In 2014, the future of journalism is Beyoncé.
Stay with me for a minute.
The pop star announced the arrival of her next, highly anticipated album with a video on Instagram at midnight on a school night. A few short days later, it was certified a number one hit by Billboard and sales soared past the one million mark.
No one saw it coming. No one leaked rumors or songs in advance. And people can’t stop talking about it.
Beyoncé completely upended the conventional model by which major album releases are done by the sheer amount of material that she airdropped simultaneously — more than a dozen new songs and videos.
Her strategy, and its success, could shine a light on what consumers want and what is possible for all content creators, entertainers and publishers alike, in the future. It’s important to note that Bey’s strategy isn’t popular in a commercial sense — brick-and-mortar retailers like Target have promised not to sell her album because it was available digitally before it was made available physically, which feels like an egregious error on their part, given the overall popularity of the album — but it earns points with me for not being afraid to upset the incumbents, to experiment with something new.
Her monumental success with the release may also be an indicator that the direct-to-consumers model, the same one that startups like streaming services VHX and ebooks startups like Emily Books are using, can create increasingly viable and sustainable businesses. Beyoncé’s album is currently only available through iTunes: People had to pay for the content and download it in order to listen to it. And many, including myself, didn’t hesitate to buy it, and those of us who did are not disappointed. The digital-first release didn’t compromise the quality or the originality of the album — it’s one of her best releases to date. The demand is there if the experience is new enough and original enough.
Of course, Beyoncé has millions of followers around the globe. She has a built-in audience for anything she releases. But given the glut of content vying for people’s attention each day, especially in music, it’s interesting to observe the delight and excitement around such an immersive and fresh experience. Her fans weren’t barraged by a series of advertisement and reminders about her coming album for months. They were thrilled by the surprise and can’t get enough of it.
Beyonce’s massive drop completely wiped out anything else in the music and entertainment industry for the rest of the year and probably for part of the new year. It will also likely set off a new trend for artists to think about how they release music and whether or not they have to adhere to the traditional model of distribution.
Jenna Wortham is a technology reporter at The New York Times.