Bluetooth, and an audio jack ,and charges over USB C. The Stem Player is in effect a hand held remixing device.

Ye’s product is manufactured by U.K.-based Kano, a kit company that produces headphones, computers, mice, and other peripherals that kids can play with, explore, and customize. Kano has made over 350,000 kits and hopes to become a regular consumer electronics brand that also teaches you to code and build your own technology. I think that Kano’s principles are highly exciting and, by partnering with Ye, the company may have a path to mainstream acceptance. The firm started making Raspberry Pi kits, then educational Windows computers, but ran into some rough water in 2019 with a camera that failed to launch and a Disney product that didn’t get made. The firm ultimately laid off 50 people.

How Ye Could Use 3D Printing

Ye’s new device is extremely unique in a number of ways and, for such a unique product, I wonder if the entrepreneur could turn to a truly unique technology. Of course, I’m referring to 3D printing. With 3D printing, we can fail far faster than with anything else. We can iterate ideas much more quickly than any other manufacturing technology. For someone like Ye, who is able to capture the world’s attention everyday, 3D printing could be used to make a new product every day.

Now, for this MP3 player it would have been difficult, but 3D printing could have been used to produce a custom body and housing components for this. Or perhaps 3D printing could have been used for the molds to make the silicone body. However, for many other parts, 3D printing could make all of the device or a lot of it.

Ye could simply design a new product every day and offer it for sale: brooches, earrings, cuff links, trinkets, glasses—all very possible to make with 3D printing. The artist would just need to have the prototype 3D printed and then offer it on demand in a limited production run. Once one is ordered, Kano 3D prints it. The fashion risk of not selling is mitigated with 3D printing. Products can also be made faster and could inexpensively be adapted for future versions. RIM molding, lost wax casting, and polyurethane molds also make a lot of different production runs possible with 3D printed tooling. 3D printing could also be used to produce inserts for leather to create shaped fashion items, for example. I believe there are a lot of ways through which creative mega stars could grow their business with 3D printing to produce timely, short-run products.

How Musicians Became Brands

For years, artists have felt that there was not enough room for them in the music industry. Controlled by a few labels the sector has long regulated distribution, airplay, and essentially allocated revenue in a monopolistic market to itself. The music industry is now made up of perhaps a dozen CEOs who control what gets made and what you listen to.

Spotify is aiming to change this, as are services such as Apple Music. Streaming service Tidal was acquired by Jay Z and others in an attempt to put artists in the driving seat. Additionally, musicians have been getting more power by setting up and managing their own labels for decades.

However, individuals like Dr. Dre have really shown that real money and freedom can be achieved by artists becoming integrated brands that produce movies and invest in headphone manufacturing. Especially in hip hop, branching out into clothes, energy drinks, or commerce generally is now seen part-and-parcel of a rap career. Rapper 50 Cent may be less musically relevant now than he once was, but successful investments in Vitamin Water and Casper mattresses has netted him over $100 million. Diddy has performed all of the U.S. marketing for Diageo’s Ciroc Vodka since 2007 in a tie up that not only rewards him for exposure but values his creative input. Contemporary hip hop has, therefore, exemplified a newly empowered set of global stars that want control, freedom, and to be valued for their creative input. They also want to get paid.

Will the Stem Player Be Successful?

Ye’s latest efforts should be seen as a continuation of the artist megabrand. Offering a device that lets you take control over the music that you own and allows you to remix songs is a fantastically creative thing for Ye to do. I think that this is actually a wonderful opportunity for consumers. At the same time, by pointing to a particular device, Ye is forcing his fans to buy it. This is perhaps not the most elegant way to do this, but is certainly a quick way to do it.

It’s difficult to say if this effort will be successful. Much will rely on how well it works and how good the album is. It will also be interesting to see how initial users will perceive the device and use it. Kano seems like it can scale, but this kind of thing could be very difficult to do while the world is watching. Any initial quality issues could severely harm the product. We also don’t know to what extent Ye’s attention will be affixed to this product and how much he will continue to push it. However, he is taking the distribution and management element to its logical extremis: he entirely controls the device and the platform that distributes it. Meanwhile, on this platform, you can actually play with the music.

However, if we look at hip hop royalty expanding into production and commerce, is there perhaps a better way for them to get engaged? They may just consider turning to 3D printing.

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