When Beyonce’s fifth album arrived surreptitiously Friday morning at midnight, it was without the aid of an advance single, marketing campaign, radio airplay or TV performances. But now that it’s out and setting iTunes ablaze with a weeklong, album-only exclusive, which of the album’s 14 tracks will get the single treatment?
Starting next week, it will be two -- the Pharrell Williams-produced “Blow” at Top 40, and the Jay Z-assisted “Drunk In Love” at R&B/Hip Hop, starting next week, according to multiple sources who confirmed plans to Billboard. “XO,” a rousing ballad penned by Ryan Tedder and The-Dream, will follow later in 2014 as the second single at Top 40. Not that what just happened is about one song -- even to radio programmers, many of whom started playing “Beyonce” in its entirety on Friday.
“Beyonce is bigger than a single. Beyonce has created a movement,” says Reggie Rouse, VP of urban programming at CBS Radio and program director at V-103 and WAOK in Atlanta. “We’re featuring every track this weekend on V103. We put up all 17 video clips on our website. We're doing a blog on Beyonce. She just kills it. She is the standard. Beyonce made every radio station, blog, TV station react to what she did. Jay by himself is great, Beyonce by herself is great. Together? There’s nothing like it.”
So how did Beyonce keep the project so secret? Lots of code names, for starters, and a shifting deadline that wasn’t finalized until a week ago. As Beyonce stated in a video announcing the album on her Facebook page, the plan all along was to release everything all at once -- 14 songs and 17 videos -- as a surprise. “I miss that immersive experience," she says, of watching music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a family, as a mass event. "Now people only listen to a few seconds of a song on the iPods and they don’t really invest in the whole experience. It’s all about the single, and the hype. It’s so much that gets between the music and the art and the fans. I felt like, I don't want anybody to get 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."
According to multiple executives involved with the project who spoke with Billboard under condition of anonymity, the album really started to take shape in its current form in late October, as Beyonce started narrowing down songs that fit the more minimalist approach. Previously previewed songs “Grown Woman” (featured in a Pepsi commercial) and “Standing On The Sun” (featured in an H&M spot) were soon removed from the tracklist, though “Grown Woman” is featured a bonus video-only cut. Beyonce was still working on the vocals and production until the week of Thanksgiving, before producers started being notified of their final cuts.
Then late last week, final meetings were held with Columbia, Parkwood (Beyonce’s management company) and iTunes to finalize plans for the album, which was code-named “Lily” to avoid leaks. Another final meeting announcing the album to employees and producers was held at Columbia yesterday, Dec. 12. Only the most senior executives at iTunes, the album’s exclusive distributor until a planned physical release on Dec. 21, were clued in on the plans.
Streaming services will start having access to the album next week, but one service -- Songza -- already started promoting the album on Friday. Under the same guidelines that radio follows, Songza was able to purchase a copy of “Beyonce” off iTunes and upload it to its airwaves just like a Hot 97 or a KISS-FM could on Friday. By Friday afternoon, Songza had started pushing out a “Beyonce”-themed playlist called XO and began integrating the album’s tracks into its pop and R&B playlists.
Elias Roman, CEO of Songza, credits the early access to “Beyonce” to “the beauty of the internet radio license,” which is unlike DMCA-compliant services like Rdio, Spotify or MOG. “If this would have leaked there was no way we would be able to play it, neither would Z100,” he says. “As long as we legally acquire the content, we can play it to our users.”
As for promo plans, Beyonce is in the midst of wrapping up the U.S. leg of her Mrs. Carter Tour, which plays Chicago tonight (Dec. 13) and comes to New York’s Barclays Center next Thursday (Dec. 19.) Though plans were still being finalized, a screening event featuring a theatrical presentation of the 14 videos was being prepared.