The Hit that Broke the Mold

On December 12, 2013, Beyoncé released her fifth studio album exclusively on iTunes without any radio promotion, roadside billboards, or viral campaigning. By the end of December 15, her album had sold 828,773 copies worldwide.1 This speaks volumes about not only the current state of the music industry, but the current state of consumer culture and whether or not this is a viable album release model.

The marketing for Beyoncé’s self-titled album release was simple. It was a short Instagram video with the caption, “Surprise!” That video was sent to 10 million Instagram followers, followed by 53 million fans on Facebook. Within 12 hours, Twitter reported 1.2 million tweets about the album.2 On top of this, Beyoncé orchestrated an iTunes front page takeover, using all of their featured slots to promote her album. These combined strategies culminated in first day sales of 365,000 copies, a testament to the marketing powerhouse of  Beyoncé.

The marketing strategy was not the only unique aspect of this release. For the first week after the launch, iTunes was the sole retailer of the album. The physical release would not be available until December 21. In addition to this being an iTunes exclusive, the 14 song, 17 video album was only available as a complete bundle (for $15.99).

Both the marketing and album-release format of this release are very rare in the Top-40 music industry, and for good reason. Album-only releases have been unheard of for years. Ever since Apple opened up the iTunes store in 2001, the à la carte model of cherry-picking individual songs to purchase from albums has become the norm. With streaming now taking a larger market share and cutting away at download rates, an album-only release is even more rare. A curious listener may stream a song on Spotify or YouTube. A casual fan may purchase a song or two from iTunes. To bet the success of your album on your fans being loyal enough to pay nearly $16 for an album is a heavy risk, especially considering the size of investment required to create and record a Beyoncé-level album.

An album of this caliber can cost upwards of a million dollars to record, excluding the 17 videos included in this release. An investment of that size poses a large risk to the label, and is therefore marketed accordingly, to assure as much of a success as possible by making sure all fans are aware of the album well before the release.

Lady Gaga is a model example of how you expect a superstar artist to prepare for an album release. Lady Gaga spent the better part of a year promoting her album, ARTPOP. She utilized her large social media audience, gave interviews, and wore a ‘hover’ dress. Her label, Interscope did its part by spending advertising dollars on billboards, buses, and pop-up stores in New York and Los Angeles. The end result? ARTPOP sold 305,000 copies in its first two weeks.3 Not the year-defining release that Interscope was hoping for.

Perhaps the public is numb to the over-commercialized releases of major artist albums. With every major release being given the same release treatment, it is startling to see an album of this caliber released in a method so contrary to the norm. In fact, that is the single most genius aspect of the marketing of the release. The shock factor of the abrupt album unveiling created a word-of-mouth ripple effect. Core fans on social media at the right time were the first to hear about it, followed quickly by mainstream media, and, before long, the rest of the world.

Curiously, this is exactly the opposite of what Beyoncé wanted this album to be about. In a press release about the album, Beyoncé talked about this album being about the music, the art that occurs at the intersection of music and video, and eradicating the middleman between her and the fans. While she certainly released the album when and how she wanted to, she failed to make this album about the music. By releasing it in such a radically unique and creative way, Beyoncé shifted the conversation away from the musical content of the album and towards the (lack of) release strategy.

Regardless of the reason for the discussion, everyone was still talking about the album. Beyoncé reaffirmed her position as a powerhouse in the music industry, later acknowledged by Billboard giving Beyoncé and Jay Z their number one spot in The Power 100.

Of course, a release of this magnitude doesn’t come without ruffling a few feathers. While the fans may have enjoyed the spectacle of the surprise album release, others were less enthused. Specifically, Target and Amazon were up in arms over the iTunes-exclusive release. Both retailers refused to stock the physical copy of the new album (although Amazon sells the digital version, and the physical version can be found through third party retailers).

Erica Julkowski, a Target spokesperson, told Billboard, “At Target we focus on offering our guests a wide assortment of physical CDs, and when a new album is available digitally before it is available physically, it impacts demand and sales projections.”4

While this may seem like a somewhat antiquated idea of how music is sold in the modern industry, it is ultimately a power play and a statement of Target’s perceived power in the industry. If you don’t release according to Target’s terms, you get blacklisted. Recent albums released featuring a Target exclusive version include Justin Timberlake’s “The 20/20 Experience” and Taylor Swift’s “Red”. Target may only have a 5% share of the market as a music seller in the US, but their marketing power presents a powerful perk for artists.5

This is not the first time that Target has refused to sell an album that was released on iTunes first. In July 2012, Target refused to carry Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” CD.5 However, Target eventually caved and agreed to stock the CD.

Walmart, however, did agree to stock Beyoncé’s self-titled album. This resulted in a huge publicity stunt by Beyoncé at a Walmart en route to her Boston, MA performance just before Christmas. She gave out 750 $50 gift cards at a Walmart in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, while announcing via loudspeaker that her new album was now available in stores.6 This resulted in huge press coverage for both Beyoncé and Walmart. Walmart has a 10% market share of music sales in the US.

Retailers weren’t the only parties surprised by the sudden release. Radio companies such as Clear Channel and CBS radio, usually the cornerstone of new music promotion, were caught completely off guard.

In an interview with Billboard, John Sykes, Clear Channel Entertainment Enterprises president, talked about how his stations quickly adapted to the release. “Tom Poleman and his team run such a well-oiled machine that within minutes, five “Beyoncé” tracks were playing on our stations across the country, as well as on other radio groups. It happened in an instant. Radio can react instantly, since it’s a live medium.”8 Beyoncé has to be careful with relationships with radio. While the shock factor of the release will boost initial sales, radio will play a large factor in determining the longevity of Beyoncé’s album.

Since the December 12 album release, “Beyoncé” has far outsold the previous album “4”, which was released in June 2011. As of February 2, 2014, her album has sold 1,668,000 copies.7 There is no question that this release was a major success. The question now is, is this repeatable? While only time will tell, there is certainly room for assumptions.

For independent artists, this is nearly definitely not repeatable. The first requirement is a large, loyal fan base. Fans need to be willing to purchase an entire album as soon as the artist says “Go”. As mentioned before, Beyoncé has an immense social media following and can reach the world quicker from her smartphone than from any marketing campaign. Outside of a modest core audience, the vast majority of independent artists could never get enough people interested in their un-marketed album to make it go viral.

Secondly, Beyoncé was already a huge public figure. With or without a major album release, news sites, tabloids, and the world at large is following her every move. To do something as dramatic as releasing an album with a single Instagram post is going to alert every single news outlet with even a slight interest in Western pop culture celebrities.

However, Beyoncé is not the only artist with a vast, loyal fan base. She is certainly not the only celebrity on TMZ’s radar. Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber all have social media accounts that more than rival Beyoncé’s.

Beyoncé simply had the advantage of surprise and being the first to attempt it. In her nearly 17-year career, she’s never done anything like this, yet has always maintained a consistent image. Aside from the well-maintained length of her career, other artists have similar followings and loyalty from their fans.

It is unlikely that this release strategy will be successfully repeated. Beyoncé’s release was shocking and creative. The next artist to attempt it would be looked at as a copycat and uninventive.

The greater lesson to be learned from this is that the public needs more than billboards and talk show appearances to create an exciting buzz for an album. A creative campaign is becoming increasingly necessary. The Samsung release by Jay Z, Kanye’s 66-city ‘New Slaves’ promotion, and now Beyonce’s album have all been successful in causing a stir to promote their music. Perhaps other artists can take a cue from these hip hop moguls on the new standard of music marketing.

By Dan Servantes



1Caulfield, Keith. “It’s Official: Beyonce Makes History With Fifth No. 1 Album.” Billboard. Dec 17, 2013.

2Sisario, Ben. “Beyonce Rejects Tradition for Social Media’s Power”. New York Times. December 15, 2013.

3Huba, Jackie. “Beyoncé Uses Only Word Of Mouth To Market Surprise New Album”. Forbes. December 17, 2013.

4Caulfield, Keith. “Target Not Selling Beyonce’s New Album”. Billboard. December 16, 2013.

5Christman, Ed. “Target Won’t Carry Frank Ocean’s ‘Channel Orange’”. Billboard. July 11, 2012.

6Clark, Cindy. “Beyonce surprises fans at Walmart”. USA Today. December 23, 2013.

7Tardio, Andres. “Hip Hope Albums Sales: Week Ending 2/2/2014”. Hip Hop DX. February 5, 2014.

8Trust, Gary. “How Beyonce Shocked Radio, Too: An Exclusive Q&A With Clear Channel’s John Sykes”. Billboard. December 19, 2013.




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