We can't stop talking about Beyoncé, but is she selling as much music as we think?

By Lavanya Ramanathan

When Beyoncé squeezed personal drama and innuendo into an unsettling glass of Lemonade last week, it seemed all but certain that the album, Queen B's sixth, would slay its way up the charts, just as her past five albums have.

Oh, it slayed: Look at the streams. The viewership numbers for the "visual album" HBO premiere. Count up the tweets: 4.1 million in the days right after "Lemonade" dropped (no word on how many involved the word "Becky," the alleged side-chick in her relationship with Jay Z).

Beyonce swims underwater in one scene from her Lemonade music video. Photo / HBO
Beyonce swims underwater in one scene from her Lemonade music video. Photo / HBO

But ask if we're actually buying what Beyoncé is throwing down, and the best answer we can come up with is: Yassss, nah and hard to say.

Fans bought nearly 500,000 digital copies of Lemonade last week, enough for the album, and Beyoncé, to snatch the No. 1 position on the Billboard chart.

Every one of the album's 12 songs, from the already viral Formation to the ornery, fuzzed-out rager Don't Hurt Yourself, is also perched somewhere on Billboard's hot singles list.

And more than 780,000 people tuned in to HBO to watch Bey, in a marigold-colored Cavalli frock, smile beatifically as she swung a baseball bat like Ty Cobb.

Even the lowly lemon emoji, long the redheaded stepchild of the eggplant and the flamenco-dancer lady, emerged from the Lemonade hype-storm triumphant, spiking from fewer than 50,000 instances in tweets to nearly 500,000 in a single day.

If we're talking about influence, clout and pop-cultural dominance, Bey is the high priestess of the hive and of our Twitter feeds.





But Drake (who is kind of a Becky) is blowing Lemonade out of the water.

Views, the rapper's new album, has already outsold Lemonade in its first week, moving 770,000 copies in just a couple of days. Adele's 25 also trumped "Lemonade" in its first week last year, selling more than 3 million copies, compared with Beyonce's 485,000.

Taylor Swift? She sells more albums, too.

But Queen B's reign is hardly over. Rather, making sense of music-industry numbers has become as complicated as understanding the national debt. The truth is that one of the world's most influential pop stars isn't selling as many records as you think she is.

"Music is being fragmented in several different ways," says Dave Bakula, senior vice president of industry insights for Nielsen Music, which tracks sales and streams data. "If you're not looking at the entire picture, you're going to draw bad conclusions."

Beyonce emerges through a wall of water pouring out of a door way in a still from Beyonce's "Lemonade" video.
Beyonce emerges through a wall of water pouring out of a door way in a still from Beyonce's "Lemonade" video.

Since late 2014, in tallying sales, the industry has been counting streams - users listening to music on-demand on Spotify, Tidal and other services - because the number of people accessing music can far outweigh album sales.

The industry tallies 1,500 streams as a "sale" of an album, calling it "equivalent album sales." It also tabulates the purchase of 10 individual songs on services such as Apple Music as one album, even if many music fans are flocking to buy a single song, such as Formation.

Look at Trap Queen rapper Fetty Wap. He landed at No. 1 on the album charts with just 75,000 albums sold, while streams of his hit (more than 400 million streams on Spotify alone) and his other tracks pretty much carried him across the finish line.

Kanye West's The Life of Pablo is similarly upending the idea that albums have to sell for a musician to have a hit on their hands. (He simply sold tickets, starting at $25, double the price of an album, to a worldwide album release event.)

Confused yet?

So are we.

It was far easier to make sense of sales numbers and influence way back in 2013, when Beyoncé's self-titled fifth record went live on iTunes in the dead of night, its "surprise drop" marketing technique now copied so often that it's a yawn-inducing trope.

Bey's deal with Tidal, owned by hubby Jay Z, also limited the exclusive sales of Lemonade to that service for the first couple of days after the album's release. Photo / NZPA
Bey's deal with Tidal, owned by hubby Jay Z, also limited the exclusive sales of Lemonade to that service for the first couple of days after the album's release. Photo / NZPA

But if you think that orchestrating a ninjalike album release was Beyoncé's biggest coup, you're vastly underestimating the singer.

Her exclusive deal with iTunes for that album also demanded that buyers purchase Beyoncé in its entirety (with videos) for $15.99 a pop, at a time when the iTunes a la carte model had made compost of the whole notion of the album.

The service reported that in its first three days, it had sold 828,773 full copies of Beyoncé - an iTunes record.

Musicians and their labels began throwing the pasta at the metaphorical wall in marketing and selling records.

Jay Z had already cut a deal to distribute Magna Carta Holy Grail through Samsung phones, and some argued that it was a ploy to go platinum at a time when few albums did. And U2 just handed out its album Songs of Innocence like Halloween candy, slipping it into a half-billion iTunes accounts.

That's not sales. But it's ubiquity.

Beyoncé's Lemonade is an album for precisely that new world order. She may even be knowingly leaving some sales on the table. With its accompanying visual album, it's selling for $17.99. Views, the competition, is going for $13.99, like some kind of bargain-bin record. Some listeners and potential buyers might just have tuned in to HBO to watch the film version.

Beyonce in a clip from video for her album Lemonade.
Beyonce in a clip from video for her album Lemonade.

Bey's deal with Tidal, owned by hubby Jay Z, also limited the exclusive sales of Lemonade to that service for the first couple of days after the album's release, and grants Tidal streaming rights in the future.

"You probably have a lot of Beyoncé fans out there that are Spotify subscribers, and they're going, 'Wait a minute, now I have to go to Tidal?' Is that switching some people over? Yeah, probably." But it's just as likely, Nielsen Music's Bakula says, that Bey's exclusivity deal is turning off consumers - for now, anyway.

Even so, Lemonade's success is off the charts in terms of streaming: "When you have 115 million on-demand audio streams in one week, which is a record, by a long shot - that's why we went back and changed the chart," Bakula says. Success is no longer measured in just sales.

For Beyoncé, album sales are just a crumb that somehow fell from the large, lucrative (probably vegan) Beyoncé pie, anyway.

Because there are tour earnings: Nearly 1 million tickets for her Formation summer stadium tour were sold in the week after her Super Bowl appearance in February; currently, nearly three-quarters of the concerts are sold out.

There is whatever deal she cut with HBO to premiere Lemonade on the network, the details of which haven't been revealed.

She unveiled a sizable Topshop athleisure fashion line, Ivy Park, this spring.
Have no doubt: Beyoncé is sipping lemonade all the way to the bank.

"Oh," Bakula says, "she's doing just fine."

- Washington Post

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