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Exclusive: The Harvard Business School Report on Beyonce

At the time of Beyonce's midnight release, Billboard covered the event as only we can, talking to the people involved and getting the inside scoop. Well, nearly a year later, we've officially been…

Last week, Billboard reported that the Harvard Business School had taken a close look at the release of Beyonce‘s surprise, self-titled album, dropped upon an unprepared world last December. At the time of Beyonce’s midnight release, Billboard covered the event in depth, talking to the people involved and getting the inside scoop. But nearly a year later, Harvard Business School has dug even deeper into what went on behind the scenes of the reveal and Billboard got an exclusive sneak peek. 

Anita Elberse, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and Stacie Smith, a former student of Professor Elberse, have co-written the final word on how Beyonce landed like a meteorite on the dinosaurs last winter with their 27-page report titled, fittingly, “Beyonce.” The study — which will be taught in Elberse’s course “Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries” in early October — takes a bird’s-eye look at the music industry’s current standing and Beyonce’s early career, before moving on to the juiciest bits: Beyonce‘s founding of her own company (Parkwood Entertainment, operated as a joint venture with Rob Stringer‘s Columbia Records), her role at the company (CEO, lighthouse) and the planning of her opus. 

For the report, Elberse and Smith interviewed key employees at Parkwood and Columbia, as well as those at Apple and Facebook directly involved in the release of Beyonce. Here are some of the most fascinating details:

How Beyonce Holds a Meeting
e] doesn’t often sit in her office,” Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, Parkwood’s general manager, told the pair. “She usually walks from one office to the other, speaking with the staff. She’ll come to my office and talk to me, or she will sit in the back and give notes on projects we are working on… She has got a really good sense of the business side, but she doesn’t like to live there always. We often laugh about how an hour into a business meeting she will get up and will start walking around. I can see it then — that I’ve lost her, and that I have satiated the amount of business that she wants to discuss that day. I’ll usually say something like ‘Let’s stop. You are going to say “Yes,” but you are not listening to me anymore.’ She knows herself, will laugh, and say ‘You are absolutely right, I am done.’ Because at the end of the day she is an artist, and her passion for art drives her.”


On the depths of Parkwood’s involvement with Beyonce’s career? Well… they even made commercials other people were paying for. “[Parkwood develops] most of the content that we put on our website, and we produce all the content for our brand partners — we produced webisodes and even a Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi, with whom we had a partnership,” said Jim Sabey, Parkwood’s head of worldwide marketing.

A Peek Inside Beyonce’s Hamptons Summer Rental
Most delicious of all, though, are the details Elberse and Smith unearthed about the process of creating Beyonce. They peek inside the Hamptons house she rented in the summer of 2012 to serve as production headquarters for the record, drawing in collaborators like Sia, Hit-Boy and The-Dream. Said Callahan-Longo: “We rented a house for a month. Everyone would have dinner together every night and break off into different rooms and work on music. She had five or six rooms going, each set up as a studio, and would go from room to room and say things like ‘I think that song needs that person’s input.’ Normally you would not see songs have two or more producers, but it was really collaborative.” 

Beyonce wouldn’t be completed enough to consider a release strategy for a year, until the August following that Hamptons summer camp. Plans had to wait until the record’s chief executive had performed the halftime show of Super Bowl XLVII and undertaken a world tour.

Keeping the Beyonce Album Secret
Paramount was avoiding leaks: this project lived, or died, with the big reveal. Parkwood and Columbia reps took a meeting Apple’s Cupertino campus, after which it was agreed that Apple would receive the full Beyonce package to prepare it for the surprise release, which would see the iTunes Store landing page dominated by Queen Bey. “A worldwide launch like this, with music and video content, is something that only iTunes can do,” said iTunes vp of content Robert Kondrk.

Then on to another tech giant: Facebook. The team took a meeting with the Facebook team dedicated to liaising with high-profile concerns (athletes, musicians, actors, etc.) in order to determine what the company could offer them for the big reveal. “Facebook and Instagram are built for this kind of scale,” Facebook’s Charles Porch said. Added Callahan-Longo: “The biggest social-media platform will make sure every music fan will know about the album.” The Facebook collaboration also resulted in Beyonce’s team being one of the first to use the social network’s brand-new-at-the-time “AutoPlay” feature for videos.

Prepping for the Big Reveal
As well, they planned a 72-hour turnaround for the album’s physical release, production of which wouldn’t begin until the album had been unveiled online. “Once the album is out, the plan is to quickly print a black cover with ‘Beyonce’ in pink font which we can just slip over the package,” Jim Sabey said.

Once the release framework was in place, all that was left was to finish the album — work which continued through October, 2013 — and its inextricable video companions. All 17 videos were produced in a 12-week period in the fall, the final wrapping in mid-November, a few short weeks before the album’s release, which scuppered the album’s originally intended release date of Nov. 18. So Friday, Dec. 13 it would be.

“Why not let a 16-year-old fan in Bulgaria have the same capability to judge as someone who runs the biggest radio station in the world,” Rob Stringer rhetorically pondered to Elberse and Smith. “Beyonce has built that audience. And I can imagine the normal release process gets a bit monotonous for someone like her.”

“Normally albums come out on that day, so they can be tracked by Billboard for a full week,” Stringer recalled to Elberse and Smith, ”but then the boss asked ‘Why does the record need to come out on a Tuesday? We’re not putting it in stores, so do we care?’” Retailers did — Target refused to carry the record due to Apple’s exclusive, as did Amazon. (It was also pirated nearly a quarter-million times during its first week.)

As the midnight release loomed, Parkwood employees waited in their war room, refreshing the iTunes Store continuously and biting their nails. Beyonce was in St. Louis that night, and by the time the record had been introduced to the world at large, she was on her way to a show in Chicago. On to the next.