Though Beyoncé hasn't gone very long without new material in recent years, there was a nearly 10-month gap between the release of her final Sasha Fierce-era single, the minor hit "Why Don't You Love Me?," and the debut of "Run the World (Girls)" in April. If anything, the singer's frantic turnover rate in singles in the second half of 2011 has worked against her more than her relatively brief hiatus from the spotlight. Over the course of October, Beyoncé released music videos for three of the best songs from 4 – "Countdown," "Love on Top" and "Party" – in rapid succession in advance of her new DVD, Live at Roseland. Though this strategy yielded some immediate attention, it kept those songs from gaining the traction necessary to break big as hits. Though each of these videos attracted a large number of viewers, their YouTube view counts are dwarfed by the clips for the Beyoncé songs that performed better at radio, or by videos for Rihanna songs that became radio staples.
The internet has had a significant impact on the way people consume music over the past decade, but radio ubiquity is still essential in breaking hits on a large scale. It’s too easy to ignore or simply never encounter content on the internet, so Beyoncé’s web-centric hits are focused mainly on an audience already inclined to pay attention to her every move. Since Rihanna’s hits are more difficult to avoid, they escape the echo chamber effect of the internet, where a song like "Countdown" can be intensely loved by a cult audience while never breaking through to the world at large. Even when a video goes viral, such as Rihanna’s controversy-baiting clip for "Man Down," it doesn’t necessarily translate to sales or airplay. Though "Man Down" is by some distance the most-watched video either artist released in 2011, the song received modest radio spins – it was only serviced to select urban stations – and sold the least out of any of the singer’s singles this year.
That said, Rihanna still lags behind Beyoncé in terms of albums sales. 4 sold 310,000 copies in its opening week and debuted at Number One on Billboard’s album chart, while Rihanna’s latest, Talk That Talk, opened at Number Three on the chart in November with 197,000 units sold. This gulf is even more pronounced when comparing their previous albums – Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce has sold nearly twice as many copies as Rihanna’s Loud. (In fairness, Beyoncé’s album has been out for longer, but both records have yielded a number of smash hit songs.)
This difference in purchasing patterns may speak to a generational divide not just between the two singers, but between their fan bases: Rihanna’s younger-skewing audience are accustomed to focusing on individual tracks having grown up on iTunes and file-sharing, while Beyoncé’s older fans are more conditioned to buy full albums. Beyoncé certainly encourages a more album-centric view of her work – all of her solo records have been organized around clearly-defined thematic conceits, and she went out of her way to present 4 as the product of a "year-long personal and artistic journey" in Year of 4, her documentary about the making of the album.
Beyoncé certainly isn’t alone in making old school pop records – Lady Gaga and Adele have both racked up blockbuster sales with their most recent albums, though both singers did so on the strength of radio hits such as "The Edge of Glory" and "Rolling in the Deep." To her credit, Rihanna has been producing thematically unified albums in her own right – Talk That Talk is a tightly sequenced 37-minute set with an emphasis on racy lyrics, and Loud has been nominated for Album of the Year at the 54th Grammy Awards. This sort of validation may push the singer in the same direction Beyoncé has been headed – having proven herself as a major star, Rihanna may eventually choose to pursue a creative direction that isn't in line with prevailing radio trends. As much as Rihanna's success can be read as a shift in the marketplace, it could just be that she just hasn't opted to use her leverage as a bona fide superstar to take the sort of risks Beyoncé has made in 2011.
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