In 1971 the Fisher-Price Change-A-Record Music Box was introduced for those toddlers looking to spin some
wax plastic. It came with five not-long-playing discs that included such child chart toppers such as “Humpty Dumpty,” “Jack and Jill” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” There is a slot in the music box itself to hold the discs. Not only in order to keep things tidy, but because those five discs were, well, the five discs.
Fast forward about 30 years and there was the HitClips digital music player from Tiger Electronics. Plug a cartridge into the device and get 60 seconds of audio from performers ranging from 3 Doors Down to Madonna, from Britney to Justin. Within a few years the cartridges contained 120 seconds of lo-fi music.
Then as we become more contemporary there is the Lego VIDIYO system that allows the creation of music with its proprietary collection of “12 Bandmates, 6 BeatBoxes and over 90 BeatBits to collect.”
And bringing it to now, there is the Donda Stem Player from Yeezy Tech + Kano. This is not to suggest that it is like any of the above in any sense beyond that it is something that it is an alternative means by which music can be obtained and in this case, modified to fit your tastes. There does seem to be a technological imperative that goes back to 1971, but in the case of the Stem Player there is not a limitation of what can be deployed; it accommodates AAC, AIF, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, M4A, MP3, MP4, WAV, and WAVE files, so it is not like the user would have to limit themselves to the music of Ye and potentially his compatriots (i.e., if there was a proprietary format that he shared with his friends).
The ostensible attraction of the device is that it allows users to (1) separate stems, such as the vocals and the bass then (2) manipulate them, including adding audio affects and the ability to change direction of the music. Essentially, this is a player that is 2.5 inches in diameter and 1-inch thick with four strips of light radiating out from the disc’s center that allow the user to control the functions and to see what is occurring and to be able to do things to recordings that would otherwise require some additional DJ software. (Or, in the Lego world, a VIDIYO, although that includes video capability, too.)
Let’s face it: in the world of portable audio players, it has pretty much become the iPhone. Go to the Apple website and you’ll have to search in order to find the iPod, the device that arguably changed portable music players because of the ease of interface and the ease of accessing music from Apple, somethings, particularly the latter, that weren’t offered by other providers. Somewhere I have a Microsoft Zune that I received as a gift; it arguably failed not only because it arrived five years after the iPod (2006 vs. 2001) and because it really did little that people weren’t already familiar/comfortable with from the iPod. (Although the Zune, I recall, had a really well-designed digital clock face.)
The Stem, obviously, does something that others don’t. Which raises the question of how many people are there who want to do it. However, given that Ye’s wealth is anywhere from $19.6-million to $6.6-billion (sort of like his once (and future?) pal Donald Trump, it isn’t clear exactly how much is in the proverbial bank), the failure or success of the product really won’t matter.
Given his boost in visibility due to the Spotify/Rogan contretemps, Neil Young’s Pono comes to mind. As you may—or may not—recall, Young was not happy with the audio quality that was being provided by iTunes via the AAC format. He believed the FLAC audio file format was superior, so a player was developed and a Kickstarter campaign obtained the funds needed to manufacture the players. Young had the support of labels including Warner and Sony: the alternative would necessitate music being available in that format, so that was important. (However, the device could also play DSD, ALAC, MP3, WAV, AIFF and unprotected AAC files, but arguably, the point was to have the superior audio of FLAC, otherwise why?)
The PonoPlayer, with its official public launch at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, had a mixed reception. It rolled out to consumers in Q1 2015. Production ended in Q2 2017.
(Written while listening to music on a Sony NW-A45 Walkman.)