Beyonce: Winning with scarcity in an all-access world

beyonceIf there is one crucial keyword representing the disruption of the music and radio industries, it is access. When consumers have seemingly unlimited access to music, gatekeepers (labels and radio stations) and legacy products (CDs and radios) lose some of their grip. The usual counterpoint to a noisy all-access world is even noisier marketing of artists and new music. But noise doesn’t counter noise effectively, and album sales continue to drop.

In this cacophony, Beyonce‘s new video album is a startling triple-exercise in product building, reverse marketing, and distribution strategy.

The headline statistic is: 829,000 albums sold on iTunes, the album’s sole outlet, in three days, making the Beyonce album the highest-selling first-week album product in iTunes history.

Other good album performers this year (e.g. Justin Timberlake, Eminem) have achieved their traction through carefully orchestrated streaming previews in iTunes Radio. That strategy leverages the access model to encourage the ownership model, streamlined by the native connection of iTunes Radio to the iTunes download store. Ditching that approach, the announcement of Beyonce was accomplished via a personal Instagram post by the artist, and a trust in viral distribution.

In addition, the novelty of a video album solved one persistent post-CD problem for the music industry, which is lack of product development. Tech companies have carried that ball with online music services, which disrupt the economics of music owners and performers.

All this looks like new clothes on a dead horse to blunt industry pundit Bob Lefsetz, who rages: “At the heart of this Beyonce project is old school thinking. Which is let’s release an ALBUM!” His view of industry backslapping? “What a bunch of hogwash.”

Point taken, given that Beyonce’s maneuver would be an expensive and futile exercise for an artist with less built-up brand leverage. In other words, she is a star, and is merely selling a successful product with some novelties. Still, a viral hit always seems surprising, and feels fresh — perhaps because virality represents the voice of a crowd, not gatekeepers.


Brad Hill