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What Indie Artists Can Learn From Beyonce’s Surprise Album

Posted by Nathan S. on 12/17/13 | Filed under Top Stories, Opinion, Beyonce, Sales

Maybe they should start calling Ms. Carter's husband Mr. Knowles. Including her work with Destiny's Child, Beyonce has sold more albums that Jay, is tied with Jay for number of Grammys, and last week truly managed to display some #newrules while Jay's last album, "MCHG", ultimately only managed to fitt the old rules inside of an app....for about an hour.  

I really can't overstate how historic Beyonce dropping a full studio album on a Thursday night without any pre-release promotion or marketing is. It's literally never been done before, not from an artist of even remotely her caliber. But, for as much as Bey managed to truly break new ground where Jay only scratched that ground's surface, they do have one thing in common; their release strategies won't change much about how the music industry works, not for a long time coming anyway. Their super-superstar status gives them a power and leverage to pull off these releases in a way that's just not applicable to 99% of the musical world. (Samsung has yet to return my calls about buying one million RefinedHype posts.)

But there are a couple things even the most indie of indie artists can learn from Queen Bey. What both the "MCHG" release and "Beyonce" share is a commitment to owning not the first week of sales, but the first day.

Paradoxically, in 2013 the actual album release is the least covered aspect of an artist's album promotion push. The same media outlets who posted every single, interview and "leak" leading up to the release are silent when it comes to the actual album drop. No one would simply post, "Hey, this album is out now, here's the buy link". That means that converting the interest in those singles into album sales, which after all is (mostly) the point of all that promotion, can be murky at best. 

For most of modern music, promotion was aimed at hammering a release date into your head. After all, you had to make a pre-planned trip to the store to pick it up. But in 2013 the span betwen deciding to purchase an album and actually purchasing it is much more immediate. You see an iTunes link go floating by you on Twitter, you click and boom, you've got the album. 

So what Beyonce did by releasing the project out of nowhere is to make the album release itself, and the buy link, the story. Consequently, she got the kind of coverage and takeover about her actual album release that months of pre-promotion singles and interviews couldn't accomplish. For 24 hours if you weren't talking about her album, you weren't talking about shit. Twitter reported that people were mentioning @Beyonce over 5,000 times a minute shortly after the release, and all of that immediate attention resulted in, oh, just the biggest iTunes release ever. (Side note: We've seen a similiar "Twitter takeover" effect when an album leaks, which might be a case for leaks actually increasing sales.)

Unfortunately, that kind of takeover just isn't happening for your average artist, or even your above average artist, or even your above-above average artists; why do I feel the need to mention Wale right now?. Unless Justin TImberlake is reading this, there's just realistically no way anyone reading this is creating that kind of buzz with an out-of-the-blue album release. In that case, I believe those artists really are better off identifying theirr core fans and building as much anticipation with those fans as possible. 

But if we can draw a lesson from all this - or at least if I can once again go into the gospel I've been preaching for a minute now and no one's listened to yet - it's that artists are putting way too many resources into pre-release promotion, and not nearly enough into the promotion of the actual release. Right now it seems like artists put about 75% of their energy and budget, or more, into the pre-release of a project and 25% into after. I'd argue that those proportions should be flipped.

One of the biggest reasons that major labels are still so heavily invested in first week sales is that it's been proven that charting increases sales. When an album is #1 more people are likely to say "oh shit, that's a number one album? I should check it out" and purchase it. Nothing increases sales like sales, and the same holds true for free downloads. 

For most artists though, and by "most artists" I really mean the 90% of the industry that aren't household names, landing at the top of Billboard just isn't a possiblity. Instead, their focus should be on increasing their fan base, and make it as easy for that fan base to discover more of their music as possible, and I don't think the standard "release songs/videos leading up to a project release" format is the best way to do that. 

As I said before, people have a depressingly low attention span in 2013. Even if you somehow manage to grab their attention for a moment, if you don't have something else for them to click on immediately, you almost certainly lost them. So the chances of someone even listening to your song are small, them liking it is smaller, and then the chances of them liking it enough to remember to check for the larger project at a later date are even smaller than that. (By the way, the exact same thing holds true for people reading rap blog posts and then clicking on another one, so I know what I'm talking about. We're in the same boat.)

But what if you did a reverse album release, a la Beyonce, and put the album out first, then the supporting material linking to that album? Someone listens to the new joint and likes it? Boom, in one click they're listening to the whole thing. Someone watches your new video and digs it? Instead of waiting around for your "coming soon" project boom, one click and they're listening to it. In that view, putting out material without a project to back it up feels like more of a missed opportunity than a chance to "build anticipation". Instead of building up to an album release, you're starting with the building, then inviting people inside. Essentially exactly what Beyonce did, only coming at it from the opposite end of the spectrum. 

On the downside, you'd miss out on some of the "oh shit, this album dropped!' hype, which can be genuinely valuable. But on the upside I'm willing to bet your casual listener to legitimate fan conversion rate will be much higher, which for indie artists is much more valuable. 

Now, there's eleven million rappers out there and this is the internet, so I'm willing to bet someone has actually done this approach before, but I haven't seen it. Which means that if you try it and it works I'm going to take the credit, and if it fails I'm doing to point out it's your own damn fault for listening to a man who wrote this

Regardless, the ultimate point is the same. Always be watching and learning from what others are trying, even if they're the world's biggest stars and you're still working on getting your rent paid. In 2013 there are less rules than ever before, write your own ones. 


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