On Wednesday around midnight, a new song showed up on RapCaviar, Spotify‘s premier hip-hop playlist: “All Falls Down,” Kanye West’s second hit single ever, which came out almost 20 years ago. While RapCaviar is mostly focused on new releases, it does occasionally feature throwbacks. Still, the addition felt notable, because a new release from West and Ty Dolla $ign is expected to arrive at midnight tonight and executives around the music industry are curious how streaming service gatekeepers will respond.
Will they support the renowned artist who now goes by Ye, despite the fact that his past string of antisemitic comments caused most of his prominent business partners to sever ties since 2022? Or will they just ignore the new album all together?
“It’s going to be complicated,” says one former Spotify employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “There’s going to be a difference of opinion within those places on how to handle it. Some people in leadership positions will want to be harsh on Kanye for the nasty antisemitic things he has said. There will also be another side, the hip-hop teams, who will say, ‘No, it’s Kanye, people say crazy shit all the time, plus he apologized. We don’t care. We’re playlisting because it’s Kanye.’”
A digital marketer who helps artists with streaming strategy was more skeptical. “Streaming services didn’t support ‘Vultures’ [Ye’s previous song], so I would be very shocked” if they support the rest of the album, he says. “Even though Ye did his apology, it felt like that came and went so fast.”
Reps for Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music did not respond to a request for comment.
Streaming services mostly avoid trying to wade into moral debates about artists’ character. One exception came when Spotify announced a new policy in 2018, writing on its blog that “in some circumstances, when an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.”
The backlash against this announcement was swift. Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment, told Billboard, “I don’t think it’s right for artists to be censored.” Others felt similarly, and a few weeks later, Spotify said “we are moving away from implementing a policy around artist conduct.”
That said, two former employees say Spotify still occasionally flexes its muscles around playlisting. When Megan Thee Stallion was shot by Tory Lanez in 2020, “his songs weren’t getting in any playlists after that,” according to a former employee. (Lanez was found guilty in court in December 2022.)
But Ye is not on trial, and he also has more than 140 Hot 100 hits to date. Many of these are still in regular rotation: His catalog has earned more than 480 million on-demand streams already this year in the U.S., according to Luminate.
Even so, his newest song sank like a stone. When Ye and Ty Dolla $ign released “Vultures” in November, it failed to crack the Hot 100, and it has amassed only around 33 million Spotify streams, a flop by Ye’s high-flying standards. (He released a video for the track “Talking/Once Again” with Ty earlier this week, but it is not yet available on streaming services.)
Two sources familiar with Ye’s search for a distribution deal say several streaming services signaled to them that they were unlikely to support new music from the star due to widespread outrage over his antisemitic comments. “For an artist as big as Kanye to release a new track and receive no major editorial placements is quite an outlier,” notes Nicki Camberg, a data journalist at the company Chartmetric, which tracks data on playlisting, social media, and streaming for artists. (“Vultures” was released through Label Engine, a distribution company owned by Create Music Group, according to identification information in YouTube’s Content Management System.)
“Vultures” has fared slightly better on the airwaves than it has on streaming services. The song has received airplay from around 30 stations, according to Mediabase. Two stations in Ye’s hometown of Chicago played the song the day it came out, and they’ve played it far more than anyone else: 199 spins so far in 2024 from WGCI and 181 from WPWX. The station that played “Vultures” third most this year, KVEG in Las Vegas, has played it 50 times.
Aside from the iHeart-owned WGCI, it’s noticeable that the stations playing “Vultures” are mostly owned by smaller radio companies, not the behemoths like iHeart, Audacy and Sirius. The track has received 2,144 spins overall, with 6.187 million audience impressions.
In the mid-2010s, radio was eclipsed by streaming services as the most important driver of listening behavior. Now a similar thing has happened to streaming services: Young fans are increasingly likely to discover music on short-form video platforms like TikTok. (Though they can’t find Universal Music Group songs there at the moment.) That tendency, combined with streaming services’ new emphasis on personalization, led executives to tell Billboard in 2022 that “Spotify and Apple editorial playlists don’t have as much punch” as they used to.
Even on an earnings call on Thursday (Feb. 8), Warner Music Group CEO Robert Kyncl noted that “the data discovery and consumption trends” in music “are driven by the algorithms of the larger platforms and users sharing playlists with each other” — not playlists controlled by the various platforms. “The guys who do playlists had a lot of power four or five years ago,” says one longtime A&R. “Now their power is dwindling, because it doesn’t matter what they say. The kids choose at the end of the day.”
This could work to Ye’s advantage. If he’s able to luck into a viral moment, it won’t matter much whether he’s put on editorial playlists initially; listeners will find the music and play it, and the audience response will impact streaming services.
So far, “Vultures” hasn’t generated this kind of enthusiasm. “From a fan perspective, if it was going crazy and everyone was talking about it, that would push it,” the digital marketer says. “But I haven’t seen that anywhere.”