In just four weeks, Beyoncé has accomplished what few — if any — artists could pull off, stealthily releasing her self-titled album to widespread acclaim and enough crazed fan excitement to sell 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (That already beats the 1.4 million that her last album, 4, has sold since its June 2011 release.) But has Beyoncé’s bombshell made her a few important enemies in releasing new music without any advance promotion? And what can the industry learn from her experiment?
“I imagine every retailer is trying to figure out a way to prevent the Beyoncé release model from happening within the next six to 12 big releases,” one senior label executive says. “This is an industry of copycats, so I expect we will see this again this year.”
Amazon and Target both balked at carrying the album, in part to protest Beyoncé’s one-week exclusive sale at the iTunes Store. And radio, left in the dark about the album and potential singles until its surprise release at midnight on Dec. 13, made a few power plays of its own. Columbia, Beyoncé’s label, planned to issue the Jay Z-backed “Drunk in Love” to R&B and hip-hop stations, but initially prepped the racy sex jam “Blow” for top 40. Top programmers at Clear Channel and CBS Radio, however, pushed back during the album’s first weekend of release, informing Columbia that they would be playing the Ryan Tedder- and The-Dream-penned ballad “XO” at the format instead, according to multiple sources.
Long-term support from radio and retail is essential for a project as ambitious as Beyoncé’s, and what will take its sales “from 1 million to 5 million,” one label head says. And many executives believe the concept of “windowing” — single-channel, one-week exclusives like Beyoncé’s iTunes deal and Jay Z’s with Samsung — Chanwill become more the norm in 2014. “Retailers who are worried about this happening again should be. It is inevitable,” a senior label executive says.
Target has had a fractious relationship with iTunes in recent years, threatening as recently as 2012 not to carry Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” following its surprise one-week exclusive with iTunes. (The retailer ultimately caved weeks later.) In a statement to Billboard, Target spokeswoman Erica Julkowski said, “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.”
Following Target’s and Amazon’s decisions, Beyoncé made an appearance at a Walmart in Tewksbury, Mass., on Dec. 20, handing out $37,500 in gift cards (paid for by Sony) to surprise fans and placate the important retailer. A merchant with another top 10 account says Beyoncé’s iTunes exclusive “isn’t the way to do business, if you care about the long-term health of the industry. It’s not easy nowadays to sell music. Anything that made it more complicated and harder for the customers hurts the business.”
Still, Mike Dreese, CEO of East Coast chain Newbury Comics, calls the release strategy “awesome” on Beyoncé’s part. “To see somebody of that caliber doing something innovative and actually pulling it off is what the music industry needs,” he says. “Of course, it’s a slap in the face to other music retailers from an artist that has enjoyed widespread support from them. If you are a retailer of shiny discs, the Beyoncé release shows that they should accelerate their plans to exit that business.”
At radio, where programmers initially bristled at Beyoncé and Columbia’s stealth approach, the first two singles have been performing well. “Drunk in Love” posted a 23% gain in its third week on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart to 19 million audience impressions, enough to debut at No. 45 on all the-genre Hot 100 Airplay chart with 28 million in all-format audience (up 18%). And “XO” has already outpaced Beyoncé’s last single, 2011’s “Countdown,” at top 40 by debuting at No. 32 on the format chart the week ending Jan. 4.
Columbia executive VP of promotion Lee Leipsner was pleasantly surprised by radio’s enthusiastic and immediate response as 2013 ended. “[Considering] they didn’t get a lot of lead time and there wasn’t research, radio responded so favorably. That they jumped onboard for the holidays showed they wanted to share in the public’s excitement.” Regarding the two tracks currently at radio, Leipsner says, “Support has been amazing.”
Sales of the singles have been even stronger. In the first three weeks of release (the songs were available for individual purchase and streaming on Dec. 20), “Drunk in Love” has sold 275,000 copies and “XO” 76,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Other strong sellers on “Beyoncé” include the Drake-featured “Mine” (106,000), “Partition” (65,000) and “Pretty Hurts” (79,000). In total, the album has individual track sales totaling 814,000 units.
“Beyoncé is bigger than a single — Beyoncé has created a movement,” Reggie Rouse, VP of urban programming at CBS Radio and PD at Atlanta’s WVEE and WAOK, told Billboard hours after the album’s release. “She just kills it. She is the standard. Beyoncé made every radio station, blog, TV station react to what she did. Jay by himself is great, Beyoncé by herself is great. Together? There’s nothing like it.”
As for other ways the project could gain legs in the coming months? There’s the back end of her global Mrs. Carter tour, which wraps in Europe in March. And there’s the next iteration of her multiyear deal with Pepsi, which in 2014 will include original content built around Beyoncé’s recurring theme of female empowerment. The brand previously premiered “Beyoncé” bonus cut “Grown Woman” in a global commercial last year, and exclusively distributed the full-length video on its Pepsi Pulse site the week after release.
“I love Beyoncé because to me she goes beyond challenging the status quo and sets the standard,” says Frank Cooper, chief marketing officer of global consumer engagement for Pepsi’s sparkling beverages group. “It was great to be a part of that process and setting that new standard alongside Beyoncé.”
And then there’s a few tricks up Beyoncé’s sleeve for future singles — including full-length audio versions of video interlude “Yonce” and feminist anthem “***Flawless” and a more radio-friendly edit of “Blow,” all of which exist and are ready for the right release, according to executives familiar with the plans.
And though “Beyoncé” was described by some as a more challenging listen than her more pop-leaning previous efforts, the artist expressed her intentions at a screening of the album’s videos on Dec. 21 in New York.
“My goal was putting together a body of work,” she said. “I just wanted to know if people care about music, because honestly I was at a point where I felt like, ‘You know, everything feels the same’ — like what I said in ‘Ghost’: ‘All the shit I do is boring.’ That’s how I felt. If I could not challenge that, then maybe it was time for me to do something else or develop more artists, which is something I want to do.
“I just hope that I continue to move forward and challenge myself,” she added. “Now that I’ve become a mother, I just want my legacy to inspire people.”
Additional reporting by Rich Appel, Andy Gensler, Gail Mitchell, Gary Trust and Ray Waddell.