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Bow Down: How ‘Beyonce’ Broke Music Industry Rules

Beyonce
Buda Mendes, Getty Images

Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, but not if your name is Beyonce. The global superstar earned a fortune since the surprise release of her eponymous fifth album exclusively on iTunes last week — with a $15.99 price tag. She skipped the traditional marketing route altogether, which became a career-defining moment that has blown the minds of fans and industry insiders alike.

In three days, her 14-track, 17-video super project surpassed gold, selling 617,000 copies in the U.S. – and 823,000 worldwide in that time span. Five days later, she reached one million downloads. ‘Beyonce’ also topped the iTunes charts in 104 countries and is the fastest-selling iTunes release in history. Besides nabbing the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart this week, she made history, becoming one of only three artists to have their first five albums debut at the top of the charts – DMX and folk group Kingston Trio make up the other two. She has achieved the seemingly impossible despite uncertain climate of today’s recording industry.

In the past decade, album sales have been on the decline as Internet leaks have become more common and online streaming services more prevalent. U.S. album sales were at an all-time low of 4.49 million in October, according to Nielsen Soundscan. This setback has spawned unorthodox album rollouts from artists who don’t believe in the old ways of doing things.

Nipsey Hussle sold 1,000 physical copies of his ‘Crenshaw’ mixtape at $100 each, theorizing that his super fans would support the project — and even Jay Z did. Kanye West opted out of releasing singles from his ‘Yeezus’ album — he also did away with artwork — and instead held worldwide pop-up screenings of his ‘New Slaves’ video. And Hov convinced Samsung to buy one million copies of his ‘Magna Carter Holy Grail’ LP before it was even released to the public. He also surprised fans by announcing he’d put out a new album two weeks prior to the release.

But with less stunts, Beyonce’s album rollout was a graceful whisper that became a resounding roar. There were 1.2 million tweets about the album in 12 hours. Her loyal fan base, dubbed the “BeyHive,” generated buzz; no need for a street team. Media outlets that publish news stories off the tiniest crumb of info on ‘Yonce followed. Critics in the business, music, fashion and feminist realms generated lists and in-depth think pieces on the album almost instantly. The 32-year-old songstress knew this would happen and we all fell for it.

“I felt like I don’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready, and from me to my fans,” she explains in Part 1 of her ‘Self-Titled’ documentary.

“The most compelling part was the audio and the visuals all being released at once. Had it just been an audio album release, the impact wouldn’t have been the same,” Karlie Hustle, Music Director at New York radio station Hot 97, tells The Boombox. “Beyonce and her team clearly pay attention to trends and consumer behavior. For example, I’d be willing to bet that they are seeing a platform like Netflix successfully releasing entire seasons of new shows at once and letting people enjoy them at their leisure.”

Since 2009, the amount of adults watching or downloading online videos has jumped from 69 percent to 78 percent, according to research by Pew Internet & American Life Project.

“I wanted people to hear the songs with the story that’s in my head,” the Houston native continued in her ‘Self-Titled’ doc. “’Cause it’s what makes it mine. That vision in my brain is what I wanted people to experience the first time.”

The album has features from her daughter Blue Ivy, Jay Z, Drake and Frank Ocean to name a few. Video directors include the veteran Hype Williams, Melina Matsoukas and Beyonce herself.

Clover Hope, Deputy Editor of VIBE magazine, agrees that the common route would not have yielded the same results. “I’m almost certain she would’ve sold less. This album doubled the sales of her last album, ‘4,’ which sold 310,000 copies in its first week. The visual experience plus sudden release is what worked,” Hope tells The Boombox.

Beyonce had to work extra hard to keep ‘Lily’ — the code name for the album before its release, according to Billboard – a surprise. The deadline for ‘Beyonce’ was not finalized until a few days before its rollout. The chanteuse did not begin cutting down tracks for the opus until late October and was still laying down vocals as of Thanksgiving. Final meetings about the album’s distribution were held a week before its release. Only the very top executives at iTunes and Columbia Records knew that Beyonce planned to climb down our digital chimneys and deliver the record while we slept.

But not everyone is happy about the iTunes exclusive. As physical copies of ‘Beyonce’ hit brick-and-mortar retailers this week, Target — a retailer that has exclusively sold the singer’s projects in the past – is refusing to sell the LP because it was not made available to all distributors at the same time.

In a very indirect way, Beyonce has been telling the world that her album was coming this year. She has been building momentum since the top of 2013. It started with the scandal of her lip-synching the national anthem at the Presidential Inauguration, which led to her infamous “Any questions?” remark directed toward the naysayers during a Super Bowl press conference.

Then came the electrifying Super Bowl halftime performance, her HBO ‘Life Is But A Dream’ documentary and the most aggressive Bey we’ve seen yet on the controversial song ‘Bow Down’ (now known as ‘Flawless’ on the album). Let’s underline this with a $50 million Pepsi endorsement deal and being featured as the face of H&M’s summer line. What shattered the glass was Beyonce’s Mrs. Carter Show World Tour, in which she earns an estimated $2 million a night.

Following the release of her album, many wondered whether it was a big middle finger to the middle men of music distribution — labels, radio and record stores. “It’s easy to call her model genius and it’s also easy to undermine it,” Hope believes. “Artists always talk about bucking the traditional music industry model and wind up doing nothing about it because execution isn’t as simple as people think.”

Hustle reminds us that the former Destiny’s Child frontwoman and other big artists still need a team of minds to make magic happen. “It’s easy to dismiss a lot of things when you’re a millionaire. But would you be a millionaire without that record label that you’re taking shots at in your song?” Hustle asks. “Maybe. Maybe not. She may need them less than ever before, but that’s based on the fame and power she’s already wielded in great part by using that structure over the past 15 years.”

One thing is for sure, Beyonce is now the face of the new-age superstar. With social media follower counts higher than some country’s populations (53,948,981 likes on Facebook; 13,052,770 followers on Twitter; 8,253,279 on Instagram), Bey is a leader of her own nation. Why not use that to her advantage? She’s become bigger than the avenues she once crossed to reach her fans. She hasn’t fully detached herself from these outlets, but is in the privileged position to dictate how her music reaches the people.

In the coming weeks, critics will naturally wonder what Beyonce’s power move means for the future of music. There aren’t many artists who can ever pull this feat off and others should think twice before trying a similar act. This isn’t about seeing who can do the same methods the best more than it is about artists thinking more in-depth about what methods work best for their brand.

For Beyonce, a once-in-a-lifetime artist who just released a once-in-a-lifetime album, this was the perfect time for her to take a risk — especially on a day like Friday the 13th.

“It was important that we made this a movie, we made this an experience,” she adds in the ‘Self-Titled’ visual. “I wanted everyone to see the whole picture and to see how personal everything is to me.”

Mission accomplished.

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