Beyoncé’s surprise album launch last week says so much about the changing media landscape that it’s kind of hard to know where to start. But one thing that stands out to me is the way social media has enabled the music business to revive a business model that looked increasingly moribund: whole album sales.
According to Billboard, Beyoncé’s self-titled album, which is only available for download in its entirety, sold 450,000 units within 24 hours of its release on iTunes Friday night, and close to 850,000 by the end of the weekend, putting it on course to sell one million copies by Monday evening. At $15.99 per album, that makes a tidy sum indeed. Fans will be able to buy individual tracks beginning December 20.
Naturally the unusual approach to launching the album has elicited a great deal of comment: Beyoncé and Columbia dispensed with the usual months-long promotional blitz, with its tired routine of TV appearances, releasing singles, heavy radio rotation, and all that. Instead she just announced the album on Instagram with the single word “Surprise!” and counted on social media to do the rest. Of course this generated plenty of coverage on news Web sites, blogs, and then more “traditional” media like broadcast radio and TV (she also graced fans with a live performance of future single “XO”).
The album itself is very au courant: a complete multimedia product, it includes videos for every song and four bonus videos, making it a “visual album.” But there’s a pleasant irony in the fact that all this digital media innovation is focused on selling a complete album with 14 songs, all (presumably) forming one coherent artistic statement; why, it could be 1973 again.
Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I bought a whole album. Sure, people of a certain age still venerate and celebrate the great albums of the past: the 35th anniversary edition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” generated quite a bit of buzz (and probably a good number of tokes) earlier this year. But more recently it seemed that, in our world of on-demand media consumption, where we are dismayed to find our attention spans challenged by Vine, the album was a thing of the past.
The numbers certainly seemed to suggest as much: from 2004 to 2012, total album sales fell 53% from 667 million to 316 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan and Nielsen BDS, even as total music sales (including singles, music videos, and so on) rose from around 820 million units to 1.66 billion units over the same period.
There’s no question that Beyoncé is atypical: first and foremost, she is Beyoncé, and this, in combination with other factors -- the novelty of the surprise album, a holiday season debut -- probably combined to make her release a success where others might have flopped. But if a million fans are willing to shell out $15.99 for a whole album, rather than waiting six days for individual tracks, maybe there’s life in the long form after all.