Few artists have the capacity to change an entire business model with one deft maneuver, but hand it to Beyonce, because she just did.
Perhaps it’s because Beyonce, like everyone else living in 2013, realized that it’s easier to go directly to your fans and cut out all the bullshit that traditionally goes into promoting a record. In a video posted to her Facebook page, she said:
“There’s so much that gets in between the music and the artist and the fans. I felt like I don’t want anybody to give the message when my record’s coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready, and from me to my fans… I would make my best art and just put it out.”
That’s a warm and fuzzy idea, isn’t it? A universally-adored artist giving us their undiluted art without any undue influence.
But this is not exactly a new thing. Buoyed by the immediacy and social capacities of the Internet, independent and smaller major label artists have been going directly to their fans for years. Years! What’s new, however, is someone of Beyonce’s magnitude doing it.
With over a decade in the music business, Bey is by far and away a product of the oldschool music industry star-making machine. If she’s at odds with how music is released and consumed, the writing is definitely on the wall for the old way of doing things. Stick a fork in that shit, it’s done.
Still, Beyonce` is far from a collection of songs that she uploaded randomly to iTunes through TuneCore. There were probably more brainstorm sessions about this record’s release than the Obamacare website. To wit, it’s not released on some indie label; rather, Columbia Records. And each track features a video, collectively what’s being dubbed a “visual album,” which is also not a new idea.
But while the tech-savvy crowd can surely deduct cool points from Beyonce` for doing something that seems so basic and now, you have to hand it to her for taking a risk. People on the Internet like to believe that the entire world sees things the way they do. That everyone is on Spotify, everyone has a smartphone and everyone is monitoring their Twitter feed all day. But in the real world people still use Windows computers, Yahoo is still a very popular search engine, there are CD players in cars and Top 40 radio playlists set the trend. Beyonce is popular online, but she’s also immensely popular and profitable in that world too.
In an industry with diminishing returns, radio promotion, publicity and TV appearances— circulated, promoted, cycled and discussed through the Internet— are still the most effective ways to drum up interest in a blockbuster album. Interest is interest though, and sales are sales. In this imperfect world, an artist puts the work in and just hopes for the best. They can still charge for things like licensing, concerts, t-shirts and other merchandise. But selling that blockbuster LP is secondary.
Beyonce has completely turned that logic upside down. With this release, she has bypassed the gatekeepers, done away with the traditional promotional cycle and appealed directly to her fans. And by making it a more comprehensive experience, she’s made the album itself— not a concert, not an HBO documentary that she shot on her Macbook— the priority.
She’s saying that in a world where nobody wants to pay for music anymore, she wants you to buy this. Beyonce`is $15.99 on iTunes.
And why shouldn’t she charge? Beyonce’s Facebook page has more than 53 million fans. Beyonce’s Twitter account is not very active, but it has over 12 million followers. Beyonce’s YouTube account has almost 3.5 million subscribers. Her Tumblr is consistently updated. If Beyonce does anything—ANYTHING AT ALL— it gets talked about, written about and thought about endlessly online. People are probably writing this very same article right now.
Beyonce has figured it out. The media— radio, TV, print, social— it’s all reactionary. What is an appearance on The Tonight Show or a performance on Good Day going to do for Beyonce? Nothing. It’s a complete waste of time. So her record is spinning on the radio. Big deal.
For artists of Beyonce’s magnitude, the days of throwing something out there and hoping for the best are over. She did that with her last record, 4, and the results were mixed. It might have been her best LP— “Love On Top” won a Grammy— but it didn’t connect with anyone outside of her core fan base. It sold well, moving over a million copies, but it didn’t grow her brand. It just sort of… happened. It seemed as if there was more excitement about her Super Bowl appearance than her album. That’s troubling.
But Beyonce’s fan base— whether it’s growing or not— is extremely large and passionate. If you’re a Beyonce fan, you’re likely an engaged Beyonce fan. You’re paying attention to anything and everything she does. If you’re shelling out money for a concert, you’re definitely shelling out money for an album. So she’s not giving it away. That would, in effect, destroy her.
And even if you’re not an engaged Beyonce fan— look no further than your humble author; I’m far from one— it’s hard to escape the chatter now. I wrote previously that “The Monoculture Is Back.” That big media events are almost impossible to ignore again. It’s true. How can you ignore this Beyonce album when everyone won’t shut the fuck up about it? Case in point, even I went and bought it this morning. That’s the new music business at work right there!
Beyonce is a popular artist, but she’s certainly not the only one who can pull this off. Rihanna has millions of people poring over her Instagram account every day. So does Miley Cyrus. So do a lot of acts. The real world is like high school. It just takes one insanely popular person to step out there and do something crazy, and everyone else will follow. That’s where we are now, thanks to Bey.
Soon, artists with large pools of engaged fans will release their records straight to the Internet— charging for them too; the free ride is over!— without having to partake in the dog and pony show that is promoting a record. Because as a brand and business, it makes sense to market your product to people you know are walking on the lot looking to buy. Especially when you know those people will spread the word for you, and that the media will still cover you endlessly.
Perhaps it is truly bigger than business, too. It’s about the music and the message, and artists wanting to get it out as quickly and cleverly as possible, directly to the people who care about it. Maybe the suits and other creatives behind the scenes don’t make as much money in that instance. Maybe the media is left out in the cold. Maybe now you don’t even know an album is dropping. But for the true fans, the ones who are dialed and paying attention, this is a good thing.
Paul Cantor is a writer, editor and music producer based in New York. Formerly an editor at AOL Music, his writing has appeared at Rolling Stone, MTV News, VICE and Billboard, among others outlets. Throughout his 10-year career he’s written/produced records for dozens of artists and provided creative services to brands like Disney, the CW Network, Verizon, Converse and HBO. His commentary has been tapped by the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera, and a selection of his recent work can be found HERE.