“Changed the game with that digital drop, know where you was when that digital popped. I stopped the world, male or female, it make no difference, I stop the world, world stop”, Beyoncé brashly boasts on “Feeling Myself”, a new track taken from Nicki Minaj’s third studio album, “The Pinkprint”. And, yes, it seemed the world did stop for a second.
Last year Beyoncé “dropped” her self-titled fifth studio album and it challenged the way mainstream albums are traditionally released. However, an album campaign that started off so slick and robust in its offerings was not without its pitfalls. With a special focus on the US, her biggest market, here’s a recap of what happened…
After being released exclusively on iTunes worldwide with 14 tracks and 17 videos, the eponymous album shot to the top spot in a staggering 104 countries and gave the 17-time Grammy winner her best opening week on the Billboard 200 with 617,213 copies sold in just three days. In going against the typical first-single-followed-by-gruelling-promo-campaign release format that we’d all become accustomed to with popular artists the singer tried something a bit different, something more daring, and it caught on.
Sales were strong out the gate due to word of mouth and the hype generated from the surprise release. A Twitter Spokesperson confirmed that, at its peak, the album was responsible for 5,300 tweets per minute, a record at the time! Usually when artists release their music we can anticipate an onslaught of iTunes links flooding our social media timelines as they, or “HQ”, scramble to force-feed the new music to their doting fanbases. Beyoncé, however, more silent in her approach, opted to let the fans do the talking for her. This included an ensemble of America’s A-listers such as Katy Perry, Alicia Keys and Snoop Dogg, who all flocked to Twitter in support of the album that “changed d game”, according to Snoop.
— Snoop Dogg (@SnoopDogg) December 13, 2013
Don't talk to me today unless it's about @Beyonce THANX
— KATY PERRY (@katyperry) December 13, 2013
— Alicia Keys (@aliciakeys) December 13, 2013
I just…I just…@beyonce is amazing.
— Jordin Sparks (@JordinSparks) December 13, 2013
Hey everyone, Beyoncé's releasing a new album yesterday!
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) December 13, 2013
Who else is already loving the new visual album by @Beyonce? What a wonderful surprise! Check it out on iTunes!!!
— Kris Jenner (@KrisJenner) December 13, 2013
this is how it was done "back in tha day"… U did the work/Presented ur Inspiration & allowed it 2 speak 4 itself. Coffee Cups UP! #Beyonce
— Anita Baker (@IAMANITABAKER) December 13, 2013
Whoa…. Beyonce's new album just hit iTunes… out tha BLUE
— OneRepublic (@OneRepublic) December 13, 2013
Every Song = EPIC Every Video = EPIC & its SEXXXY as HELLLLL!!! @Beyonce!!!
— LA LA (@lala) December 13, 2013
I'm sitting here watching THE most artful and perfect project ever….@Beyonce
— solange knowles (@solangeknowles) December 13, 2013
You’d be forgiven for questioning whether Beyoncé was even aware the album had been released. Just hours afterwards, the singer was back to playing house – she had just made some vegan cakes and couldn’t wait to share them with you all…
Of course, there was a big advertising push through iTunes and, of course, Beyoncé had already pre-recorded a behind-the-scenes video series to give fans an insight into the project’s recording process and release strategy, but there were no big bells and whistles. Over the next few days the videos were uploaded one by one across social media platforms, which was enough to sustain the album’s hype through the remainder of its release week.
The album wasn’t selling purely on hype alone, however. Strip away the novelty factor of the surprise release and you’ll uncover some of the singer’s best work to date. Recently nominated in the prestigious Album of the Year category at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, the album is the star’s most critically applauded work in her 17-year career, receiving rave reviews from publications such as Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, NME and Pitchfork. At Metacritic, which compiles reviews from professional publications and assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100, the album was awarded an average score of 85, indicating “universal acclaim”.
Sales were through the roof, everybody was raving about the album and phrases like #IWokeUpLikeThis quickly became “a thing” on social media. After the lukewarm response to the album’s predecessor, “4”, it seemed that Beyoncé was on to a winner this time round. Earlier this month the singer sought to capitalise further on the album’s success by issuing a “Platinum Edition” in time for Christmas, packaged with remixes, new tracks and live performances.
So, after selling well over half a million copies in just three days, why did sales stagnate at 2.2 million? While an impressive figure compared with her contemporaries, given the critical acclaim and social media backing of the project, the album had the potential to extend its legs beyond its first few months of release. However, several factors prevented it from doing so…
Sales vs. Streaming
Undoubtedly, album sales are not what they used to be, as less people are buying cds (the industry’s cash cow – although now less than ever) in favour of digital downloads and more increasingly streaming services, such as Spotify – a platform the album was not available on until recently. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently revealed, in their Mid-Year RIAA Shipment and Revenue Statistics report, that overall US music streaming revenue grew 28% to $859 million in the first half of 2014. Streaming services now account for 27% of the overall music industry revenue in the US. Gone are the days where an album would effortlessly sail past one million copies, the platinum certification point. In fact, only 4 albums so far in 2014 have achieved this feat, a far cry from 10 years ago when 38 albums scanned 1 million copies in the first 8 months of the year. However, can this really be the sole reason for sales of the album tailing off?
Art vs. Radio
“It’s all about the single… There’s so much that gets between the music”, Beyoncé proclaimed in her behind-the-scenes video series.
For pop artists to really catapult the album charts, singles that will resonate with the general public are needed. Record labels want tracks they can service to top 40 radio stations. While such tracks were noticeably absent from “Beyoncé”, it was what many critics and fans praised about the album. The throwaway, club-ready, pop radio singles of her previous efforts were replaced with slicker, darker and edgier productions.
Beyoncé’s move away from mainstream pop is arguably why none of her releases have reached the summit of Billboard’s Hot 100 in the six years since Singles Ladies began a four-week run in November 2008. While the lead single from the latest album, “Drunk in Love”, was a permanent fixture on urban radio stations and peaked at number two on the Hot 100, thanks to a surge in streams following a steamy performance at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, it didn’t reach the top 10 on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart.
When speaking about the development of her sound, in 2011, Beyoncé said, “I feel that it’s important that I start shaping my legacy and doing things that have a little more substance… I want people to think when they listen to my music.” The question arises, then, should an established singer with multiple Grammy’s really be trying to appease the masses and score hits at top 40 radio stations? Is an artist’s creative development more important?
Promo vs. Touring
“The Pinkprint” was released earlier this month. Nicki Minaj appeared on household TV shows such as The View and Watch What Happens Live, as well as being visible to her main audience on radio shows Hot 97 and Power 105, in addition to the release of the album’s short film, The PinkPrint Movie.
We didn’t see this type of promo from Beyoncé; instead she opted to spend most of 2013 and early 2014 touring. The 132-date “Mrs Carter Show” world tour went on to gross $229 million, making it the second highest grossing tour by a solo female artist this decade – second to only Madonna. While it would seem the decision to tour in place of the traditional promo push implemented by record labels paid off, her absence from TV meant there was less visibility to the casual music buyer. Her main fanatics attending the concert dates will have already purchased the album, but those music fans that needed a little more convincing before being able to justify the initial $15.99 price tag may have been missed. It would be senseless, however, to gloss over the banner ads her team rolled out on iTunes to coincide with the album’s release, which, if this is where you buy your music from, would have been inescapable. Evidently, promo was there, but a different and more understated strategy had been used, and it was doing the trick.
What’s more, the touring figures are undeniable and helped the singer earn a cool $115 million in 2014, according to Forbes, where she resided in second place on its annual list of highest paid musicians. As touring and endorsement deals are a primary source of income for many artists, is this now the way forward, particularly for R&B singers who will typically sell less albums than their pop counterparts?
“I don’t trust these record labels, I’m touring.”
Privacy vs. Accessibility
Social media Q&A’s, selfies outside the hotel and other forms of fan interaction may not be an unusual occurrence if you’re one of Lady GaGa’s Monsters or one of Nicki’s Barbs. Beyoncé, however, prefers to maintain an element of mystery and has created an invisible wall between her and her fans, dubbed the BeyHive.
While it is understandable that the singer, now in her mid-thirties, married and with child in tow, would want to keep her personal and professional life separate, with social media being as dominant as it is today, fans want to be closer to the artist. They want to know how their favourite singer “woke up”, what they had for breakfast, their likes, dislikes and so on. They want to tweet them endlessly, clinging to the near impossible likelihood they will get a response. Although Beyoncé is active on Instagram, we wouldn’t be able to tell if is actually her posting the pics or the social media guy at the record label. There isn’t much personal interaction with fans either, for instance she is unlikely to post a drawing or a picture a fan has sent her. Instead we see a series of carefully, well-placed snaps depicting a lifestyle that those who are following are likely to never experience and therefore may have trouble identifying with. In an interview with Essence magazine in 2008, Beyoncé said:
“I feel that, especially now, with the Internet and paparazzi and camera phones, it’s so difficult to maintain mystery… I feel like not being that accessible is really important. If you think about Prince or Michael Jackson, or any superstars, you couldn’t see them when they got off their planes or when they got out of the pool and didn’t comb their hair. It’s great that people see we’re not perfect. But it’s almost impossible to have superstars now, because people will never get enough.”
To mark the one-year anniversary of the album’s release Beyoncé released a short film, titled “Yours and Mine”, in which she echoed similar sentiments. “I sometimes just wish I could be anonymous and walk down the street just like everyone else”, she says. “When you’re famous no one looks at you as a human anymore, you become the property of the public. There’s nothing real about it.” This begs the question, do artists have an obligation to interact and be visible to the fans paying their bills, or is this simply an unwarranted demand caused by the increase in popularity of social media? Do artists have the right to share these frustrations given they know what life in the public eye involves when they ‘sign up’?
When taking all the above into consideration and summarising the album’s campaign, the truth is, the secrecy and unique promotional strategy were its strongest points. Releasing the album without warning was different to what her peers had done previously and allowed her to reinvent herself as a leader in the industry, rather than a trend chaser. What will be most interesting, though, is where Beyoncé chooses to go from here, as she finds herself in a unique position. Releasing a follow-up of disposable pop hits would see her audience expand and back at the top of the charts, but after releasing her most critically applauded work to date, it would likely be viewed as taking a step backwards artistically.
One thing is for certain, the fans who have stood by and watched her evolve from the frontwoman of Destiny’s Child to the self-assured, fearless “Drunk in Love” singer we see today are not going anywhere. They are not merely interested in one or two albums, but her as an artist, and it is this fan loyalty that will secure her future as a force in the industry for years to come.
What should Beyoncé do next?