Ignore the hype. Beyoncé’s release was totally old-school.

December 17, 2013

Beyoncé broke a whole lot of music industry rules last week, when she dropped her new album last Thursday at midnight.

Modern artists are supposed to hype their new records for months beforehand, with advertising radio teasers and television appearances; Beyoncé simply Instagrammed. They're expected to release on as many platforms as possible, from Myspace to streaming services, but you can only buy "Beyoncé" on iTunes. Their music comes in 99-cent increments, not continuous visual experiences that cost you $15.99 for the whole package.

But in a lot of ways, Beyoncé is just reprising the way things used to be done.

"It's a positively 1978 release that she's got going on here," says Casey Rae, director of the Future of Music Coalition. "Limiting availability is inherently old-school."

Of course, it's old school because before the Internet there just weren't that many ways to make music available. You bought the record, and then you owned the record. Now, when music can flow instantly around the world in a second, artists use a practice known in the industry as "windowing": They stagger releases so that the product first goes out in complete form to CDs and radio, then to digital downloads and, finally, to streaming services, maximizing revenue from people who want to have the product sooner.

That's a nightmare for streaming services like Spotify, which want to be the go-to places for new music and argue that artists should care first and foremost about reaching a large audience. But it's fantastic for old-fashioned terrestrial radio stations: They can buy the album and play it all day long, paying royalties to the label and the songwriter as mandated by their blanket licenses with performance rights organizations like ASCAP. ClearChannel, in particular, was over the moon with Beyoncé's narrow release. "It made people rush to the radio," the media giant's president of entertainment enterprises told the New York Times. "We were thrilled."

Now, just because Beyoncé did it, that doesn't mean everybody else can do it. In this case, her unparalleled social media reach amplified the longstanding practice of limiting releases, driving 828,773 people toward her chosen platform -- which also happens to be the one with the highest margins -- in its first three days. A few other megastars may be able to pull off the same maneuver, using the element of surprise to generate buzz.

Everybody else, though, is likely stuck with the real imperatives of modernity: working hard, day in and day out, to get paid.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Brad Plumer · December 17, 2013