If glass ceilings were meant to be shattered, then Beyoncé deserves a gold medal.
On April 23, as the “Beyhive” — a moniker for her obsessively loyal fan base — milled about visiting restaurants and bars, perhaps taking a quiet Saturday night to catch up on “Game of Thrones,” she was busy surprising the world by releasing twelve essentially unannounced music videos on HBO (all fans knew in advance came from this Instagram post). Word spread quickly; plans were canceled and bar tabs paid early. After the premiere of her hour-long short film, her sixth studio album appeared exclusively on Tidal, which is owned by her husband Jay Z, for 24 hours. Adding a Dickensian twist to the story, the album follows Beyoncé as the personification of a woman scorned by a cheating lover.
Naturally, the Internet exploded, suggesting that Jay Z, the owner of the service streaming her record, was the man in question.
As the conversation grew, so too did her record sales.
“Lemonade” debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200, her sixth no. 1 album (of six). It earned 6,530,000 equivalent album units — used to measure streaming albums — 485,000 of which were pure album sales, according to Billboard. She also has become the first female artist to have 12 tracks on the Billboard Hot 100, surpassing Taylor Swift’s previously held record of 11.
That’s right: Every single track on Beyoncé’s new record debuted on the top 100. There are only 88 other tracks on the entire list.
NBC News op-ed writer Katerina Sardi wrote that Beyoncé “reigned over us once again by dropping an entire visual album without a single ounce of marketing.” But that might not exactly be true. After all, if “not-marketing” manages to sell an album, does that become “marketing”?
For Beyoncé, this album’s release is a bit of an encore. In 2013, she dropped her eponymous album in much the same way — it appeared, as if by magic, one day with videos to accompany it. (This record release showed an evolution in the video sphere — the short film from HBO will be submitted for Emmys).
On that record, the idea of Beyoncé as artist dominated the conversation — for the first time, she was singing about potentially racy material, including fairly explicit lyrics about sex, as Pitchfork explained in its review. This time, though, the media focused on Beyoncé not as a pop star or persona but as a real person — was Beyoncé, the person, cheated on by Jay Z, the person?
Many think it’s a marketing trick.
“Yes, critics are assuming the album is all about an unfaithful Jay Z. I don’t believe it. Beyoncé is tweaking your pop culture, tabloid-fueled expectations,” wrote BET.com entertainment editor Clay Cane for CNN.
“They’re marketing masters. They’re pros at this. The more attention, the more they sell, the better. All that speculation is to get press when they need it,” an anonymous source told Page Six. “As long as people are talking, they don’t care.”
Whether or not the rumors are true, one thing is certain: People are both consuming and discussing the album.
Which may be exactly what British rock giants Radiohead are going for at this very moment — getting people to talk.
The band, which boasts a substantial social media presence — 1.59 million Twitter followers, almost 12 million Facebook followers and 61.8 thousand (and rapidly growing) Instagram followers — has been following the instructions of one of its songs, “How to Disappear Completely.” Online, at least. On Sunday, the band’s website (Radiohead.com) gradually faded to the blank page it is now, while all of its social media posts vanished.
As the band faded out, though, it also sent out leaflets to various UK fans. They were covered in cryptic messages like “Sing a song of sixpence that goes/Burn the Witch/We know where you live,” Pitchfork reported.
They remained that way until early Tuesday morning, when the band posted the following teaser video on its Instagram page and linked to it on every other platform.
Yes, it’s a bird tweeting. And … that’s it. Until 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, when it added a video of stop-motion men in masks surrounding a damsel in distress. Within 30 minutes, the band’s Instagram had gained 10,000 followers.
And look at Twitter.
I'm expecting a new Radiohead album by the end of this week
— TheOddHatman (@NicolajHatman) May 3, 2016
I can feel the Radiohead monster machine warming up….
Getting very excited
— Geoff Barrow (@jetfury) April 30, 2016
Even people who claim not to care about the band, which hasn’t released an album since 2011, are talking about it.
I have exactly zero feelings about Radiohead and I am here to let you know that is totally ok
— jes skolnik (@modernistwitch) May 2, 2016
radiohead is the most overrated band in all music ever
— libby watson (@libbycwatson) May 2, 2016
Much like Beyoncé, Radiohead has proven its business savvy in the past.
In 2007, the band released the industry’s first major “pay what you want” record. The model has become increasingly common, as artists like Louis C.K. directly sell their own albums and videos through their personal websites, CNN reported. But in 2007, it was still a fresh idea.
Time reported that about 12,000 albums are released each year, and standing out in the crowd is increasingly important. Radiohead did just that by foregoing a major label, which generally takes care of things like marketing and production. Instead, the band released the album on its website for the low price of … whatever fans wanted. A consumer could pay $1, $1 million or nothing and still get the record.
According to Pitchfork, the gambit paid off. Music Ally, a company focused on digital music data, reported that there were 3 million purchases of the digital record. When the band eventually released an actual CD — remember, this was 2007 — it sold 1.75 million, even though those went for normal retail prices.
To contextualize those numbers a bit, previous Radiohead records, “sold in the hundreds of thousands, not millions,” Pitchfork reported. “So the buzz-building nature of the band’s release plan certainly lit a fire under consumers.”
Marketing experts call this sort of targeted release “windowing.” It’s one of the same tricks Beyoncé used with “Lemonade.”
It refers to the withholding of albums from certain services upon release (like an early release of a film), the Los Angeles Times reported. As distribution of music continues to splinter into several different platforms — iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal — which don’t all include the same content, the opportunity to use “windowing” presents itself.
“Artists like Beyoncé are used to making a splash, and this is the kind of activity that gives them that response,” Joe Rapolla, a music professor at Monmouth University and a former record label executive, told the Los Angeles Times.
Other artists have done the same. Adele and Taylor Swift both withheld their records from Spotify, and Kanye West originally only released his new record “The Life of Pablo” on Tidal. Beyoncé’s last record was an iTunes exclusive.
But windowing doesn’t always work. It has to be brief, and it has to be the consumer’s choice.
“We’ve never really had good windowing in the music industry,” Ted Cohen, managing partner at the digital entertainment consulting firm TAG Strategic in Los Angeles told the Los Angeles Times. “Shorter is better. If it’s held back for more than a few days, people will acquire it anyway.”
And it can fail spectacularly, as evidenced by U2, which took the idea to its extreme. One morning in Oct. 2014, every single person with an iPhone woke to find a new record on their device. It was called “Songs of Innocence,” and it was by U2, and it appeared that not many people actually wanted it, even though it was free. So much so that Bono apologized during a video interview on Facebook.
Beyoncé, though, seems to have figured it out. And Radiohead has certainly generated a lot of buzz around … well, no one is entirely sure what it’s around.
It all leaves the question: What’s next in the music marketing sphere? All we have are theories, but president and founder of PledgeMusic, a music platform, suggested it might be “direct-to-fan?” That refers to creating a product after a fan has asked for it, rather than creating a product in hopes someone will purchase it. In some ways, it’s the opposite of dropping a surprise record and hoping fans will react to it.
“If you have a social media platform or a thousand people on your email list, say to [the fans], ‘We were thinking of making vinyl. Would you like it?’ And if they say ‘yes,’ make it for them,” Rogers told reporters for a Medill blog. “Don’t make it and then say, ‘Would you like to buy?’”
For now, we have surprise records and cryptic tweeting birds.