The Beyoncé System or What the Diva Teaches Us on the State of Mass Media

During the night of December 12 to 13, 2013, singer Beyoncé took the music industry by surprise by using the iTunes download platform to launch an album featuring 14 songs and 17 videos without prior warning or publicity.

Soberly titled BEYONCÉ, the album was simply announced (at the same time as it was launched on iTunes) via a promotional video on the artist’s Facebook page (which counts 53 million fans) and her Instagram profile. Also, excerpts were uploaded to the singer’s YouTube account.

Beyoncé explained that she wanted to offer her fans a new auditory and visual experience by proposing a “global vision of the album.” For the first time, fans will have the opportunity to visually discover an album in its entirety. Beyond the anecdote, this marketing coup highlights the major transformations that both music and (on a wider scale) mass media industries have undergone, namely with respect to content promotion and distribution as well as cultural product imaging.

Marketing: talking directly to fans

Asked by Variety to explain her strategy, the American diva summed it up as follows:

“I didn’t want to release my music the way I’ve done it. I feel like I am able to speak directly to my fans. There’s so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. 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.”

This “zero promotion” strategy paid off, and the album quickly stirred up a lot of buzz on social networks. The singer’s Facebook post received more than 315,000 likes and was shared almost 70,000 times. On Twitter, Beyoncé was mentioned approximately 500,000 times after the announcement had been made.

From a marketing point of view, Beyoncé chose an offensive and totally unexpected strategy that goes against the way pop music is usually marketed. Traditionally, artists cleverly shroud their new albums in a great deal of suspense by releasing them very gradually (and according to a carefully thought out schedule): teaser, album’s visual, first video clip, TV performance, interviews, etc.—all that before the album is actually released. (Take for example Daft Punk which made its fans wait many months before releasing its recent opus titled Random Access Memories.)

The goal of this ritual is to generate a buzz to ensure that the release is a bang. In the music industry (as well as in cinema and, to a certain degree, television), results generated during the first week following the launch determine a product’s commercial success or failure. A feature film that takes the lion’s share during its first weekend on screen will stay in movie theatres much longer. By doing the complete opposite of “traditional” strategies, Beyoncé undoubtedly achieved the marketing coup of the year.

Today’s fans are cultural industry players in their own right. They today play a role in the promotion, distribution and even production of content. For example, the American TV series Veronica Mars was indeed revived thanks to its fans who drew upon one another to support the Kickstarter campaign set up to finance a movie project. This campaign generated $2 million within its first 10 hours and over $5.7 million in the first 30 days. Few promotional tools were used to achieve these results; the TV series’ artisans simply reached out to their public, who then took care of the rest.

The “Beyoncé technique” speaks volumes on new marketing methods in the era of hyperconnectivity. Henceforth, artists can speak directly to their fans to promote new content. Their apostles will then take it upon themselves to carry the good news.

Distribution: the end of the physical era

Beyoncé’s coup is another indication of the changes that have been transforming the distribution of cultural content for more than ten years now. In terms of music distribution, we know for a fact that online stores such as iTunes and streaming platforms the likes of Pandora and Songza have replaced physical retail outlets for good.

And we can assume that it is only a question of time before digital distribution also takes over the television and movie industries. Will the DVD become as “marginalized” as the CD? That may already be the case in light of the number of video clubs that have gone out of business.

iTunes, which celebrated its 5th anniversary, today accounts for 63% of the music distribution industry in terms of market shares—way ahead of its main competitors (Amazon, Sony, etc.). Globally, the iTunes platform brought in $4.3 billion in content sales in 2012. On a daily basis and a global scale, over 800,000 TV series and 350,000 movies are downloaded from this platform.

One thing is certain: exclusively online distribution is now more than sufficient to breathe life into media content. Physical distribution has become superfluous or is quickly losing its relevance. iTunes seems to have taken its place as the online marketplace par excellence for cultural products such as music.

“Videification”: music presented through… images

Beyoncé describes her album as a “visual album,” an album that intends to create an immersive environment, a linear and non-fragmented story. By keeping the marketing of its release to a minimum, she was able to reinvest her promotional budget into imaging the album.

Here, one might point to a certain mass media “videification” process. This term is used to coin the tendency to present everything through video images. In recent years, this medium has become very mainstream both in terms of creation and distribution. Also, cultural habits have changed because users are now much more willing to film themselves for the purpose of exchanging ideas. Applications the likes of YouTube, Skype, Instagram Video, Vine and SnapChat have allowed users to familiarize themselves with video—which has become a popular means of expressing themselves. This need for video has consequently increased the demand for video.

The Beyoncé system

The BEYONCÉ album symbolizes the singer’s total control over her business. From beginning to end, the artist controls everything: the marketing, distribution, branding and experience offered to fans. This last opus is available only as a full album. According to Jezebel, fans will need to wait until December 20 to purchase songs individually. This “secretive” release not only illustrates Beyoncé’s marketing genius and independence from traditional intermediaries in the music industry but also sheds light on certain profound influences that are transforming mass media mechanisms.

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Fabien Loszach
Fabien Loszach holds a doctorate in sociology specialized in social imagery, art and pop culture. He works for the Brad agency as its director of interactive strategy and as a consultant in the media and digital fields. Furthermore, he contributes as a commentator to the digital culture show La sphère broadcast on Ici Radio-Canada Première. Each week, he discusses a current issue from a sociological perspective.
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