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Beyonce rejects tradition for social media’s power

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The release of a blockbuster album has historically come with a few standard marketing moves. Flood the radio with an early single. Book as many TV appearances as possible. Line up partnerships with big retailers and consumer brands.

But at midnight Thursday, when Beyonce released her latest album, she did none of those things. Instead, she merely wrote, "Surprise!" to her more than 8 million Instagram followers, and the full album – all 14 songs and 17 videos of it – appeared for sale on iTunes.

The stealth rollout of the album, "Beyonce," upended the music industry’s conventional wisdom, and was a smashing success. It sold 365,000 copies in the United States in its first day, according to people with direct knowledge of its sales who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them. Depending on how it performed through the weekend, "Beyonce" will likely have one of the year’s biggest opening sales weeks.

"I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it," Beyonce said in a news release, which so far represents the only public comments that she or Columbia, her label, have made. "I am bored with that."

Though very few acts could attract the same attention as Beyonce, the episode contains some lessons – and possibly a future blueprint – for the music industry. In bypassing the industry’s traditional promotional machinery, she demonstrated social media’s power to amplify news and to forge a direct connection to her audience. The release was "designed to highlight that it’s about her and her fan relationships," said Alice Enders, a media analyst with the firm Enders Analysis in London.

Beyonce appeared to agree with that assessment. "There’s so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans," she said in the news release. "I felt like I didn’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans."

The news quickly spread well past Beyonce core audience, however. The swift online reaction to the album’s release – according to data from Twitter cited by Billboard, the news generated 1.2 million tweets in 12 hours – became a news story in itself. Other stars like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga promoted it to their millions of followers on social media, magnifying the attention. The album also quickly gained critical acclaim.

As a stunt, the release also showed the marketing value of no marketing. Typically, to spur sales for high-priority albums, record companies follow Hollywood’s time-tested strategy of pointing consumers – repeatedly, and through every media platform available – to a specific release date in the future, and piggybacking on the promotional might of big consumer brands. Justin Timberlake, for instance, blitzed late night-television and was in commercials for Target and Bud Light Platinum before releasing his album "The 20/20 Experience" in March.

Beyonce also bucked other industry trends. At a time when singles are the dominant sales unit for pop music, the album was presented to fans as a complete multimedia work that had to be purchased in its entirety for $15.99. Accompanying the songs is a collection of videos by celebrated directors like Hype Williams and Terry Richardson. As Beyonce explained in a video posted to her Facebook account, she wanted the album to be consumed and appreciated as a full artistic expression.

That decision may have also helped sell more full albums – a far more profitable product for Beyonce and Columbia. To prevent leaks, Columbia waited until after the exclusive iTunes release to manufacture the CD-DVD version of the album, which the release on Friday promised "will be available at retail in time for the holidays."

Beyonce’s surprise album did not turn away radio stations, which are usually supplied with music in advance and courted by the record labels. Dion Summers, who programs urban music at SiriusXM Radio, said that rather than wait for Beyonce label to deliver the music, he bought the album early Friday and began to play the songs "Drunk in Love" and "Partition" immediately.

"It’s an instant classic; a game changer," Summers said. "It has a long life ahead of it."

In the music industry and among Beyonce fans, it was no secret that she had been working on a new record. In fact she had gone into 2013 with what seemed to be a by-the-book marketing campaign for an imminent album. Late last year she formed a lucrative global partnership with Pepsi, and in February sang at the Super Bowl halftime show and had an HBO documentary. She even embarked on a world tour in April, stoking gossip about a possible delay for the record.

But that expectation may have heightened the anticipation – and the rush to buy – when the album, her fifth studio release, finally came out. Her first-day sales surpassed the 310,000 copies that her last album, "4," sold in its first week two years ago.

Even last week, a release date looked nebulous. In an interview with the industry publication Hits, Rob Stringer, Columbia’s chief executive, said that as part of the label’s plans for 2014, "Obviously, at some point Beyonce will put a record out."

"And when she does," he added, "it will be monumental."

Ben Sisario, New York Times


A previous version of this story contained a misspelling of Beyonce’s name.

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