When you’re a superstar, doing anything in secret is no easy feat.
No one would know that better than singer/entertainer/icon Beyoncé, who wrote, produced, and released her long-awaited, eponymous fifth album without so much as a tweet before its December 2013 launch. The album has since gone multi-platinum and is up for album of the year, among several other awards, at this year’s Grammys on Sunday, Feb. 8. While fans have reveled in the immersive work, industry experts have wondered something else entirely: Why would Beyoncé release the album in secret? And how could she pull it off so successfully?
Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, an expert in the mechanics of blockbusters and the entertainment industry, did more than just wonder. She decided to write a case about it. With the help of Beyoncé’s company, Parkwood Entertainment, Elberse chronicled the elaborate network of decisions and strategy it took to implement Beyoncé’s artistic vision and marry it with the high expectations of loyal fans and the commercial demands of a big music label. The result is a fascinating look into a one-of-a-kind event with a singularly powerful superstar that could reinvent the way the music industry operates.
Elberse, the School’s Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration, sat down to talk about her Beyoncé experience.
The subject matter has undeniable appeal. But what made you think this would make a good case?
Anita Elberse: The launch seemed to fly in the face of theories we have about how entertainment products are traditionally released. Usually when you have a big, costly album, you try to maximize the chances of success by doing most or all of your marketing activities, including launching singles and staging big promotional events, before the album is available to make sure everyone knows about it. But then Beyoncé comes along and seemingly does nothing promotional in that crucial pre-release window, and surprises all of us with an album full of songs—and an even longer list of music videos. That’s a very different type of release strategy, and the first of its kind. I thought it would be really interesting to talk with the students about why and how a strategy that is seemingly so very different can work.
Was this an artistic decision first? Or was this release only made possible by the unique technology (iTunes, Facebook) at Beyoncé and Parkwood’s disposal?
AE: I do think it was driven largely by artistic reasons early on, which makes it a very gutsy, very courageous endeavor. The case describes three criteria that Beyoncé set: to launch all the songs at once as a full album, to avoid any leaks, and to make it a visual album where every song has a video. The Parkwood Entertainment executives were tasked with figuring out how to make such a release a reality. Beyoncé is one of a very select group of superstars who could say “I’m doing it my way,” turn the conventional model on its head, and get Facebook and Apple to help her make sure the whole world knows about this album and that the release goes off without a hitch.
"BEYONCÉ IS ONE OF A VERY SELECT GROUP OF SUPERSTARS WHO COULD SAY 'I'M DOING IT MY WAY,' AND TURN THE CONVENTIONAL MODEL ON ITS HEAD..."
Did the case change your perceptions about marketing an album?
AE: Oh, of course. I learned a ton. I had never considered all the things that came into play. For instance, how do you prepare for the physical launch without notifying anyone in the world that you’re trying to get a physical album out shortly after the digital album’s debut in the iTunes Store? The team at Parkwood had the album available within 72 hours and was able to ship it to stores the next week, without any leaks. They did in a few days what normally takes months. Just imagine all the coordination and preparation that went into that feat – I thought it was just magnificent work.
What role does Parkwood Entertainment play here? If Beyoncé had the same brand but didn’t have her own agency, could she have done this?
AE: Sony Music’s label Columbia Records helped make the launch possible, but the Parkwood employees deserve a lot of the credit here. I find the notion of superstars having their own companies so interesting, and I’ve looked at this phenomenon in a few other cases as well, but Parkwood certainly is one of the most professional and comprehensive firms in this space. Beyoncé has built a serious business. I think it’s difficult to envision a traditional, large label pulling of this kind of launch and keeping it all a secret—there would have been so many more people involved, and the chances for a leak would have been so much higher.
What’s it like to study art in a business context like this? What’s it like to teach the economics of art?
AE: Well, it’s really cool—I’m having a lot of fun. Being able to study someone like Beyoncé, who is not just one of the greatest musical talents in the world, but also a fierce businesswoman, is just fascinating. And I find it just as interesting to understand the magic behind the scenes, with people such as Parkwood’s general manager Lee Anne Callahan-Longo and its head of worldwide marketing Jim Sabey. I have learned a great deal from them about what it takes to succeed in entertainment, and I try to pass that on to my students.
Are there unique challenges to teaching subject matter that is “cool”?
AE: I think the biggest challenge is that because my case subjects are so popular, everyone knows what happened. Almost everyone on the planet knows that Beyoncé’s album was a great success. So students may be a bit biased in their thinking. For instance, they may underestimate how hard it must have been or how much uncertainty there was in doing a release strategy like this. But I really like the energy that exists in the classroom when I teach cases about topics that so many students love, and there’s always the off chance that some of Beyoncé’s swag will rub off on me, so I am not complaining!