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Beyoncé’s new album distorts our notion of true innovation

Beyoncé’s album wasn’t as innovative as you think. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Over the weekend, Beyoncé’s new “visual album” — dropped on fans Friday morning without any advance warning — was lauded as everything from one of the best albums of the year to the future of marketing and PR. While the “surprise” strategy for releasing the album has been phenomenally successful — with Beyoncé selling over 828,000 units on iTunes in just three days — it’s actually not as innovative as you might think.

The reason, quite simply, is that celebrities such as Beyoncé distort our notion of innovation. They are able to give us a quick head-fake and we follow along with them, desperately wanting to believe that we are witnessing a “game changer” or that we’re seeing our heroes become “trailblazers” in the market. We are fooled largely because they have so many fans and followers, so that whatever they do is magnified.

Let’s throw some cold water on the notion that Beyoncé’s self-titled album is innovative. As a rule of thumb, anytime a celebrity gets involved in something touted as innovative and game-changing, chances are  it’s already been done before. The celebrity is scaling the concept in a way that’s not possible for others.

Take, for example, the idea of selling directly to fans, without the need for a middleman. The smartest artists already know that the most valuable assets they have is their existing fan base, and that’s why crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter are so popular — if given a chance, fans will support your work and pay for music. That’s a concept that was espoused most vocally by Amanda Palmer at this year’s TED, who argued that artists can and should be directly supported by their fans.

Or, what about the concept that “no marketing is the new marketing”? The idea of bypassing traditional marketing channels is also something that’s been tried and done before. Thanks to social media, DIY marketing is now a staple of just about any artist, whether in music or art or film. Thanks to social media, it’s now possible to reach millions of people at little or no cost, while being able to customize a campaign in real-time if something isn’t working. As a result, Beyoncé can release a teaser video on Instagram and surprise the world.

And the idea of getting fans to “binge” on content at one time (downloading all songs and videos all at once) is also nothing new – that’s the strategy used by Netflix when it brought “House of Cards” to market, releasing the entire series (all 13 episodes) at once rather than one episode at a time. While it’s a tribute to Beyoncé’s power as an artist that so many people opted to download the entire album at once without even hearing a single song on the radio first, the “binge” approach to content already existed.

Is Beyoncé’s new album really a “groundbreaking way to experience music” – as touted by iTunes? The mixing together of musical tracks and videos, that’s been done before — maybe not as artfully and seamlessly as Beyoncé did it — but it’s been done before. The “groundbreaking” part of the visual album is that once you visit iTunes to download the album, you can also listen to a mix of Beyoncé’s favorite songs on iTunes Radio. But even that concept – the curated playlist – has been around for years.

What separates Beyoncé from all but a handful of performers in the music industry is her ability to do everything on a massive scale. It’s only a few select people who can announce a holiday surprise on social media and then have fellow celebrities and fans relentlessly spread the news to their friends and followers. That doesn’t happen to everyone else. Beyoncé could have released just about anything on iTunes, and it would have sold at least 100,000 units. We’re just lucky the music was actually pretty good this time around and that it’s the holidays, when we’re all in the buying mood.

Beyoncé’s decision to drop the album without any advance notice – getting an exclusive deal with iTunes in the process – is better viewed as a response to the changing dynamics of the music business. Beyoncé’s latest move is a business tactic, just like her husband Jay Z’s album release earlier this year, in which he released his “Magna Carta… Holy Grail” as part of a promotional stunt with Samsung to boost first-day sales as rapidly as possible. Artists are looking for ways to get paid for the music they create — and to sell as much of it as they used to back in the day.

So good for Beyoncé, her new self-titled album is really solid work and guarantees a nice little future paycheck from iTunes. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Beyoncé has figured out something that nobody else has already figured out. It’s all the nameless artists and performers trudging around the country, playing to loyal audiences of fans in tiny venues and experimenting with new digital technologies, who are the real innovators in the music business.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.



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