Beyoncé’s Marketing Minimalism

Last Friday, Beyoncé stunned her fans and even the music industry by dropping her new album exclusively on iTunes for download, selling 80,000 copies within three hours and reportedly causing the online store to crash. In the first three days, sales hit 800,000. Angela Watercutter considers what Beyonce’s brilliant move means for the future:

She announced the album, posted a “Surprise!” on Instagram and gave fans enough material to keep them busy for days. Then she dropped the mic. Thanks to whatever death-to-snitches plan she had in place, word of the album never got out and nothing leaked. Even the NSA can’t keep a secret that well. In the annals of minimal-marketing marketing, it was a pretty smart move, particularly for an artist who is obsessively discussed on social media but engages with it selectively. (She has pretty active Tumblr and Instagram accounts, but hasn’t tweeted to her 13 million followers since August.)

Of course, this wouldn’t work for every artist. Only someone with albums as highly anticipated as Beyoncé’s can do this. Like her husband Jay Z, who can pretty much guarantee one million people will download his album via a Samsung app, she knows people are going to find her record no matter how she promotes it. So why not let everyone else spread the gospel for you? Or, as one smart tweet put it, “Beyoncé doesn’t need publicity. Publicity needs Beyoncé.”

It’s all very selfie and instagrammy. And perfect. Claire Suddath notes the precedent set by Radiohead and David Bowie, who also released music online with minimal promotion:

But there’s a difference between what Radiohead and David Bowie did and what happened today: Beyoncé is still considered a pop star, and pop music relies heavily on the traditional marketing machine sponsored by record labels. The stars begin with a hit single, hopefully follow it up with another hit single, release an album and perform at some heavily watched live event like the Grammys or on American Idol, launch a world tour, and then reap the profit. They leave it to the rock stars and hip-hop artists to experiment with free downloads and unofficial mixtapes.

Beyoncé is changing all that. Her new album doesn’t have an obvious hit single (her last one, 4, didn’t have one, either) but that seems to be by design. Beyoncé is a polished work of electronic-inspired dance pop—peppered with Jay-Z and Blue Ivy cameos—yet it’s made for a listening world dominated by curated playlists rather than preprogrammed, Clear Channel-style broadcasts. This is the work of an artist who’s graduated beyond the usual pop star marketing machine and started making music that’s free of the three-and-a-half minute hook-heavy formula that makes a big hit. And by forcing everyone to pay $15.99 for the album now, she might be more successful because of it.

James West argues that “this may well be one of the most climate-friendly major studio releases yet”:

Purchasing “Beyoncé” on iTunes instead of as a CD could result in a greenhouse-gas-emissions savings of between 40 and 80 percent, according to a 2009 study for Intel and Microsoft by researchers from a group drawn from Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Stanford.