There’s a guiding business principle to the nearly 20-year-old career of global pop icon Beyoncé: Being the exception is the rule.
Certainly that was the case with her sixth solo album, Lemonade, which appeared as a Tidal exclusive on the night of Saturday, April 23, paired with a one-hour HBO special as a visual accompaniment (788,000 tuned in live, according to the network). In an unorthodox — and somewhat unpredictable — release, some 18 hours later Lemonade was available for purchase in the Tidal digital store for $17.99 (a package that includes the HBO special, which was directed by Jonas Akerlund, Mark Romanek and Kahlil Joseph, among others), and by early Monday, iTunes and Amazon also had the album (a physical version is due out May 6).
Call it a tiered rollout: methodical, tactical and, if not flawless, perfectly successful.
Executives at Columbia Records — Beyoncé’s longtime home at Sony Music, with which she recently re-upped her commitment in an exclusive licensing partnership between the label and her company, Parkwood Entertainment — were said to be “very happy with day one.” Some 1.8 million tweets referenced the singer that day, but they were even happier with album sales, estimated to come in at more than 450,000 in the week ending April 28 (and likely 550,000-plus with track- and streaming-equivalent albums), say industry forecasters. It’s the sort of success story “we all need,” says a high-ranking source.
Perhaps none more so than Tidal, the streaming service Jay Z bought for $56 million. Beset early on by criticism of its artist-ownership model, executive overhaul and a series of tech mishaps, Tidal struggled to find its footing. But in the past four months, it has laid claim to two No. 1 albums (Rihanna‘s Anti and Kanye West‘s The Life of Pablo), the 300-song digital catalog of Prince and now Lemonade, which Tidal will stream exclusively “in perpetuity,” a rep tells Billboard.
In fact, what was called a misstep weeks ago, the stop-start of West’s “living album,” Pablo, can now be seen as a positive. Tidal showed a new nimbleness in the face of artistic whims — needed even for Lemonade, which a week before its release was still being worked on, according to insiders. Pablo purportedly racked up 250 million global streams in its first 10 days (the album was released wide six weeks later).
Still, exclusives don’t sit well with all streamers. Spotify global head of communications and public policy Jonathan Prince released a statement in the wake of Lemonade calling such deals “bad for artists and bad for fans.” But Spotify’s commanding market-share lead (30 million subscribers) enables it to take that stance.
Tidal’s reliance on high-profile exclusives tripled its number of subscribers worldwide between September 2015 and March 2016 to 3 million, according to the company.”The jury’s out on the long-term effect of exclusives,” says MusicWatch managing partner Russ Crupnick, who notes that while Tidal flew to No. 1 in the App Store, its usage among listeners is steady at 1 percent. “If I can get Lemonade a day later on iTunes, how exclusive is that? It’s like knowing you can get the new Tesla at the Kia dealer.”
Tidal’s competitors aren’t sitting idle. In March, Spotify raised $1 billion in convertible debt financing, upping its war chest to $2.5 billion. (Tidal has not disclosed funding.) Apple Music is growing fast, announcing on April 26 that it has added 2 million subscribers since February, reaching 13 million. (Apple also locked in a one-week exclusive for the new Drake album, Views From the 6, due April 29.)
Future‘s manager, Anthony Saleh, who negotiated a deal with Apple that included the exclusive release of the rapper’s Evol in February, says the current climate “is like Game of Thrones for streaming — pick your poison … [Yet], we’re big on consumers being able to just get [the music].”
This article was originally published in the May 7 issue of Billboard.