Rihanna's new album 'Anti': Will any physical copies be released?

According to a statement from the streaming service Tidal, Rihanna's new album is 'exclusively available in streaming and downloadable formats.' What does this decision say about music marketing?

Thibault Camus/AP
Rihanna poses during Paris Fashion Week in 2015.

Following the release of her new single “Work,” singer Rihanna’s full album “Anti” is now available – but if you’re hoping for a CD to set on your shelf, you’re out of luck, at least for now. 

Rihanna’s album is now available on Tidal, the streaming service in which Rihanna is involved along with such music stars as Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Madonna. 

For fans who don’t have an account with Tidal, Rihanna is making some copies of her album available for no charge.

According to a statement from Tidal, the album is “exclusively available in streaming and downloadable formats.” So it doesn’t sound like a physical album is on its way soon, though one may be released later. 

With digital copies of albums available for purchase through services like iTunes or for streaming through platforms like Spotify, how much does the actual album matter?

Avoiding the physical album has been tried for more than a decade. In 2004, Universal Music Group brought together various little-known acts to release their albums in the digital format only. At that time, saving money was cited as an important consideration. “It's just so expensive these days to record an artist and make a video and put them out on the road to properly develop them," Jay Gilbert, a senior director at Universal's Music Enterprises unit and the person in charge of Universal’s digital-only label, said in an interview with The New York Times. "This is an alternative to that that's not very expensive but can be highly effective.”

But Rihanna, a chart-topping artist, presumably doesn’t have to worry about that. So what are the advantages to a move like this?

Hunter Hayes, a Grammy-nominated country singer, announced last year that he would be releasing multiple singles through streaming services and, later, iTunes but that he did not at that point have plans for any album that bring the songs together. (He later released the album “The 21 Project,” which included the tracks, at the end of 2015.) 

“We're starting to see an effective strategy in building a digital story first with 18- to 24-year-olds,” Jeremy Holley, the senior vice-president of consumer and interactive marketing at Hayes’s label Warner Music, told Billboard. Country radio stations are “still the No. 1 discovery format,” Holley said, “but not the be-all, end-all.”

This could be a strategy that works better with younger music fans, however, says Holley.

“The country audience in general ­traditionally skews older," says Holley. "Not all of [Blake Shelton’s] fans understand or know about platforms like Spotify – they're still buying CDs at Walmart. It would probably be more ­challenging, but it's not something we're necessarily afraid of.” 

One of Hayes’s songs, “21,” reached its highest position on the Billboard Country Digital Songs chart at number 24. 

But for some labels, they may see dropping the release of a physical album as taking away a possible source of revenue. After all, even if album sales are low, that’s still more revenue than they would have had if they hadn’t released an album. “Labels still aren’t willing to abandon the physical release altogether,” Vulture writer Lauretta Charlton wrote in 2015. 

Album sales declined in 2015 by 6 percent, according to Nielsen, but last year, the music industry had Adele, who quickly set records for how many albums she sold. 

Another interesting piece of this, though, as noted by Charlton, is the continuing growth in sales of vinyl, a physical form of music that saw higher sales for the tenth year in a row in 2015, according to Nielsen

Also, today's music landscape continues to show that there is no blueprint for an album release anymore. From Beyonce and Drake's surprise album releases to Adele's decision to keep her album off streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music, many famous artists are choosing different paths. 

It remains to be seen if Rihanna’s move away from releasing a physical copy of “Anti” affects her chart performance.

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