Distribution undoubtedly played a pivotal role in The Visual Album’s strong sales, and once, again, it was untraditional. Not only was the album only available at one retailer — iTunes — but it was also bundled. Unbundling is a practice that Apple effectively invented with the iTunes store; it describes to the ability to buy a single song rather than an entire album. A Harvard Business School study in 2010 observed the effect of unbundling on music sales and found that unbundling music led to a 1% increase in music downloading but a 6% decrease in album sales. This is significant for the industry as historically, labels and artists were able to get away with only a couple of good songs on an album – the singles – and a lot of filler, and were able to charge as they pleased for the album as fans would be forced to buy the entire album for just a couple of songs. When Apple launched iTunes in 2003, they negotiated the ability to sell any individual song for $0.99. Of course, CD singles existed before then (remember those?), but if you wanted an “album track,” you had to buy the entire record. It was one of the biggest issues of contention in the licensing negotiations between Steve Jobs and the five (at the time) major labels. Jobs argued that piracy already unbundled the album and insisted on it, and after lengthy deliberations, finally persuaded the major labels to agree. It is a decision that set the precedent for digital download services and changed the entire industry. It created a culture where fans would no longer buy 15 songs to get 3 songs, and so fans would spend $3 rather than $15 to get the songs they wanted. This destroyed the “immersive experience” that Beyonce expresses nostalgia for.
Another factor that likely affected the incredible sales figure is the lack of a leak. It is accepted nowadays that all mainstream albums leak, typically between 3-7 days before release. With only a tiny circle of Sony record executives, Beyonce management, and iTunes employees even knowing about the project until the launch, a leak was highly unlikely. However, news of the album’s impending release eluding the media is nothing short of miraculous, particularly considering the scale of the project and the crew that would’ve been involved in the production of the 17 videos that accompanied the album. If one person had misspoken, the entire campaign would have been ruined, as it was dependant on the surprise element. Keeping the album under wraps until release meant that fans were able to purchase it instantly, avoiding the frustrating scenario of being faced with either missing out on a social zeitgeist or illegally downloading a record that is not yet available for purchase. It is worth noting that another iTunes exclusive and record-breaker, Jay Z’s 2011 collaboration album with Kanye West Watch The Throne, famously avoided a leak before selling 436k first week.