This post was originally featured on Mad Art Lab, Skepchick’s sister site focusing on the intersection of science and art!
Rihanna has become something of a meme this week, after Billboard announced that her latest album, ANTI, had only sold 460 copies in its first week:
Billboard 200: #27(new) @rihanna, ANTI 15,896 album equivalent units [460 pure album sales + 4,239,279 streams].
— Chart News (@chartnews) February 1, 2016
ANTI, which released on January 28th, is the singer’s 8th album. Shrouded in mystery until its release, it saw a rocky first day when it was accidentally released on Tidal a bit earlier than expected. The album has been heralded as a new direction for the singer by many outlets, and a flop by others. So when low sales numbers were reported by Billboard, social media immediately lit up with jokes at Rihanna’s expense:
Leaving aside whether album sales dictate the quality of an album (they do not), and that this album has been #FireEmoji (in my heart), it is readily apparently that those making a fuss about her sales don’t really understand how truly complex music release numbers can be these days.
To start, it’s important to understand that 460 is the number of complete albums sold. This seems obvious, but people have been conveniently ignoring that “460” does not account for single-song downloads or streaming. These numbers are included in Billboard 200 numbers (as of December 2014), where Rihanna debuted at #27. In addition to the Top 200, Billboard also tracks top downloaded songs – a list Rihanna currently tops with her single, “Work.” As we move further along in the digital age, a more important statistic might be that ANTI stacked up 13 million streams in its first 14 hours of release – a much more impressive number. Tidal, the exclusive streaming home of ANTI (for the first week), also signed up 1 million new trial subscribers upon launch of the album (myself being one of them). This is not an insignificant number for a service struggling to compete with streaming behemoth Spotify.
Of course, 460 albums sold (with a #27 Billboard debut) is still a low launch for a huge artist like Rihanna – even when you account for streaming and single-song downloads. That is, until you do more research.
There are a couple factors at play here, the first of which is that Rihanna actually gave away one million copies of the album for free after it first launched. This move came as part of a $25 million marketing deal she inked in conjunction with Samsung and Tidal (Rih is part owner in the latter).
Secondly, ANTI wasn’t even put up for sale until later in the day on Thursday. For the uninitiated, new music is generally released on a Friday morning. That’s why Billboard’s album sales, downloads, and streaming numbers are calculated from Friday – Thursday. This means there was only a partial day where the album was available to purchase before sales stopped being calculated for the week.
When looking at the actual numbers behind the album, it makes one wonder whether the jokes at Rihanna’s expense are pure ignorance or if there is another, more sinister explanation. There is currently significant attention being directed toward the Oscars’ failure to recognize black artists, but the reality is that such failures are a universal norm. Whether it’s Oscar nominations, or social media snark, black women fall victim to a massive amount of America’s scorn and derision.
At least Rihanna can dish the contempt right back.