Minutes before midnight Thursday night, Beyoncé released an entire new album exclusively to iTunes consisting of 14 songs, each with its own music video (plus several bonus videos), in a move that sets a new benchmark for pop music marketing and promotion – because prior to its release, nobody saw it coming.
The move has the potential to completely reset how album eras by major pop stars are promoted. In pop music, marketing and promotion are huge for albums, where the two to three months leading up to its release date is the most important period for the entire project. Interviews and performances are lined up, at least two singles are released, music videos, ad campaigns, partnerships and endorsements, an entire strategy planned in order to ensure the greatest chance at a successful project.
There have been exceptions, of course, to the traditional roll-out of an album. In 2007, for example, Radiohead announced their album In Rainbows a little more than a week prior to its release, where it was initially made available as pay-what-you-want before going on to sell over three million copies worldwide.
On January 8 of this year, after a ten-year-hiatus, David Bowie unexpectedly released a brand new single with a music video and release date for the album The Next Day. When it was released two months later, it debuted at #2 on Billboard selling 85,000 copies, his highest position yet.
In early May, Kanye West tweeted “June Eighteen”, leading to speculation that this was a reference to an album release date. Over the next month and a half, West would do some promo for Yeezus, though very little of it was traditional except for his two song performance on Saturday Night Live. Other than that, no singles were released and the album was unavailable for pre-order. It debuted at #1 with 327K.
In June, a Samsung commercial with Jay-Z aired during the NBA finals revealing that his new album Magna Carta Holy Grail would be released exclusively through Samsung on July 4th. Like Kanye, there were no singles released prior to the album’s release date, yet it hit #1 for its first week with sales of 528,000.
Each of these examples played off of the element of surprise and relied heavily on the resulting coverage, however they still stayed within the confines of traditional promo by revealing information in advance of the release of the album, even if the timespan was just a few days.
The element of surprise for Beyoncé goes beyond that because, while it had been rumoured for a while that she was working on a new record, there was no actual evidence to back it up. Also consider that she is currently in the middle of a yearlong tour.
So how did she pull this off?
First thing’s first, she has the star power and is a huge brand. Few artists could have pulled this off successfully. Beyoncé has the necessary components: her name, time passed since her last album, and a strong fan-base. She also has the respect and admiration beyond her own fanbase, which is a very important factor. I believe Justin Timberlake could have pulled this off earlier this year had The 20/20 Experience dropped with no advance – especially since demand for new music from him had been strong for several years. Rihanna, on the other hand, probably couldn’t.
Beyoncé is the focus of all of the ads on iTunes’ main page
Beyoncé successfully turned those months of silence, speculation, rumours and the longing of ANY information into a pure explosion of immediate hype as soon as the album took over iTunes, including all five of its advertising slots on the main page.
This strategy relied completely on the resulting coverage from news media, bloggers and social media – and it worked. Within the first 12 hours, Beyoncé was the focus of 1.2 million tweets, with a peak of 5,300 tweets/second.
At $15.99 for 14 songs and 17 videos, the album sold 80,000 copies in its first three hours and is expected to reach 600k by the end of the tracking week Sunday, giving the album three full days of availability and making it one of the biggest selling first-week titles of the year.
What makes this whole situation even more incredible is that even with the number of collaborators involved, not a peep was made. In an era of free flowing information and album leaks, that’s incredible.
Beyoncé boasts a list of featured artists that include husband Jay-Z, as well as Drake and Frank Ocean. Songwriters and producers include Sia, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, The-Dream, Miguel, Ryan Tedder, and a whole slew of others.
The visual side of the album contains a video for each song, with directors such as Jonas Åkerlund, Hype Williams and Terry Richardson, among many others. With the ever-evolving importance of music videos, that Beyoncé not only recorded an entire album in secret, she filmed videos for each song, adding to the ever-growing amazement of this project.
Beyoncé pushed the envelop with this album. She redefines what promo is for pop music and the methods a pop star can take in planning out the route for how to successfully release an album.
While it’s unlikely that anyone else will attempt to follow the blueprints of this album’s unveiling, it will likely make every executive in the music business sit back, scratch their heads in amazement and completely rethink their entire strategy – opening the possibilities and forcing creative thinking into marketing and promotion.
Beyoncé by Beyoncé is a true game changer. I’m still in awe.