Selling music isn’t exactly a new thing. And, for decades, there’s been a fairly established way to do it: send out review copies, schedule interviews and appearances, talk up the release date as much as possible so that the album debuts high on the charts.
And then there’s Beyoncé, the self-titled album released in the wee hours of this morning by Beyoncé Knowles. There was absolutely no prior warning about when it would be landing on iTunes; though it was no secret that the singer had something in the works, between her Super Bowl performance and news reports about video shoots, never did she say that today would be the day.
According to the traditional wisdom of music marketing, that decision would be a terrible one: no anticipation equals no sales.
The traditional strategy was exemplified this year by Miley Cyrus‘ Bangerz, which was released on the heels of performances, singles, an MTV documentary, an SNL appearance and countless buy-the-album tweets. Beyoncé, on the other hand, only told her social-media followers about the record when it was already available for download.
“Springing [an album] on the world without anybody knowing, that sort of turns decades of music marketing on its head,” says music-industry consultant Mark Mulligan. Research analyst Mike McGuire of Gartner concurs: “Think about the decades of A&R practice that kind of got thrown out the window!” he says. “I’m hard-pressed to find a precedent for it.”
So why did she do it?
In a press release about the record, she described being “bored” with releasing music the usual way and wanting to release the music “when it’s ready” rather than on artificial schedule. And then there’s the fact that, well, it’s already proven to have been a great idea. The album is headed toward No. 1 on the Billboard chart and sold 80,000 copies in the first three hours after its midnight ET release.
“There is a growing trend of big artists doing something a bit different digitally, knowing it will get an amount of media interest,” says Mulligan. The newness of the tactic is its own benefit; there’s so much more new music than there are dollars being spent on music that it’s necessary for an artist to do something to break through the background noise. There’s also the issue of leaks, he adds, which is a factor Beyoncé’s team pointed to in describing the Beyoncé release strategy as a “fully designed preventative plan.” Leaks can detract from some of the big-bang-ness of an album release — one reason, Mulligan suggests, why Beyoncé may be “taking a page out of Apple‘s book,” by tightly controlling access to her new product.
The prevention of leaks — and, in this case, the decision to prevent the tracks from being downloaded individually until Dec. 20 — may also do a little to repair what McGuire calls the “social contract between artists and consumers.” That’s because the modern marketing norm isn’t exactly the way music has always been sold: it used to be that fans heard one or two songs on the radio and had to purchase an album to check out the rest of it. These days it’s common for fans to have heard every song before deciding to buy.
“She’s going to find out who her committed fans are. They’re going to go buy it right now. They’re not going to wait for the individual fans or wait for it to be on a streaming service,” McGuire says. The combined lack of leaks and pre-release buzz does a bit to put some of the suspense and mystery back into music. “Everything has been laid kind of bare and flattened in the music business,” he says. “[This] might do a little bit to repair the social contract.”
“If this works, I absolutely expect it to become more common, but that doesn’t mean it will become the standard approach,” Mulligan says, since it would work best for top-level stars like Beyoncé or for artists with smaller but very engaged fan bases.
And it turns out the surprise release isn’t the only thing worth noting about Beyoncé. After all, surprise can only last so long.
The element of the album that’s more likely to impact the music industry in the long run, Mulligan says, is the idea of a “visual album,” coming complete with more than a dozen music videos. (Lady Gaga did something similar earlier this year with ARTPOP, but the focus there was on software, not videos.) The visual aspect of Beyoncé turns a second music-marketing maxim, about the purpose of a music video, on its head. Videos have long been freebies for fans, given away on MTV or YouTube in order to encourage the purchase of songs — but YouTube is a big enough part of today’s music culture that it just doesn’t make sense to see the videos as a way to help sell something rather than as the thing being sold.
“We’re long overdue for video becoming an essential part of the music product,” he says. “Over the last ten years [there's been] lots of innovation around music retail but the actual product itself has essentially remained a static audio file. It was time for a big artist to realize that the video isn’t just a promotional tool.”
But the novelty of the videos will eventually wear off some, at which point Mulligan says that even Queen Bey herself won’t be able to escape a music-marketing truth that has been around as long as recorded sound: whether or not people like the songs is, ultimately, what matters. “With these things, it is always impossible to attribute success to any single thing, but one thing you can always say with confidence is … once we’ve got past the initial hype cycle, if the album’s good enough it will go on to sell,” he says. So, if early reviews are any indication, Beyoncé’s decision to scrap decades of industry wisdom will likely go down in history as one of her best decisions yet.