How Beyonce changed the face of the music industry with a single word

The word? “Surprise!”

As in: Surprise! because Beyonce just dropped a new album entitled BEYONCE, with no warning, no other obvious marketing, and no singles planned — although every recording was accompanied by a short film.

Only a very select group of people knew that the release was coming, most of whom were involved in either recording it or working on technical and marketing release plans. As a Harvard Business School case study on the release later described, it was “a significant and potentially very risky departure from how music was traditionally released.”

But, that risk paid off brilliantly. Within moments of Beyonce’s announcement, fans and reviewers around the world started buying and experiencing the album — purchasing it exclusively through iTunes to begin with. It quickly shot to number-1, and was the fastest-selling album in iTunes history up to that point.

The album quickly shot to number-1 on both iTunes and Billboard, and was the fastest-selling album in iTunes history up to that point. Even thoguht it was released with only 18 days to go in the year, it became the 10th highest selling album for 2013.

Even though it was released with only 18 days to go in the year, it became the 10th highest selling album for 2013. And, as Anastasia Tsioulcas wrote recently for NPR, it was a move that changed the the power structure in the music industry.

In fact, it established that with 21st century technology, an artist like Beyonce, who had been releasing top-selling solo albums for more than a decade, touring the world for even longer, and had headlined the Super Bowl halftime show earlier that year, no longer needed the machinery of music release.

In one stroke,” as Tsioulcas put it, “Beyonce proved that she didn’t need any of the industry apparatus — not marketing, not promotion, not radio, not magazine interviews, not any of it — to reach her fans or to shape her brand.

It’s funny. I wouldn’t say I’d forgotten about Beyonce’s 2013 album drop, but it was reading Taylor Swift’s interview with Time, when she was named Person of the Year, that made me think about its impact.

Swift went out of her way in the interview to credit Beyonce with being the trailblazer:

“She’s the most precious gem of a person–warm and open and funny. And she’s such a great disrupter of music-industry norms. She taught every artist how to flip the table and challenge archaic business practices.”

Surely, I’m not going to tell you what kind of music you should listen to. But I do think there are huge lessons to reflect on in your business when we think back to Beyonce’s success then — and all that it’s translated into now.

Beyonce has her fans — her Beyhive — many of whom have now grown up with her and not only listen to her music and happily go to her concerts, but also spread the word (back in 2013 and now). Swift has the same thing.

But even if you’re not singing or dancing or putting out albums, I’ll bet your business has its superfans as well.

Especially now, when authenticity is the word of the year, and people and businesses alike are so leery of some of the traditional ways we market our goods and services, maybe it’s time to rely on them to get the word out with whatever your new initiative might be.

It won’t work for everyone. Not everyone can reach that level of stardom even in their own little corner of the world. But if you think hard about your business’s true fans, is there a way you can go directly to them on an authentic, personal, emotional level, and make them feel like insiders that you’re empowering with your risk?

It’s not just about control. It’s about trusting your customers. If you can truly do that, you might have an incredible hit on your hands.