An upbeat debut single ready for radio. An album title and release date with plenty of notice. A magazine cover story, followed by a personal mission statement, new social media account, detailed track list, and presale merchandise.
For most musicians, these are age-old chips in the playbook for the introduction of a major new album. But for Beyoncé, who has spent the past decade-plus upending all conventions of how to market music, the rollout of “Renaissance,” her latest album due out Friday, is a stark change — and perhaps a tacit recognition that the game has changed.
Before “Renaissance,” Beyoncé’s seventh solo studio album, the last time the singer took part in such small, industry-standard steps, with “4” in 2011, President Barack Obama was still in his first term. and a European music startup called Spotify had just arrived in the United States. Since then, there hasn’t been much to the new music sales formula that Beyoncé hasn’t tweaked, disrupted, or completely dismantled.
First there was “Beyoncé,” the surprising paradigm-shifting “visual album” of 2013. Then came “Lemonade” (2016), a hint-packed tour de force that arrived with more mystery as a movie on cable TV. By partnering closely with Tidal, the streaming service then controlled by her husband, Jay-Z, and with media giants like HBO, Disney and Netflix, Beyoncé positioned one ambitious multimedia project after another as something to seek and consider carefully, rather than served for easy access and maximum consumption.
This work, and the innovative way in which she published it, helped Beyoncé soar in artistic stature. Yet it also served to distance the singer somewhat from the pop music mainstream, siloing her material — the ‘Lemonade’ album didn’t become widely available on major streaming platforms until three years after its initial release. , while its full movie is currently only available on Tidal – and potentially crippling its commercial performance.
Beyoncé’s last No. 1 single as a lead artist, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, was released in late 2008. Despite her 28 Grammy Awards making her the highest-earning woman in music, she didn’t win a trophy. in a major category since 2010. Radio airplay of his new solo releases has dropped significantly since “4”. And while his six solo albums all went to No. 1, in-between projects like “Everything Is Love” (a surprise joint album with Jay-Z), the “Lion King” soundtrack and his concert album “Homecoming ” have each failed to reach the top.
Yet Beyoncé’s paradox has meant that while she’s slipped down the charts somewhat, her wider cultural prestige has remained supreme, driven by the mystique and grandeur she brings to every project. (“My success can’t be quantified,” she rapped on “Nice,” from 2018, poking fun at the importance of “streaming numbers.”)
“She’s still the culture leader, regardless of relatively minor data points in her world like album sales and radio airplay,” said Danyel Smith, veteran music journalist and author of the recent “Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop.
“There are people who exist in this world to change the culture, to change the mood,” she said in an interview. “It matters to a certain extent, singles, albums or radio, but what really matters is that they make us look in a new direction.”
From the start, however, the rollout of “Renaissance” has been different – more transparent, more conventional. Described by Beyoncé, 40, in an Instagram post last month as “a place to be free from perfectionism and overthinking,” the album is positioned to drive mass consumer awareness and fan excitement, with four different box sets and a limited edition vinyl version. having already sold on the site of the singer.
“She and her representation recognize that things have changed since the release of her last album, and she needs to press through the full court,” said Rob Jonas, chief executive of Luminate, the music data service behind the releases. Billboard charts.
A major risk of the old-fashioned release strategy — which requires physical copies of the album to be produced well in advance — came to fruition on Wednesday, when “Renaissance” appeared to leak entirely online. Social media fan accounts speculated that the first unofficial version could come from CDs sold prematurely in Europe.
Immediately, Beyoncé’s notorious protective base, known as BeyHive, sprang into action, seeking to discourage early listeners and band together to report those who were spreading the bootleg.
While early releases of major albums were common as the CD era gave way to digital downloads and could devastate prospects for a new album, a crackdown on digital piracy and the shift to a streaming – as well as surprise releases like Beyoncé’s – have greatly reduced this threat.
The last time Beyoncé suffered a major leak was with “4” in 2011, when she told listeners, “While that’s not how I wanted to present my new songs, I appreciate the positive response from my fans.” (Representatives for Beyoncé and her record label declined to comment on her release strategy and did not immediately respond to questions about the leak.)
Behind the scenes, the luxury of advance notice and — hallelujah! – a promotional debut single can give industry gatekeepers, like radio stations and streaming services, the run-up to get involved before an album is released.
“Having anything before the drop is a gift,” said Michael Martin, senior vice president of programming at Audacy, which operates more than 230 radio stations across the country. “When you have time to prepare, you can be a better marketing partner with the artist, label, and management. You can have everything ready to release by the time the project hits the ecosystem. That’s what you want. You don’t want to rush.
“Break My Soul,” a throwback to 1990s dance music and the lead single from “Renaissance,” was released over a month ago. With 57 million streams and 61,000 radio plays in the US, according to Luminate, the song currently sits at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 – its peak so far and only the third time Beyoncé has reached the Top 10 in the UK. course of the last decade. as the main artist. (His last two chart toppers came as guest appearances: “Perfect Duet” with Ed Sheeran, in 2017, and “Savage Remix” with Megan Thee Stallion, in 2020.)
Yet, as with most things Beyoncé, the commercial and the artistic can work hand in hand. Smith said preparations for the release of “Renaissance” matched his teased vintage touchstones – for example, the careful attention paid to the album’s elaborate vinyl packaging, which has once again become a staple of pop releases. in a big tent.
“Once I realized that Beyoncé was stepping back a bit, musically and artistically, with her sound and hints, then the rollout started to make sense to me,” Smith said. “It’s all very meta.”
Another key recent development is Beyoncé’s arrival on TikTok, the home of small, shareable videos that has been one of the most reliable engines of musical success for at least three years now, as well as a go-to platform for young stars. like Lizzo and Cardi B.
This month, Beyoncé’s official account posted her first TikToks — a montage of fans including Cardi dancing to ‘Break My Soul,’ followed by the vinyl artwork reveal for ‘Renaissance’ — and the singer recently made its entire catalog of music available to tag user-generated videos on the platform.
The short videos drive “massive awareness and downstream consumption,” said Jonas of Luminate. “We have a clear line of sight on that.” Even before her participation, Beyoncé songs like “Savage Remix” and “Yoncé” were thriving on TikTok.
Whether or not the straight release of “Renaissance” represents a return to total pop dominance for Beyoncé, there’s always a chance she has more moves to make. The album, after all, was teased by the singer as “Act I”, indicating that it might just be a piece of a larger project.
“It all feels a little too much like she’s following the rules right now,” Jonas said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a twist that we’re not yet aware of.”
Part of Beyoncé’s cultural mastery, Smith said, has included the ability to make herself rare at times and then be the center of everything again whenever she wants. “At this point, she’s allowing the air for others, but it’s on her own terms, however she sees fit,” Smith said. “Her overall impact – how she moves, what she wears – is unmatched.”
She added: “I believe that if Beyoncé woke up and decided, at the age of 42, 45 or 50, that she wanted to rule the culture through all the data points and impact then she could — like Cher before her, like Tina Turner before her — really without breaking a sweat.