A week ago, Toronto songwriter and producer Noah "40" Shebib was mixing and mastering "Mine" when Beyoncé's people called to demand the finished song immediately. "They were pressuring me: 'We need this mix. We got to get it done. ASAP, ASAP!'" recalls the longtime Drake collaborator. "I fight some people sometimes: 'Don't give me the pressure. You're going to get it. Everybody will be OK. Relax.'
"And sure enough, they weren't joking," says Shebib, by phone from his studio. "My manager called me last night, 'It's out! Beyoncé!' We're all just pulling out iTunes."
The 14 songs and 17 videos that make up Beyoncé, the superstar's anticipated new album, landed on iTunes last night with almost no marketing or fanfare other than a press release and a banner at the top of the digital-music store. The "visual album" blew up on Twitter and Facebook and, according to Billboard, sold 80,000 copies in three hours. Although stars from Justin Timberlake to David Bowie have announced surprise releases all year, none have dropped new albums on the spot, as Beyoncé did.
"Many other artists who aren't of Beyoncé's stature would not have been able to get this done and move it through the system this quickly," says Syd Schwartz, a former EMI Music executive who now runs the independent marketing firm Linchpin Digital. "She obviously had to bypass a lot of the standard mechanisms to make this work."
Beyoncé's album came out exclusively via iTunes, so she could work with Apple employees to maintain secrecy and not have to negotiate in advance with Amazon, Target and others. "The hard part is keeping it a secret, when you're Beyoncé's size," Schwartz says. "A very small number of people in her inner circle must have known about this."
"I had no clue it was coming," adds Caroline Polachek of Chairlift, who wrote and produced "Angel." "I never heard the final version till last night."
Beyoncé recorded the album throughout the summer with a series of super-hot songwriters and producers, including Justin Timberlake, Sia, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, Frank Ocean, Miguel and The-Dream. Shebib and Drake worked with her at a New York studio for two days, honing the three distinct parts of the jittery, spacey "Mine." At the time, all Shebib knew about the album release was that Beyoncé hoped to get it out by Christmas.
"It was brilliant. You spend no marketing dollars, essentially. To hold that together and not let that out of the bag is very, very impressive. It's not easy to do," Shebib says. "Everybody was surprised. Everybody. It wasn't just the fans."
Additional reporting by David Marchese