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How Beyoncé Changed the Music Industry

Credit - Photo-Illustration by TIME; Getty Images (5)

On Friday, Beyoncé will release Cowboy Carter, the much anticipated album that signals the beginning of the second part of a three-act project, following Renaissance, a sparkling celebration of house and dance music. When the country album was announced during Beyoncé’s appearance in a Verizon Super Bowl commercial back in February, accompanied by two country singles, “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages,” it declared a new era for the artist. And it’s one that positions her, rather boldly, in a genre that has been less than welcoming to her. (See, for starters, the reception to a country song included on her 2016 album, Lemonade, and her performance of it alongside the Chicks at the CMAs later that year.) With Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé reinforces a truth that has embodied her career: she defies easy definition.

Over the course of her three-decade career, the musical superstar has challenged industry conventions and superficial assumptions about her art by doing things on her terms—and in doing so, she has changed the way we think about music and the artists who make it. Hallmarks of the world of music as we know it now, like the visual album or rollout methods like the surprise release, Friday release, or a fully digital drop, were pioneered by Beyoncé. If she didn’t invent them, her influence helped to make them industry standard.

Read more: Beyoncé Has Always Been Country

There may be no other artist of her generation who has personified music industry changes quite like Beyoncé, whose career moves have helped to rewrite the playbook for artists. Though many of the changes that have shaped the past decade in music were inevitable, from the decline of radio’s influence amid the rise of streaming to the importance of social media, Beyoncé has remained relevant because of her willingness to evolve alongside them. Her embrace of new ideas and practices have set her apart as a leader in the industry and a veritable trendsetter.

For Rawiya Kameir, a music critic and journalism professor at Syracuse University who teaches a class on the politics of Beyoncé, the superstar’s impact stems from the excellence of her craft and her commitment to her creative vision. To Kameir, Beyoncé’s innovation is an extension of the work she puts in behind the scenes to produce her art, from production to research.

“Not only does she do things her own way, she does things really well. The extent to which she's able to pull this stuff off relies on not just the ideas, but the fact that the execution is still top-notch: the Virgo ethos of it all, her attention to detail, the depths of the research—all of that is really important because you can't pull off these impactful changes without having the art to back it up.”

Beyoncé changes the album release

Like she raps on the 2014 track “Feeling Myself,” there’s no denying that Beyoncé “changed the game with that digital drop.” The biggest example of Beyoncé’s impacts on the business are encapsulated by 2013’s Beyoncé, the pivotal visual album that Kameir calls an “inflection point.” The album was a marked departure from industry norms, from its surprise release with no advance promotion to its early Friday morning drop, which flouted the usual Tuesday album release date convention. (Albums for decades had typically been released on Tuesdays in the U.S. largely because the Billboard charts were published on Wednesday, and because this allowed distributors to get their stock to retailers, who had a week to prepare it for sales ahead of the weekend).

Leaks of physical albums spurred Beyoncé’s decision to initially do a digital-only drop of the album, but the move also foreshadowed the obsolescence of radio and physical copies to come. With a wholly digital drop, Beyoncé had no need to observe a Tuesday release date to accommodate stocking physical copies. Her decision to release the album on Friday was symbolic on multiple levels; first, it showed that she was confident enough in her art to release it later, despite having only four days, as opposed to seven, to accumulate album sales for her first week. Second, having a Friday release meant that all fans, no matter where they lived, got to experience music at the same time (other countries released on different days from Tuesday, which meant that there was a greater chance of pirating and leaks). And finally, a Friday release also felt celebratory—new music on a Friday felt like an invitation for fans to fully let loose, go out and enjoy the album (and themselves) in its totality.

Read more: Everything We Know About Beyoncé’s New Album Cowboy Carter

Her decision more than paid off—Beyoncé debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, still holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling album on iTunes, and has been RIAA certified platinum five times. Other artists, from Drake to Taylor Swift, also turned to the surprise drop in the years following Beyoncé’s self-titled album, finding similar success on the charts. And perhaps most significantly, the record industry made a collective decision in 2015 to release albums worldwide on Fridays, to have more uniform distribution and to crack down on piracy, a decision that almost certainly was spurred by Beyoncé’s release.

“I didn't want to release my music the way I've done it (before). I'm bored with that," Beyoncé said in a statement following the album’s surprise release. "I feel like I'm able to speak directly to my fans. There's so much that gets between the music, the artist and the fans. I felt like I didn't want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it's ready and (for it to be) from me to my fans."

Beyoncé pioneers the visual album

The decision to create a visual album that had to be purchased in full was key to the album’s success. Although there were clear predecessors to visual albums, like Prince’s 1984 film Purple Rain which incorporated all of the songs from the album of the same name, and even Beyoncé’s own 2006 album B’Day which included visuals to accompany every song, her decision to release the album with no singles and no option to purchase songs individually made the album more like a narrative feature and compelled fans to listen to it in full.

“It wasn’t the first time that she had released a video for every song on an album, but so many things happened that year culturally both in terms of technology and politically,” Kameir says. “What made it feel like a particular pivot point was that everything about it was different—the surprise drop, the fact that you could only buy it, you couldn't stream individual songs, the music videos for each song making a built-in narrative. And ever since then, pretty much everything she's done again has felt like an extension of that particular moment.”

Read more: What Beyoncé Gave Us

In the years that followed the release of her self-titled album, Beyoncé released two other visual albums, 2016’s Lemonade and 2020’s Black Is King, while other artists, from Janelle Monaé and Jennifer Lopez to Frank Ocean and Drake, have released high-concept visual albums of their own.

Also integral to the album’s success was Beyoncé’s use of social media to promote the project on the day of its release. She tapped Instagram, then a fairly new app, and Facebook to run ads, bypassing the traditional media interviews that would accompany an album release. While the integration of social media in music marketing was well under way in 2013, Beyoncé’s decision to use social platforms as the primary way of promoting her album was a prescient example of what album promotion would look like in the future.

The wisdom of longevity

Kameir believes Beyoncé’s outsize influence on the music industry is also due to her longevity. Beyoncé’s experience over 30 years has made her uniquely attuned to not only the logistics of the industry, but also its evolution. Beyoncé’s innovative decisions were the result of someone who was carefully observing and studying the changes of an industry she more or less grew up in from the time she was a young girl.

“She was around during the days when radio promotions were super important, but she also is young enough to see the impact of the various digital media, so she has this advantage to respond to or get ahead of trends without losing her own sense of self and control,” Kameir says. “A lot of the innovations that she's made that have taken off aren't just random experiments—they’re part of the legacy of an artist who really believed in the full album experience, during the pre-Internet era. She’s finding ways to tie the things that she cares about as an artist in the industry, to various evolving trends.”

Read more: Beyoncé’s Album of the Year Snub Fits Into the Grammys’ Long History of Overlooking Black Women

Kinitra Brooks, an English professor at Michigan State University who co-edited The Lemonade Reader and the forthcoming The Renaissance Reader, echoes this sentiment. “She spent years paying her dues as a part of Destiny’s Child and she’s been in the business since she was a girl,” Brooks said. “We have to give credit for the longevity of being a veteran in the business. She knows where the pitfalls are and has survived the pitfalls of many of her contemporaries.”

Marrying business and creative decision-making

Brooks points to Beyoncé’s evolution not just as a veteran artist but as an insightful businesswoman, with her business decisions and creative choices working in tandem. She points to moves like starting Parkwood Entertainment, which mostly keeps her business and creative processes in-house, affording her ample creative control when it comes to trying things like the visual album that a label might veto due to cost or deviation from standard practice.

“Beyoncé is a very shrewd businesswoman who’s learned to hire people who keep her business close, who have worked with her for a very long time,” Brooks tells TIME.

She also points to her ability to tap into the zeitgeist and engage with the current discourse. Like Kameir, Brooks says that while some of the industry-shifting practices weren’t created by Beyoncé, the innovation lies within her ability to pinpoint a trend or a moment and amplify it.

Read more: In Her Renaissance Tour Movie, Beyoncé Chooses Freedom Over Perfection

“One of her great talents is being able to see the cultural zeitgeist coming and being able to catch that wave by putting her twist on it in a way that’s interesting,” Brooks says. “A lot of times what Beyoncé does is open up and expose people to new things that they never would have been exposed to and there are politics involved in that because Beyoncé is bringing something to the fore.”

An independent ethos

For Kameir, one of the most impactful ways that Beyoncé has shaped the music industry is the example she’s set for artists to stay true to their creative instincts. “For a lot of artists, she has demonstrated that there is possibility in terms of building a lane for yourself,” says Kameir. “Even though she's very much a product of the major label system, there is a kind of independent ethos to her that I think artists can borrow from and her greatest impact is in demonstrating this potential.”

A throughline of Beyoncé’s career over the years has been reinvention. From girl group member to her stylized Sasha Fierce alter ego to her Renaissance disco queen persona, she’s no stranger to transformation and no friend to easy categorization. (This was amply apparent at the 2023 Grammys, where she was nominated in both the Dance/Electronic and R&B categories.) Brooks points to her current foray into country music with Cowboy Carter, which Beyoncé described on Instagram as being born out of a “deeper dive into the history of Country music” and the Black musical archive, as proof of her dedication to her vision and a rejection of a system that could never imagine an artist like her.

“It’s this idea that, ‘I don’t have to play the game this way,” Brooks says. “Like, ‘Why did I fight so hard to get to the top if I’m not going to change some rules?’”

Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.