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Beyoncé Really Did Change the Game With That Digital Drop

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In the launch episode of Vulture’s new culture podcast Into It, host Sam Sanders kicks things off in appropriately momentous fashion by having a discussion about the business of Beyoncé with music journalist Danyel Smith, former editor of Vibe and Billboard and host of the podcast Black Girl Songbook. Here’s Sam, from the episode:

December 13, 2013. Dear listener, do you remember where you were? That was the day Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth album fell from the heavens, out of nowhere it seemed, on an unassuming Friday. All 14 songs at once and even more music videos. It was a moment — a global event. Beyoncé, the album, became the fastest selling ever on iTunes, and it went to No. 1 in more than 100 countries almost immediately. And if you think about it, it also established Beyoncé as the most daring and innovative executive in the music industry. So ahead of the release of Beyoncé’s latest album, Renaissance, we thought we’d take this moment to look back at that 2013 release and that moment when Beyoncé broke just about every rule of the biz and changed the whole game. She did it all without a single leak, a feat she couldn’t accomplish this week with her newest album.

You can read their conversation below, and be sure to check out the full episode of Into It — available wherever you get your podcasts — for more, including a tribute to the women on Love Island U.K., a meditation on whether Bowling for Soup whitewashed the ’80s in their song “1985,” and a debate over Kendrick Lamar, the ventriloquist.

Into It

A Vulture podcast featuring Sam Sanders

Sam Sanders: The same year Beyoncé released her self-titled album, in 2013, several big-name artists like Katie Perry and Eminem saw their albums leak online The biggest names in the business couldn’t figure out how to stop leaks, and she did. Her team at Parkwood said, “Well, the time when these leaks happen is usually when the physical CDs are going from the press to the stores.” So she says, “Well, we can stop the leaks if we just don’t do physical CDs.” That’s part of why it was only on Apple iTunes at first, right?
Danyel Smith: Yes, it is why. Sometimes the leaks occurred during the shipping of the CDs to the stores, but it even began to be after sending the files to the manufacturing plant. Because once something exists as a file–

It’s out there. It’s over. It’s done.
Yeah, it’s absolutely out there.

Then to make sure that she really surprised everybody, she released the album on a Friday, when at that point everyone was putting out their albums on a Tuesday. She said, “I’m not doing it that way. I’m doing it this way.” And then because she couldn’t do a traditional press rollout because of the surprise nature of it all, she and Parkwood just called up Facebook and Instagram and said, “Will you do a big push of these videos of me saying the album’s here on the day it’s released?” And they just said, “Yes, sure,” for Beyoncé. That’s a big deal.
And it was such a co-sign, if you really think about it, of social media. It was a star of her stature basically saying, “This is where my fans are. This is where the conversation is. This is where the real and new marketing is happening now.” This was back when Beyoncé had only 8 million followers. She has about 270 million now. But she knew, she and her team knew, that this is where Beyoncé fans lived, and she went right to where they were.

Everybody else was pretty traditional. Very few artists or labels had gotten that something was going to have to change. Right now, if you look at a media plan or a marketing plan or an album release plan, the first sentence — if not the first words — are going to be about social media. But back then, that still wasn’t the case. People were still talking about breaking songs on the radio.

I remember people going to Ryan Seacrest’s morning radio show like, “Ryan, here’s my new song. Will you play it now?” And Beyoncé said, “We’re not doing that no more.”
No one wanted to believe in 2013 that social media was going to be social media. It was changing everything, but so many label professionals, so many radio professionals, so many singer-songwriters, just didn’t want to believe it was going to be anything but a side dish. As we know now, it is the main dish. Beyoncé knew that and took advantage of it early on.

Beyoncé knows how to make a meal, okay?
A whole meal. And she kicked it up, too, because she was like, “I’m so sure of myself.” This is the thing that makes her so seductive and sexy as an artist. She’s like, “I’m so sure of myself. I’m not creating 12, 13, 17 songs then picking out the ones that I think are the best, and then those are the ones that I’m really going to push and make quote, unquote singles. No, I’m not going to do that. All my songs are amazing.”

“I’m going to make a video for every single song, and I’m going to put it all out the same day. I’m not going to parse it out for you. I’m not. I’m going to smother and suffocate y’all with my stuff. You just loved it for the audacity as much as you loved it for the art.”

Can you talk about how much the industry changed for artists and labels after Beyoncé introduced the idea of the surprise album drop?
It changed everything. I think some people though, some artists, some label executives still didn’t want to believe. I think some people wanted to think, Oh, well, it can be different for Beyoncé because she’s Beyoncé, without giving her credit for changing the entire game. What she gave artists permission to do was, frankly, to just take whole tribes of people out of the picture. And not just at labels. There used to be these things called magazines. I used to run them, at least two. There was a whole dance where you would get advance CDs and listen to them and compare them: Well, which of these albums is going to help us sell the most magazines? We were a third party. We were between the artist and the fans. And Beyoncé said, “I don’t want any of that.”

The surprise album release was so good, so groundbreaking, so industry-shifting that, the next year, Harvard Business School did a case study on it. One of the big things they drive home is that Beyoncé was relying on no one else for anything. The traditional relationship between an artist and a label is that you have to rely on the label for a lot — and they get to call the shots. But Beyoncé took away a lot of the power that a label would usually have.
Yes. There used to be so much more control from the labels. People used to sit up in marketing meetings, a room full of 15, 20, 30 people listening to a song from a Beyoncé-like artist, and just go around conference tables and decide what the single was. That literally just doesn’t happen anymore, and Beyoncé’s a huge part of that.

In some ways, some of what she was doing was already happening. Smaller artists were saying, “Oh, there’s MySpace, there’s SoundCloud, there’s all these different things. I can just press a button and put my music out and release my music to my fans. Whether I have 16 fans, 1,600 fans, or 16,000 fans, I have control.” And Beyoncé said, “Listen to me, I’m going to make that happen for me in a way that no one is going to be able to believe. No one is going to have spoken about any of it. No one knows it’s coming. I’m about to shut this whole world down at Christmas time.”

We have talked for a bit about how Beyoncé changed the road map for other artists, but I wonder, what did that infrastructure of, let’s call it the old industry, do after Beyoncé? How does the traditional music press adapt in the aftermath of Beyoncé saying immediately, in one fell swoop, “We need you a lot less than you thought we did.”
Oh, Sam, do you know what I love about you? Your optimism, and the fact that you really think that anyone has adapted.

Tell me more.
I do not know that the industry as a whole has adapted, whether it’s the recording industry or the media industries. I wish I could say that they had. I think there is so much nostalgia for how things used to be. Just like in the Motown era, there was nostalgia on the parts of the labels and media for what it had been like when jazz and blues were completely controlled. Oh, wasn’t it great when we could just decide when people’s jazz albums were coming out and blues albums were coming out? Wasn’t it great when we could decide whether or not to put a jazz artist or a blues artists on the cover of our magazine?

Now people long for the days when terrestrial radio was the biggest player in the game. And so it’s hard to let go, to imagine, Oh my God, it really has changed. Let’s really start thinking about things differently. Let’s stop acting like the intern is the social-media consultant.

That part.
Come on.

I even think about stuff that we might see with Renaissance’s “more traditional” release and say, “Oh, it hearkens back to yesteryear.” No, it really doesn’t. When she announced the album, she did this big spread with British Vogue. You read that piece, and you look at those images, and you realize that Beyoncé has totally reworked the relationship between an artist and a magazine like British Vogue. She was in charge. They were happy to get her time, and they wrote that article as such. They were working for her. The power’s flipped. 
It’s completely flipped. Beyoncé has gone on record to me talking about how, right at the time when Destiny’s Child was at its most popular, she was truthfully and accurately told by her publicists that editors just didn’t have a place for her on the covers of their magazines. So there’s also a feeling of,
Didn’t you tell me that I couldn’t be on the cover? Didn’t you tell me that it wasn’t allowed for me, that it historically just wasn’t a thing that was done? And I know that it must feel somewhat right to her that she is wielding this power in spaces that told her that she did not belong there.

We should consider Beyoncé not just as a musical artist, but also as a business executive. How would you sum up Beyoncé the executive in a single sentence?
People talk about Ford, they talk about Nike, they talk about Coke and Pepsi, and they should talk about Beyoncé. I think she is not even at the middle of where she’s going to be.

This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed.

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According to a Harvard Business School case study, Parkwood and Facebook “agreed that music fans across Facebook — in addition to the millions who had ‘liked’ Beyoncé’s page — would see an announcement for the album as soon as it was available on
iTunes” and that “the album would also be prominently featured on Facebook’s music page and related
channels.” Plus, Beyoncé was given the support of a Facebook-run advertising campaign and early access to the company’s then-new autoplay video feature.
Beyoncé Really Did Change the Game With That Digital Drop