Rihanna is one of the most popular music artists of the twentieth century. She is a multi-platinum singer with the third most number one hits of all time, right behind Mariah Carey and The Beatles. The top-selling digital artist of all time, she has been active for more than a decade, her work a staple of modern pop culture, seen in films, commercials, and television. Millions upon millions have been to her concerts, streamed her songs, and bought her twelve different albums. Her music has always been her most identifying characteristic, so why has she not released an album since 2016? Rihanna fans are clamoring for more of her music, yet she has so far denied their requests, seemingly content with staying out of the spotlight of the music industry. According to certain sources, she might never produce music again. The reason for this seems to be that in the short time she has started involving herself in fashion and beauty businesses, she has made more money than in her entire musical career.
It’s no secret that record companies have a history of shortchanging the artists they represent. In 2015, it was revealed that the rumors were indeed true about the outrageous cuts record companies take from their artists. Labels can (and do) take over 70% of a song’s earning from streaming services, leaving 16% to songwriters and a measly 10% to the artists who actually performed the song. In any other business, this would be considered an unabashed shilling, especially considering that these rates are independent of a song’s success. Whether your song receives over a million listens or a hundred, you’re still only getting 10% as the artist.
Conversely, Rihanna’s makeup line Fenty Beauty, selling products like airbrush makeup kits and foundations, has produced incredible returns for her. Within 40 days of being released to the public, the company garnered over $100 million in sales. Besides makeup, Rihanna also has a line of lingerie, six different fragrances, and even ties to the physical art world. She was recently spotted at Art Basel, an event that has been colloquially termed “the Olympics of the art world.” With her fingers in so many pies, it’s understandable why she would want to take a hiatus from the rigorous business of touring the world, performing multi-hour concerts night after night to thousands of eager fans.
This has become the norm for artists, musical and alike. Tati Westbrooks, the makeup YouTuber who recently engaged in a public feud with fellow content creator James Charles, has also expanded the realm of simple content creation. Although Tati makes millions off of her enormous list of subscribers and channel views, she has recently developed a health vitamin company, along with her own makeup line. She’s not even close to being alone among YouTubers, either. Besides James Charles and Jeffree Star, beauty YouTubers with their own makeup brands, content creators selling and marketing physical products is expanding to all types of content creation. Gamers like Ninja and Tfue have lines of physical merchandise, including streetwear as well as sponsors by gaming tech companies and energy drinks. We live in an age where artists “selling out” is not longer reprehensible – it’s the norm.
However, there is a question of whether or not these new developments is good for art being produced. Many of the aforementioned streamers and content creators have to be incredibly careful to stay out of controversy, and as a result have curbed their content to be as inoffensive as possible. Whether this means censoring their content to be accessible to all ages, or strategically painting themselves as victims in order to garner sympathetic fans to buy their products, content creators are being more and more cunning in their business strategies. This idea of preemptive avoidance of controversy has been a part of advertising for as long as capitalism can remember. However, whether it be Michelangelo painting nudes as Catholic iconography or Andres Serrano dunking a crucifix in a jar of urine, art has traditionally remained firmly outside of this ideal.
Music especially has been an outlet for true expression (Forbes report). Fans resonated with folk artists of the 60s railing against greedy corporations. The downtrodden lower and middle classes could connect with the drug-induced spirituality of bands like The Grateful Dead. Grunge bands of the nineties singled a return to wholesome, earnest feelings after the excesses of the 1980s. Truth in music has always been essential to its appeal, and the appeal of all art.
Rihanna is no stranger to revealing lyrics and emotional songs. She has fluently expressed heartbreak and hurt through songs like “What Now,” “Stay,” and “Cry.” She has touched the hearts of millions and made people feel a little less lonely through her words. Or, I’m sure that was the intention. All three of the songs mentioned and performed by Rihanna were written either with or entirely by professional songwriters. In fact, she has written little of her own work, typically paying outside work to do it. And the thing is, this is hardly outside the norm. Most popular artists now have teams of writers penning their words. Beyonce, Lil’ Yachty, Ariana Grande – all of them artists who have rarely, if ever, penned their works alone.
All of this falls in line with the avoidance of controversy. Artists like Rihanna aren’t just singers – they’re brands. They represent dozens, if not hundreds of people, and if her music fails then the people working behind her suffer. As a result, there is a vested interest in both maintaining a consistently “listenable” discography, but also assuring that if there is to be a change in sound, it is worked on and approved by every investor and interested party. Music is no longer the form of rebellion it once was. If anything, it’s more of a commodity now than ever.
In the case of Rihanna, who has always been an entertainer first and foremost,it’s easy to see why she would want to transition from the artistic world. After all, the profit margins are much higher.
Enjoy a throwback music video from Rihanna. Do you remember her first ever single on MTV & BET television networks? No one knew how big she would become from here.