Most companies probably wouldn't admit it, but they didn't like being left out of the pre-release promotion for Beyonce's new album, which unexpectedly went on sale exclusively at iTunes last Friday evening. Radio, retail, TV, the press and other outlets play an important role in getting attention for new songs and albums. Nearly all of them were left out of "Beyonce." No other album release says more about the current state of digital music, promotion and the role of the old guard.
Clear Channel Entertainment Enterprises president Jon Sykes put a positive spin on things. He says Clear Channel immediately added five tracks to stations around the country "within minutes" of its release. "It was kind of like, if something happens in hard news, people go to CNN," he told Billboard on Thursday. "In this case, they went to their radio station."
Actually, in this case, people went to iTunes, which nabbed a one-week exclusive on the album. Radio normally has a role in the rollout of albums of radio-friendly pop stars. Pop, R&B, hip hop and country artists send one or more songs to radio to help prepare an album for launch. That's because radio is the number one source of music discovery for Americans, according to numerous market research reports. But radio wasn't involved in one of the year's biggest releases. The release of "Beyonce" just wasn't "great for radio," as Sykes put it. Nor was it great for a lot of other stakeholders.
Beyonce is exactly the type of artist Clear Channel wants to partner with to help launch an album. A Beyonce-level star gives Clear Channel content its listeners can't find anywhere else and separates its stations and brand from the competition. Take Clear Channel's partnership with Katy Perry, a blueprint for putting the company's array of assets and abilities behind an album launch. Perry's debut of her latest album, "Prism," opened Clear Channel's iHeartRadio Theater in Los Angeles, was simulcast on 175 Clear Channel stations, was streamed on the Internet and was televised on the CW network. That's a prototypical corporate-artist partnership in 2013.
The release of "Beyonce" wasn't great for retailers, either. The fact that "Beyonce" was made available only at iTunes -- and without warning -- speaks volumes. A partnership with only one retailer can make a difference is launching a superstar's album. We saw it earlier this year with Justin Timberlake's "The 20/20 Experience." An exclusive version was available at Target, and the retailer used TV advertising to promote the album. Not coincidentally, Clear Channel was also part of the pre-release promotion. Timberlake's album release concert at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles had the same airplay, TV show and live streaming as Perry's "Prism" release concert. Timberlake's team took advantage of the promotional tools at their disposal and had great success. "The 20/20 Experience" sold 978,000 units in its first week and topped Billboard's year-end album chart.
Other retailers don't like being on the wrong side of an exclusive. Target has decided not to carry "Beyonce" when the CD version is released. (The retailer did the same last year when iTunes got an exclusive on Frank Ocean's debut, "Channel Orange.") The company told Billboard it is "primarily focused on offering CDs that will be available in a physical format at the same time as all other formats." In other words, don't count on Target to sell an album if a digital competitor gets an exclusive.
Retailers simply don't like being left out. Remember retailers' complaints of Walmart's exclusive of the Eagles' 2007 album "Long Road Out of Eden"? Recall the outrage when Best Buy and iTunes had exclusive windows for 2011's "Watch the Throne" by Jay Z and Kanye West? This is an ongoing issue. Labels and distributors are all too cognizant of possible repercussions when giving an exclusive to one retailer or service.
Radio, retail and other launch partners need not worry too much right now. The list of artists who can follow Beyonce's strategy is a short one. It takes an artist that has transitioned its large fan base from track buyers into album buyers. It helps to be an artist with an ongoing, high profile public persona that can capture media attention at a moment's notice.
But the old guard should see the writing on the wall. The release of "Beyonce" shows that some artists will choose to launch major projects without the help of radio, some retailers, press and TV. They might not follow the "Beyonce" release plan point by point, but other artists, managers and labels will choose to follow Beyonce's experiment. For a select few, social media and star power equal the promotional efforts of a small army.