In one weekend, Beyoncé Knowles sold an estimated 600,000 copies of of Beyoncé, her fifth solo album, which at a cost of $15.99 came with 14 songs and 17 music videos. If correct, that sales figure will land her at number one on Billboard's Top 200.
Though all Beyoncé's solo albums have earned that accolade, this time it's a particularly impressive feat. While artists usually release albums on a Tuesday, letting it sell for six days before Billboard makes its list, Beyoncé hit iTunes on Thursday at midnight, giving it about half the usual time.
In addition, she will have broken a personal opening-week record, which she set in 2006 when B'Day sold 541,000 albums in six days.
How did she do it?
To start with, she managed to keep the album a secret, despite shooting 17 music videos that no doubt employed dozens of people. This "showed the marketing value of no marketing," said The New York Times's Ben Sisario:
In fact, she had gone into 2013 with what seemed to be a by-the-book marketing campaign for an imminent album. Late last year she formed a lucrative global partnership with Pepsi, and in February sang at the Super Bowl halftime show and had an HBO documentary. She even embarked on a world tour in April, stoking gossip about a possible delay for the record. [The New York Times]
"Surprise is a great way of getting people out of their stingy mindset," he wrote. "I like Beyoncé, but she's not my very favorite artist. There's probably something else I could have done with the $15 I dropped on this. But because the availability of the album was a surprise, it became an impulse purchase."
Other artists have experimented with the surprise strategy. In 2007, Radiohead released the album In Rainbows with just ten days of press; in 2011, they dropped King of Limbs with five days' warning. Both proved successful. Then in January of this year, David Bowie released "Where Are We Now," the first single off his newest album The Next Day, by simply posting it on his website.
Beyoncé, however, is the first to release an entire album with no warning, which some are saying has upended the traditional model.
But while upending tradition, Beyoncé also reverted to it by refusing to release the songs a la carte. To enjoy Beyoncé now, fans have to put a ring on it, so to speak, and buy the entire album with the videos. The album is not yet on Spotify or Rdio, and individual songs will not go on sale until next week.
"That decision may have also helped sell more full albums — a far more profitable product for Beyoncé and Columbia," says The New York Times. "To prevent leaks, Columbia waited until after the exclusive iTunes release to manufacture the CD-DVD version of the album, which 'will be available at retail in time for the holidays,' according to the company."
At the end of the day, Beyoncé's best marketing strategy was being Beyoncé. That the album itself is a critical hit without a clear single is yet another way in which it upends tradition.
As CBS Radio VP or urban programming Reggie Rouse told Billboard, "Beyoncé is bigger than a single. Beyoncé has created a movement."