The music industry is dead. Long live the music industry.
Since the days of Napster, artists and their record labels have been trying to figure out how to make money in an era where songs are leaked, illegally downloaded or sold to streaming services for a fraction of the typical e-tail price. But despite some interesting strategies from musicians, it wasn't until Beyoncé released her surprise album last week that everything seemed to change.
Back in 2008, Radiohead famously had fans pay as much as they wanted for the band's album. Yet with no real new model for the industry, even superstars like Lady Gaga and Britney Spears have seen disappointing album sales in 2013.
Enter Beyoncé, whose self-titled "visual" album (including 17 music videos) seemed to come out of nowhere: no promotional buildup, no singles, all available to watch instantly. (We assume
What the public may not realize, however, is that the model Bey employed has actually existed for a while: Artists only had to look to Netflix.
Netflix has dominated the streaming market by learning from consumers and giving them what they want. Bey's new release shows what the music industry can learn from Netflix, and how it might revolutionize the business.
Netflix has succeeded because it fosters the idea of TV binge-watching, releasing entire series like "House of Cards" at once so viewers can consume an entire season of programming in just one or a few sittings, if they please. Turns out, people love bingeing: A recent study shows that 76 percent of subscribers perceive binge-watching as "a welcome refuge from their busy lives."
What artists apparently hadn't considered — until Beyoncé — is that bingeing doesn't have to be limited to television shows, and can extend to music videos. The Queen B essentially gave fans what they crave in this new age: access and choice. Music, like TV series, can offer the same refuge as Netflix.
No Single? No Problem
Netflix's strategy with shows like "Orange Is the New Black" is that, while episodes matter, it's the series as a whole that people want. Whereas networks can only drive viewers to watch an episode at a time, Netflix believes consumers should have the right to watch whatever they choose whenever they want. For a network, the 22-episode a season model involves a months-long rollout and business-sustaining advertising buys.
Artists still almost universally drop singles to promote upcoming albums, but Beyoncé defied that. And just as Netflix emphasized series over episodes, Beyoncé has emphasized album over songs. Without forcing specific songs down listener's eardrums, this too gives consumers a power and choice they don't normally have with music releases.
No Leaks In The Ship
One of the biggest problems for the entertainment industry has been leaks and piracy. With Netflix, subscribers get instant access and quality, and the strategy has worked: The company saw a spike in subscriptions in 2013, showing we would rather pay to watch instantly than download eventually.
In embracing the Netflix model of a wholly digital, instant release, Beyoncé ensured that her project couldn't be leaked (most songs are leaked when they're sent for pressing for the physical CD copy). This might upset fans of the CD, but it's a way for artists to profit in a medium that many in the industry once blamed for destroying their business. According to iTunes, Bey sold more than 800,000 albums worldwide, passing gold certification in a matter of days.
Netflix has also been lauded for its boldly creative series. "House of Cards," "Arrested Development," and "Orange Is the New Black" are like nothing on television, and have garnered critical raves. Since these series aren't judged episode-to-episode but as a whole, creators are more willing to take risks than network and even cable shows, which still have to survive the ratings race from week to week.
Early reviews of Bey's album widely described it as one of the most personal and least pop of her career. The Grammy winner was reportedly "bored" of the traditional singles promotional push. Viewing her album as one big aural experience, she took the focus off of finding a radio-friendly single and made bolder musical choices.
A New Hope
But will innovative strategies like only make the rich richer? Sure, a superstar like Beyoncé sold tons of records this way, but what about lesser-known bands who aren't as entrenched in the pop culture conversation; who don't have fervent fanbases like the BeyHive?
It's worth nothing that even an artist like Beyoncé took a chance with her new album's release. If it bombed, she might have pointed to the lack of advance marketing. But the massive sales should at least make music executives take a closer look at their own strategies. The Netflix approach worked just as well for smaller shows as it has for series that boast A-list stars, like "House of Cards."
Likewise, music execs need to shift their focus from the marketing of their biggest names — which didn't always fare well in 2013 — to the content their artists are putting in the marketplace. In a struggling industry, Beyoncé's shocking new release might be a blueprint for success.
Who better to lead them than the Queen Bey?