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10 years later, the 'Beyoncé' surprise drop still offers lessons about control

Beyoncé performs during the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2014, at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images
Beyoncé performs during the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2014, at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

Ten years ago today — at midnight on lucky Friday the 13th of December, 2013 — Beyoncé released a surprise, self-titled album, available only on iTunes for $15.99. Beyoncé was a project conceived in secrecy, but nothing about it was small: The album, which had no advance singles or promotion, was released all at once, with arty videos to accompany each of its 14 songs. Fans stayed up much of the night to hear the whole album, thrilled by its unexpected arrival. The appearance of Beyoncé was a cultural event.

Even for an artist as successful as Beyoncé, a surprise album that was only available through a single digital platform, and only available as a full package, was rare in the music industry at that time — a move that felt truly risky — but it paid off instantaneously. After she announced the album's existence on Facebook and Instagram at midnight, Beyoncé immediately went to No. 1 on iTunes in90 countries.

The release of this album, her fifth solo project following an already successful stint leading Destiny's Child, was a huge statement for Beyoncé the artist and Beyoncé the businesswoman. Here was one of the biggest performing stars of the 21st century bluntly announcing her complete control of her art and the method of its distribution.

The gambit worked. Beyoncé wound up selling more than 617,000 copies in its first three days alone, easily soaring to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. In one stroke, Beyoncé proved that she didn't need any of the industry apparatus — not marketing, not promotion, not radio, not magazine interviews, not any of it — to reach her fans or to shape her brand.

Beyoncé wasn't the first major musical artist to sidestep the promotion machine. In 2007, for example, Radiohead had broadened record industry norms — and shocked many in the business — with therelease of its album In Rainbows. The band announced that fans could pay whatever they wanted, up to £99.99, to download the album. Earlier in 2013, bothDavid Bowie andMy Bloody Valentine had also sprung surprise releases on their fans.

There was even an example in Beyoncé's own household from just a few months earlier. In July 2013, her husband, Jay-Z, had released his album Magna Carta... Holy Grail as a free download for Samsung Galaxy users, a few days before it was otherwise available.

But pop music in 2013 operated on very different principles. By the 1970s, the music industry had largely taught consumers to experience recorded music by buying and listening to entire albums. By the time of the downloading and then streaming revolutions, however, pop as a genre was cycling back toward a 1950s and early '60s model. Singles again ruled the day, both artistically and economically: Fans could just download a single song for 99 cents apiece, or just stream it as part of a monthly subscription service. Forget about having to skip less appealing tracks — you didn't have to bother with them at all, and you certainly didn't have to pay for the ones you didn't like.

In a video about the making of Beyoncé — naturally enough, released by thesinger herself — she talked about that split. "Now, people only listen to a few seconds of the song on their iPods," she observed back then. "They don't really invest in a whole album. It's all about the single, and the hype. There's so much that gets between the music and the artist and the fans. I felt like, 'I don't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it's ready — and from me, to my fans.' I wanted to make this body of work. And I feel like that's something that's lost in pop music."

Beyoncé was instrumental in upending the well-worn ways a pop project was released at that time. Pop still relied on advance singles, promotional pushes and traditional teases. In the old days of 2013, her label, Columbia Records, would also reasonably have had concerns that the still-extant sellers of CDs and vinyl, including such heavy big-box hitters as Walmart and Target, might well be angered that they were being totally cut out of the Beyoncé-to-adoring-fanspipeline at a time when sales of physical CDs and LPs still made up more than 30% of the market, according to theRIAA. (After Beyoncé's splashy online debut, Columbia eventually released physical versions of the album and made it available via other digital providers.)

There's a fascinating 2014 case study of Beyoncé published by Harvard Business School, written by professor Anita Elberse and then-MBA student Stacie Smith, and titled — what else? — simply"Beyoncé." Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, the then-general manager of the singer's company, Parkwood, explained to Elberse and Smith that Queen Bey had a three-fold strategy behind the surprise digital drop of Beyoncé: She wanted to drop the complete album at once, she wanted to dodge any leaks and she wanted to make a video to accompany each song.

By that point, Beyoncé was no stranger to leaks: Materials from two of her previous solo albums, Dangerously in Love and 4, had found their way online illegally before the projects' release dates. And earlier in 2013, fellow pop stars like Katy Perry and Kanye West had already experienced the disappointment of seeing their music leak online. Moreover, as Parkwood's then-head of worldwide marketing, Jim Sabey, explained to Elberse and Smith: "She did not want her album judged off of one three-and-a-half-minute song. She wanted it to be seen as a complete body of work." In other words, she wanted her fans to experience her work — both artistically and economically — as an album. And she managed to prevent any leaks at all.

Because of the way Beyoncé released this album as one whole concept — and with videos accompanying every single song — she also left it to her fans to decide which tracks were important to them and what they liked best. Every time a record label releases a single from an artist or a band before a whole record drops, for example, they are pretty much putting a neon arrow on certain songs and decreeing, "This is what you want to listen to." Instead, Beyoncé was telling her fans, "You listen. You decide." Certain songs, like "Drunk in Love" and "XO," emerged as fan favorites, but they weren't preordained.

Similarly, Beyoncé had its own word-of-mouth promotion, 2013 style. Upon the album's midnight release, fans and critics alike stayed up well beyond the wee hours to hear it in full, and raced to be among the first to announce their opinions online. On social media, the (unpaid) Beyhive was enthusiastically doing what might formerly have been under the purview of a small army of (paid) industry insiders.

The success of Beyoncé helped carve a new path, at least for certain megawatt pop stars. In the wake of Beyoncé, artists including U2, Frank Ocean and Rihanna also surprised fans with new material. (Lesser-known musicians don't have that leeway: if nobody knows who you are, and you drop a surprise album, who's going to care?)

Perhaps most notably, in July 2020, Taylor Swift dropped Folklore — which, like Beyoncé, was a complete album — withless than 24 hours' notice; less than five months later, Swift dropped asecond surprise album, Evermore.

Just last week, when Swift was named Time magazine's person of the year, she talked about how much of an influence Beyoncé has been on her and others. Swift said that Beyoncé "taught every artist how to flip the table and challenge archaic business practices."

Now, a decade after Beyoncé — and in the wake of Taylor Swift's sister albums — the surprise drop has become much less of a surprise, but that doesn't mean that Queen Bey hasn't kept it in her arsenal. Earlier this month, she released a new single, "My House," without warning. More notable was how Beyoncé released her statement album Lemonade in 2016 — again as a surprise, and again with full visual complements — almost as if she was daring the public to treat the success of Beyoncé as a fluke. With that album, she took her signature mix of art and commerce even one step further: Lemonade was initially available only on the digital platform she co-owned, Tidal Music.

Beyoncé still wields an enormous and unusual power: In our hyper-fractured pop-culture universe of today, she has trained her fans to turn to her as a collective at certain points in time. The decade anniversary of Beyoncé was greeted with much speculation: Would she release new merch on Wednesday? New visuals? A new vinyl edition?

In the end, she released a reflective video marking the 10th anniversary, which includes a brief clip of her collaboration with Nicki Minaj on the song "Feeling Myself." "Know where you was when that digital popped?" she sings out triumphantly. "I stopped the world!" Yes, she did.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.