Kanye West’s Streaming Stays Strong, But Airplay Falters After New Controversies

Over the past two weeks, Ye — the artist and and entrepreneur formally known as Kanye West — has worn a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt, spread antisemitic conspiracy theories on a popular Revolt podcast and falsely blamed George Floyd’s death on fentanyl. That could cost him some fashion and branding deals – Adidas has said its partnership with the rapper is “under review.” So far, though, in the United States his music remains just as popular as it was on audio and video streaming services, although on terrestrial radio his daily spins and average daily audience were down about 21% since Meta and Twitter restricted his social accounts, according to Luminate. 

West’s streaming numbers haven’t changed much over the last few weeks. For the seven days after Oct. 3, when West wore a “White Lives Matter” shirt at the Paris Fashion Week show for his Yeezy line, his catalog had an average daily streaming tally of 13.1 million in the U.S., according to Luminate, compared to 13 million in the seven days before that. A change like that — less than 1% — would seem to reflect the normal fluctuations of the streaming business.  

West’s daily streaming numbers also stayed steady before and after the antisemitic tweets starting on Oct. 7, which resulted in restrictions being placed on his Instagram and Twitter accounts. In the week following the restrictions placed on West’s social accounts, his average daily on-demand audio and video streams in the U.S. was 13.1 million, just 3.5% lower than the previous week — a negligible difference that’s also best explained by normal fluctuations in streaming activity.  


West’s radio airplay is a different story, however. There was a noticeable decline in the artist’s radio spins and audience size following Twitter and Meta’s decisions on Oct. 9 to restrict access to his social media accounts, leaving West’s controversial posts but preventing him from publishing additional posts or comments. West’s daily spins declined 21.1%, from 325 in the eight days preceding his social account restrictions to 258 in the eight days following them; and his average daily radio audience fell 21.4%. Representatives for iHeartMedia and Cumulus Media, two of the country’s largest radio companies, did not comment.  

Last week’s radio audience was West’s lowest in more than two years — lower than levels seen before the radio promotion push for his 2021 album Donda, which sent the songs “Hurricane” (No. 6) and “Off the Grid” (No. 11) onto the Billboard Hot 100 chart — and lower than anything since a brief spike in airplay in June around the release of the third single from Donda 2, “True Love.”  

Despite West getting skewered on late-night television and criticized by everybody from actress Jamie Lee Curtis to singer Ariana Grande, there is some evidence that West’s latest outbursts have spurred greater engagement online: his Twitter following grew by 182,000 on Oct. 8, to 31.28 million, according to Chartmetric, an online analytics platform that measures artists’ social and streaming activities. At the same time, West’s Chartmetric rank — an overall measure of fan engagement online — improved four spots to No. 30 in the past month (meaning only 29 artists rank higher). Based on that, “I would say consumers see controversy as a source of entertainment and not concern,” says Rutger Rosenborg, marketing manager at Chartmetric.  

West’s streaming activity may just be on autopilot as a result of placement on playlists on music streaming platforms. As of Wednesday (Oct. 19), West's music is featured on 1,270 and 1,951 in-house playlists at Spotify and Apple Music, respectively, according to Chartmetric. Additionally, West can be found on 1.3 million user-generated playlists on Spotify. (Not all of these playlists result in streams within the U.S., however.) Significant streaming activity also comes from personalized, algorithmically generated playlists such as Spotify’s Your Time Capsule. The only significant week-to-week changes in West’s streaming numbers come when he releases a new track or album.   

Radio play depends more on human decision-making. Radio programmers remain powerful gatekeepers in an increasingly decentralized, automated world of streaming platforms less affected by the decisions of corporate executives under the influence of advertising clients. Country singer Morgan Wallen saw radio programmers' power in February 2021 after a video surfaced online of him using a racist epithet. In the two weeks following the incident, weekly radio spins and audience dropped 95.7% and 97.2%, respectively, according to Luminate. At the same time, Wallen’s streaming numbers remained strong enough that Dangerous spent 10 straight weeks atop the Billboard 200 album chart.  

Controversies tend to blow over eventually. Wallen’s radio spins recovered to pre-controversy levels within 15 months and in September Dangerous set a new record for longevity with 86 non-consecutive weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. “Even if DSPs remove an artist from editorial playlists for a period of time, that doesn’t stop users from adding that artist to their own playlists,” Rosenborg says. “Once everything blows over, those artists are added back to editorial playlists by DSPs as well.”

Glenn Peoples