Earlier this week, Apple announced that BEYONCÉ, the sumptuous, open-armed eponymous fifth album by Parkwood Entertainment's president and CEO, had sold a million copies around the world in the five-and-change days following its surprise release on Friday. I'll leave the debates over the album's artistic bona fides to those who have lived with it for the past 130 or so hours. (Judging by my Twitter feed, there are quite a few.) Instead, I want to focus on the business triumph of BEYONCÉ—and Beyoncé—which comes from Beyoncé and her Parkwood associates knowing exactly where her market is located, and how that market consumes its preferred cultural products.
The past few years have been rough ones for R&B artists on the pop charts; given her overall savvy, it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to assume that Beyoncé is keenly aware of that fact. The still-fierce "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" reached No. 1 in 2008, but a host of factors resulted in R&B-leaning songs finding themselves increasingly left out of pop radio's party since then. In 2011 B released her fourth album 4, a mature reflection on marital fidelity that had quite a few standout songs—the ebullient throwback "Love On Top," the backyard-barbecue-ready "Party."
"Countdown," in particular, seized the internet's attention. The The-Dream-produced track bent ears from the drop—when I saw one of B's Roseland revues in August, the crowd sang along gleefully with all of it, from the Boyz II Men interpolations that provide its numeric hook to the uxorious whoops that land as gloriously as its sampled brass. The song's high-energy video, released in October, seemed ready to be sliced into gifs, with Beyoncé whirling through outfits, mugging for the camera, and dancing to save her life. Memes proliferated; YouTube streams spiked; Sondre Lerche covered it.
But "Countdown" didn't thrive on radio. It only went to No. 12 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and peaked at No. 71 on the Hot 100, which tracks airplay across all radio formats. (It dropped off before Billboard and Nielsen added YouTube streams to their singles-chart calculations earlier this year.) Similarly, other singles from 4 underperformed on the big board, with two cracking the top 20 and "Party" only reaching No. 50.
So why not take to the internet, which is where Beyoncé's fanbase congregates, and essentially doubles as an unpaid arm of her marketing department, instead of dealing with the long lead times and rigamarole forced by the old way of doing things? The fan tumblrs, the YouTube parodies of "Single Ladies," the appreciative posts about the new Destiny's Child track that came out as part of her former band's greatest hits—all of these posts individually serve to remind people on the internet about Beyoncé's greatness, and even those that are more critical have the function of solidifying her status as an important person whose moves should at the very least be paid attention to. After holding back from social media, Beyoncé joined the microblogging service Tumblr in April 2012, and immediately began posting candid snaps from her life there; that November she hopped on board the photo-sharing service Instagram, and her mix of candid shots and gorgeously framed concert photography was seized upon by gossip bloggers and rapturous fans alike.
Late last Thursday, Beyoncé used her Instagram feed to announce BEYONCÉ's release. (Caption: "Surprise!") From there, it was off to the races not only for the eight million-plus people who follow her, but for more casual fans—those who had been waiting for the record, those who liked her Super Bowl performance, and so on. The reaction on social media was brisk and, depending on who you followed, seemingly all-encompassing; the "gotcha!" element gave the release a jolt similar to the one that artists like David Bowie and Justin Timberlake enjoyed when, earlier this year, they announced albums after long periods of dormancy. Even the viral-content haven BuzzFeed—which threw a tantrum when Beyoncé's publicist asked for unflattering Super Bowl photos to be taken down from the site—joined the rapturous choir right away.
Riding the social media waves also plays into why BEYONCÉ was only available initially as a 14-track, 17-clip "video album" that had to be purchased in toto from iTunes, and not listened to anywhere else. Many albums in recent months have been held back from streaming services like Spotify, which allow for all-you-can-consume listening patterns for a small fee. But by releasing BEYONCÉ on iTunes alone at first, and by making the album a purchase that people had to buy as a complete set in order to access, she essentially charged admission for the conversation. People talked about the record and discovered it simultaneously, making the discussion more electrified than, say, the chatter that ensued over the months-long span between the announcement and release of Lady Gaga's ARTPOP, or even the much shorter span of time that elapsed between Jay-Z's Magna Carta… Holy Grail unveiling and release. It didn't need radio to make its initial splash (although radio ads for the album have aired in some major markets). Its arrival was the splash, birth announcement and baby skipping across the transom together.
The added wrinkle of holding its initial release back from retail outlets like Target and Wal-Mart, not to mention smaller stores that specialize in music, might have caused the Minneapolis-based retail chain to have a tantrum of its own. But more importantly, it allowed for secrecy to persist around the project—and it resulted in leaks being a non-issue. Recall that 4 sprung a leak three weeks before it was supposed to hit stores in 2011. In 2012, Jay-Z and Kanye West went through elaborate security procedures to protect the recordings that would eventually become Watch The Throne; the album was released to iTunes first, with a physical release coming a few days later. But that record was well-hyped before it came out; as recently as December 5, meanwhile, B was posting teasing notes about the album coming eventually to her Tumblr.
Obviously, the strategy employed by Beyoncé and Parkwood for this album isn't necessarily a replicable one for smaller artists out there—eight million Instagram followers translating into one million sales is a 12.5% conversion rate, which is good for an artist with eight million followers but not so great with one who has one-thousandth of that. And the success of this record might ultimately prove that savvy social media strategies work best when employed by those people lucky enough to have pre-existing fanbases. But it also put another dent in the armor of the long roll-out—by allowing listeners to click the "buy" button in iTunes when the memory of the album's announcement was fresh, it cut through the chatter that so many other cultural products fall prey to in the promotion-saturated age.