This past Thursday night, Kanye West debuted his new album ye at a listening session at the Diamond Cross Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he’d been working on new music for several months. A few hundred people, including music journalists, radio personalities, and celebrities (2 Chainz, Jonah Hill, Kid Cudi, Chris Rock, Pusha-T), huddled around a bonfire in the open field as all seven songs from the highly-anticipated album were blasted through stacked speakers. At the end of the night, Kanye dropped new merch on his webstore, because what would a Kanye event be without merch?
The merch line, made in collaboration with Bravado, consists of long sleeve T-shirts and hoodies screen-printed with a photo of Jackson Hole’s white-capped mountains underneath the word “Wyoming” in bold neon green font on the front, “Jackson Hole” in yellow font down the right arm, and the date of the listening event on the back. Another, the pink long sleeve tee worn by Kim Kardashian, featured hand-drawn graphics of the same snowy mountains and sunsets. The merch, which ranged from $65 to $145, was sold exclusively online and came with a digital copy of ye.
Since Kanye’s camp first teased the clothing on social media a few hours before the listening session, the reviews online have been mixed. Some heralded Kanye’s artistry; others were unimpressed. There were jokes about Kanye “needing” Virgil back on his creative team and North West designing the hand-drawn tees. By the time the merch dropped, the same concerns persisted and there were additional complaints about the steep prices. Still, the merch sold really, really well. During an interview with Power 106 Los Angeles, Scooter Braun confirmed that $500,000 worth of merch was sold in 30 minutes. Kanye, who received the news in real time, looked pleasantly surprised. Eyes wide, he nodded at someone off camera in approval and smiled with his mouth open.
Since his return to Twitter in April, Kanye has consistently been in hot water. He tweeted support for right wing YouTuber Candace Owens, who was also at the ye listening event, saying: “I love the way Candace Owen thinks.” A few days later, Hot 97 host Ebro Darden revealed that Kanye had told him he “loves” Trump. Things spiraled from there: Kanye wore a red MAGA hat signed by Trump and later appeared on TMZ and said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years… for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” As a result, many have rightfully questioned whether or not they could still be Kanye fans. Others have given up on him altogether. So how did he still manage to sell all that merch?
I didn’t buy any Wyoming merch because I wasn’t particularly enamored by the designs and much prefer vintage merch. And honestly, it’s been a little tough to be a Kanye fan these days. But I can’t say I’m surprised by the commercial success of the tees and hoodies. Since releasing his highly-coveted Yeezus merch in 2013, Kanye has been at the forefront of the artist merch trend. Thanks largely to his influence and foresight, concert/tour tees were no longer just apparel you bought at a show and maybe stashed somewhere in your closet. Instead, they became lifestyle products, many of which borrowed ideas from streetwear, and were worn by fans everyday, fetching insane resale values on Grailed and eBay. While other artists have since latched onto the fad, none have dominated the space quite as well as Kanye. Back in March 2016, he even tweeted that The Life of Pablo pop-up in New York sold $1 million worth of clothing during a two-day period.
So while $500,000 in 30 minutes is an impressive figure by any standard, it’s not surprising—especially given Kanye’s previous success with merch. It’s also not far-fetched considering his core fan base, the hype kids, have previously shown they’re fully capable of separating Kanye’s controversial opinions from his clothing and footwear releases.
Take Kanye’s Yeezy sneakers, for instance. Even after the rapper voiced his support for Trump and made controversial remarks about slavery, people are still wearing, buying, and reselling the shoe. In fact, during his recent tweet storm, he claimed that the Desert Rat 500 “sold 250 thousand in one hour” during Coachella. In another tweet, he said: “the Yeezy 350s sell 400 thousand pair in four hours. Only thing close to this is the iPhone.” Kanye, according to Kanye, is “currently the single highest paid person in footwear” and he makes “more money on shoes than Michael Jordan”—though this fact is widely contested.
Many tossed or burned their New Balances (after the company appeared to praise Trump’s trade plans) and VLONE (after ASAP Bari was accused of sexual assault). But Kanye fans haven’t boycotted Yeezys and appear to care more about hyped gear than the ramifications of Kanye’s remarks. It’s likely those same people who are buying the Wyoming merch—some even reselling them on Grailed for more than double the retail price—despite the fact that they don’t ship for another three to four weeks.
But it’s not just that Kanye’s fans want hyped gear—think about why fans buy merch in the first place. It’s to say I was there, or I wish I had been there. And Kanye is a master at creating grand spectacles that dominate our timelines and, despite being exclusive, somehow offer others an opportunity to feel included, usually through live streams or merch.
From the moment photos of the invites to the listening were shared on the internet, it was clear that only a small subset of people were being flown to Wyoming via a private jet to hear the album before its release. You were lucky if you were included on that short list. But if you weren’t, you could live stream the event or buy merch from the comfort of your couch. And that’s exactly what fans did.
Kanye has used a similar tactic in the past. In February 2016, he presented his Yeezy Season 3 collection at a fashion show at Madison Square Garden that also served as a listening party for his album, The Life of Pablo. Thousands of people, including fans, journalists, and celebrities (Travis Scott, Jay-Z, Pusha-T, Anna Wintour, the Kardashians), filled the arena. According to a Tidal press release, over 20 million people attempted to watch the live stream at its peak. It’s arguable that the excitement around the show added to the buzz around the album and, by association, the merch that followed. Hence all the lineups at the TLOP pop-up stores and the staggering $1 million sales figure over two days.
It’s true that the Wyoming hoodies and long sleeve shirts haven’t sold out online. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why; it could be a number of things. Maybe Kanye and his team simply produced a larger run. What is interesting to note is that, unlike previous Kanye merch, this release wasn’t proposed as an exclusive drop, only available for a limited time (usually a weekend-long pop-up). Regardless, the merch, according to a source close to the situation, is doing “incredibly well.” Even when Kanye is at his worst, it won’t stop people from buying his merch. Whether or not people will actually wear the merch, or just plan to flip it on eBay, is another story.