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How Ariana Grande is saying 'thank u, next' to the traditional music business model

“Ariana tweets ‘hi,’ and fans rush in for a direct conversation. It's access like this that breaks down the barrier between one of the world's most buzzy musicians and her fans," explained one music industry insider.
Image: Ariana Grande performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio by AT&T at Banc of California Stadium
Ariana Grande performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio by AT&T at Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles.Kevin Winter / Getty Images for iHeartMedia file

Ariana Grande’s absence from Sunday night’s 61st Grammy Awards is just one example of the power the 25-year-old singer wields in the music industry.

Despite being invited to attend and perform at the show, the pop star chose to watch from home, having turned down the opportunity after an alleged dispute with one of the show’s producers. Although she didn’t know it at the time, this meant that she also turned down the opportunity to receive her first ever Grammy in person. The singer won the award for Best Pop Vocal Album for "Sweetener."

Her decision is another indicator of Grande’s fearless refusal to abide by traditional pop artistry norms.

“Two albums in six months huh,” Grande wrote in a tweet late last month. “That’s deep. love u. talk sooon,” she continued.

The first album is the aforementioned "Sweetener," the August 2018 release that gave the singer her third number-one album and the record for the biggest opening streaming week for any female artist. It also helped her win the crown for Spotify’s most-streamed female artist of 2018.

The second is "thank u, next," the album she released last week.

Despite being quietly released on a Saturday night in November, the title track from that album gave Grande her first number one hit and broke the record for biggest music video debut in YouTube history, garnering 55.4 million views in its first 24 hours. It also holds the title for YouTube’s biggest “Premiere,” a feature that allows viewers to watch a new video at the same time, similar to tuning in to watch a new episode of their favorite television show.

The number two spot on YouTube Premiere in the U.S. is also by Grande — her second number one hit, “7 rings” — released in January.

Together, both songs grant Grande a seat next to Drake and Mariah Carey as the third artist to have an album with two songs that debut at number one, according to Billboard.

Grande’s only mainstream promotion for “thank u, next” came this weekend when she spoke in depth to Zach Sang, revealing the impetus behind the album and how making it “kind of saved her life,” as she told the radio host. Apart from pit-stop performances on Ellen, "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," and at the 2018 Billboard Women in Music event late last year, most of the recent promotion for "thank u, next" comes solely from Grande’s personal social media accounts.

Some industry experts argue that this success and the response surrounding her newly adopted distribution practices can be accredited to her presence on these platforms.

“When Ariana goes on Twitter it feels like a mini party, an event,” Kevin O’Donnell, head of music partnerships at Twitter, told NBC News.

“Ariana tweets ‘hi,’ and fans rush in for a direct, spur-of-the-moment conversation with Ariana. It's access like this that that can only happen on Twitter — breaking down the barrier between one of the world's most buzzy musicians and her fans,” he said.

According to Twitter, the singer has gained 4.2 million followers on the platform in the past few months alone.

She even has an entire Instagram page dedicated to promotion. It holds the handle name “sweetener” and has almost 1 million followers.

In addition to self-promotion on social media, other experts pin her success to the shift that is occurring within the industry as a whole.

“Streaming and direct social engagement have completely transformed listener behavior and the ways artists release music and connect with their fans,” said Lonny Olinick, CEO of AWAL, an artist services company and subsidiary of Kobalt Music Group.

“Megastars with huge built-in followings are demonstrating they don’t have to follow the traditional promotion cycle and release music more frequently and interact directly with their fan base,” he told NBC News.

Such "megastars” usually means rappers like Drake, Future and Gucci Mane, who release multiple mix tapes and albums per year — not female pop stars who got their start on Broadway.

“I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren't,” Grande told Billboard in an interview last year. “Bruh, I just want to f------ talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.”