Saturday, January 30, 2016

RIHANNA: Is #ANTI Truly a Platinum Success Story?

It seems like everyone and their mother has an opinion about one thing this week: Rihanna and the unconventional release of R8, now dubbed ANTI. If you're curious as to where I fit in, settle in -- it's gonna be a long one.

Let's begin with this -- I don't consider myself a hardcore Rihanna fan, but I do enjoy quite a lot of her music. So much so that she ranks as #14 on my current Overall Most Played Artists at my Last.FM. I've enjoyed her sound since the very beginning, back in the good ol' "Pon De Replay" days. Back when everyone -- including me, I admit it -- assumed she very well might become a One Hit Wonder.

A lot has changed since those days and Rihanna has become a bonafide Pop Star. It's a title I know that she has some issues with and fair enough. The reality is a lot of what's made Rihanna successful as an artist has been her "pop" material. "S.O.S". "Umbrella". "Only Girl (In The World)". "S&M". "We Found Love".

Stylistically (and sonically), she inspired a multitude of imitators -- and is still doing so despite not releasing an album in more than two years, an arguable eon in the mainstream music scene.

This past week, she unleashed her eighth album set for "free" and given the obvious snowball of interest, the album was declared platinum -- one million sold -- in one day. The question is: does this distinction have any real merit? And if it does, have we as 2016 Music Lovers, gone down the proverbial Point of No Return when it comes to real album sales?

Rihanna has been and should be embraced because she's willing to experiment and play with her sound. At its core, a Rihanna Record tends to always sound like her, regardless of tempo, style, or feel, but she is able play with colors, shades, and genres. Good Girl Gone Bad will always be her Magnum Opus for straight ahead Pop. Loud is untouchable in terms of being perfectly dance-floor ready. Rated R and Unapologetic, although they have their pop moments, are darker and edgier (and angrier).

I give her a lot of credit simply because she doesn't cater to what's expected. I'm sure she easily could have whipped together another set that contains a dance banger, a few urban-twinged midtempos, some dirty double-entendre cuts, and a ballad or two. The formula is tested, tried and true.. Instead, in the run up to ANTI, we got a smattering of random: a soundtrack single, a brooding anthem for life in "American Oxygen", a snappy clapback in "B*tch Better Have My Money", and the weird-but-kind-of-wonderful "FourFiveSeconds" with Kanye West and Paul McCartney.

After literally months of speculation in terms of just when this surprise-yet-not-a-surprise album would make it's debut, ANTI landed with an unceremonious plunk on Thursday, January 28th. Not on a #NewMusicFriday. Not on iTunes. Not in stores. Not even for money. Oh, and not with any of the "singles" the radio and music bloggers have been literally wearing out for months attached to it.

Instead, ANTI was released initially ONLY on TIDAL -- after being "accidentally" (which I don't believe for one second) "leaked" (eyeroll). And then heralded as FOR FREE via TIDAL. The set emerged on other digital download outlets the following day and physical copies will be sent to stores next week.

I suppose one could call that innovative and perhaps it is. It certainly doesn't follow the "rules" that make up this Music Industry, that much is certain, but then again -- why should Rihanna follow the rules?

Queen Rih or Samsung Sell Out?
I'm not here to debate the content of ANTI. Have I heard it? Yes. Most if it basically went right through me. I stand with a lot of the folks who were -- sue me -- hoping for more dance bangers rather than mumbly tepidness.

I am and always have been a proponent of the old adage -- "If you don't like it, don't complain. Just don't listen to it." Rihanna herself has said that she mainly made this album for herself and not for commercial success. She's certainly earned the right to take risks in her career and for that, I applaud her.

Full Disclosure: Good Girl Gone Bad and Loud were standouts in her catalog to me for a reason. I like pop music and I don't give a flying eff who knows it. It also should be said that Rihanna didn't write much on either of those albums, while on ANTI she received a writing credit on almost every track. If this is her truth, go ahead, girl, and do your thing.

What does bother me is the approach to this album campaign -- rather than feeling progressive and fresh -- simply comes across as haphazard, second-guessing all decisions, reactionary.

I'm not saying an artist should always have a pre-conceived vision; I'm saying for a project that has been hyped for so long as something with artistic merit, the promotional roll out felt like an unsupported hot mess.

The free download concept -- whether than was the intentional release plan or not -- is great for fans but it's nothing new. What is new here is unlike with, say Miley Cyrus's recent free album push (which, like ANTI, was created mainly "just for herself") Rihanna's record is very much a part of a Marketing Strategy for Roc Nation and TIDAL, both under the thumb of JAY-Z

When something is free, there's no emotional or monetary repercussion if you don't like it. You'll try a new food or drink at the supermarket if there's a free sample offered, despite having no intentions of purchasing it possibly ever. Rihanna is at a level in the Mainstream Music Consciousness where not everyone is a fan, but there's a very high percentage of possibility you enjoy at least one of her singles. Why not take a listen -- especially if its free?

Rihanna doesn't need to be releasing music for free and yet she seemingly has. Meanwhile, thousands of struggling artists (and Taylor Swift and Adele) have been trying to find the right balance between promoting your work and supporting yourself, spawning a backlash against the popularity of streaming services like Spotify (and TIDAL).

The difference here between what is assumed by the public (Rihanna has released ANTI for free) and the reality is what's really important. TIDAL was offering a limited quanity of free downloads of the album (upon signing up for their own services, of course). Samsung, who's been the main benefactor for this promotional roll out, has pre-purchased a number of copies of ANTI as a tie-in with the "free album" campaign. So when someone downloaded ANTI for free, it was counted as an album "sold".
Perhaps you're seeing why this makes 0 sense to me.

I've already made my thoughts on TIDAL known shortly after its launch early last year. In fact, I said:

"These artists have serious muscle in persuading music fans to shell out the $$ to subscribe, sure, but they are also brands in themselves. TIDAL's mantra is to take the Music Industry back for the artist but when artists who are already monetarily successful are used as its face, it feels less like a social movement and more like petulant strong-arming in order to pad their already impressive payouts in the existing streaming world."

The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) announced that ANTI is now certified platinum in the United States, one day after it's "release". Platinum signifies one million albums sold. Sold. As in traded for money. Except in this case, it wasn't.

Pre-Bought "freebies" aside, it's clear ANTI was positioned -- as many predicted -- as motivation for consumers to buy in to TIDAL, a streaming service with a monthly price tag (like the current industry standard, Spotify). For whatever reason, TIDAL doesn't suffer from the same artist backlash that Spotify does and yet you don't see these gimmicks being pulled by Spotify, now do you?

Billboard has been using Streams in its chart counts for a while now, including in its weekly Top 200 Album Chart. But how many Streams should equal one sale of an album? There's albums I've bought that I've worn out by listening to over and over, and there's album's I've bought that I've played a few times before only reaching for it on occasion. How do you define a success formula for Streaming?

UPDATE on 2/1/16: RIAA has announced they are taking into account Streaming and Track Sales in their album certifications going forward. 1,500 streams will be the equivalent to one album "sale". They will also include official video streams in the counts. Billboard has been including on-demand Streaming in their charts since December 2014.

Rihanna has proven herself as a strong seller in the past. I have no doubt that ANTI would and will sell very, very well. But calling it platinum in a day is just plain ridiculous in this situation and is the straw that breaks the camel's back when it comes to this Album Release campaign.

It's unfortunate that this will forever be the album with an asterisk next to it in terms of her stellar release history, but so be it. Who am I to judge? All I'm saying is, if ANTI's "sales strength" or popularity is put on the same pedestal (or even above) artists who rely on actual monetary support from fans and not pre-bought virality, then where is the line when it comes to true success?

I have no doubt that Rihanna will top the charts but only time will tell how the public perception will shake out.

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