Here is one of the least-loved rituals of modern music fandom: getting hyped for something that turns out to not be music. Rihanna has spent much of the past five years building a successful fashion empire, but every time she posts about her Fenty Beauty brand, she’s swamped with comments asking about her next album. Kanye West diehards have both fist-pumped and grimaced through his shoe drops and political proclamations—and they are now having their patience tested as he keeps moving back the release date for his new album. The legions who follow Lady Gaga or Kendrick Lamar have lived through years in which their faves seemed to skip the recording studio to work on eye shadow or launching a creative agency.
Such efforts offer reminders that pop stars are, on some level, just influencers with brands to monetize. But they also show how musicians occupy a distinct cultural place that is different from that of a TikTok darling or fashion mogul. There’s a reason that the stereotype of modern pop fans is that they’re so devoted, you don’t call them fans; you call them “stans.” Good music can feel like the most valuable commodity in the world to the people who consume it—and yet the economics of fame, among other factors, encourage artists to branch into other arenas.
Famous artists branching into various pursuits is nothing new, but in the 21st century, pop stars who aren’t multi-hyphenates are rarer than the ones who are. One reason is obvious: Sustaining a music career is incredibly taxing. The continuously shifting tastes of the public make continued success impossible to guarantee; the demands of touring are more grueling than the demands placed on almost any other variety of famous person; pop stars are identified with their work in a way that can make criticism and media coverage extremely personal. It’s no coincidence that so many songs by people who have achieved success tend to focus on the drag of fame (see: Billie Eilish, age 19, already fantasizing about quitting the biz and moving to Kauai).
So is it any wonder that Rihanna, who put out seven albums over the first eight years of her career, slowed the pace of her musical output at a certain point? Wouldn’t you do the same? Add in the financial incentives at play—with each stream of a song on Spotify bringing in only fractions of a penny, which are then divided among labels, songwriters, and distributors—and it seems only natural to start prioritizing skin-care products over catchy songs. “Rihanna understands her value,” the radio personality Skyy Hook told Page Six this year. With fashion, Hook added, “There are not 50 people in Rihanna’s pocket before she even sees her profit. There are very little middle men in fashion compared to the music industry.”