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Jim Sabey is enthusing about his recent trial of Facebook-owned Oculus Rift’s virtual reality headsets. “It’s fascinating. They showed us a concert, skateboarding, a person jogging. It’s amazing how quickly innovation is coming our way. It’s really cool.” The marketing man was in Silicon Valley to explore new opportunities for the “brand” to which he dedicates his working life.
The 42-year-old is worldwide marketing manager at Parkwood Entertainment, which employs 20 people in New York, including a full-time archivist. President and chief executive is Beyoncé Knowles – better known as Beyoncé, or “Queen Bey”, the R&B star. Mr Sabey’s job is to maximise the brand’s commercial reach while ensuring its integrity. Or in normal parlance, boost the megastar’s profile and profits.
Mr Sabey is professionally discreet. Despite being disoriented by jet-lag due to two return trips between Europe (London and Paris) and New York within a few days, Mr Sabey is tight-lipped on gossip. (Asked if Beyoncé is pregnant: “Oh gosh, I have no idea.”) He is of course garrulous about his paymaster’s virtues.
Most corporations have knocked on Beyoncé’s door. The singer – a cover star of Time Magazine’s 2014, 100 most influential people list – has significant sway. At the end of last year her self-titled album, released in a shroud of secrecy (more on that later), helped launch Facebook’s AutoPlay, making it possible for videos to be played automatically in users’ newsfeeds. “Beyoncé’s aware of the amplification value she can have for new technologies. We can help those companies launch their new products”, says Mr Sabey. He denies there is a virtual reality deal in the works.
The tie-ups between big names and technology companies are sweeping aside traditional sponsorship models and music launches. Take U2’s giveaway of its new album Songs of Innocence, loaded directly on to the library of 500m iTunes subscribers and announced at the unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone 6.
The pace of technological change is giddying and demands innovative partnerships, Mr Sabey says. “Marketing is moving to a relationship business. We’ve worked with some of the biggest corporate titans in America – sponsorship programmes are a very viable aspect of our business, but these huge organisations haven’t quite figured out they’re in a relationship with their customers and the days of push messaging just doesn’t work.”
Beyonce’s innovation – in business, rather than music – is explored in a new study by Harvard Business School, published next week. Co-author Anita Elberse, a professor of business administration, says she wanted to look at the business rationale: “I have been impressed with Beyoncé’s career trajectory and Parkwood’s role in her rise to the very top.” The case study scrutinises the work that went into her fifth album released last December via iTunes with no promotion, which the authors describe as “a significant, and potentially very risky, departure from how music was traditionally released”.
One-and-a-half years in the making, it was expensive because of the videos accompanying each song. Typically singles are released in advance of an album alongside a marketing juggernautof interviews and television performances.
It is Beyoncé’s attitude to risk that Mr Sabey admires. He mentions it many times in the course of our interview, in central London, in a white meeting room spruced up by a massive vase of white roses and lilies. “She embraces jumping off the cliff. We all hold hands together and jump right off.” Which might not appeal to everyone.
Only a handful of people knew about the album. Albums by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry had leaked before their release dates – so they knew the secrecy could easily unravel. Rumours circulated in the press about a new LP. “We were all sleepless, anxiety ridden. We didn’t have a back-up plan. We really didn’t,” he says. What attracted Beyoncé to releasing the album on Apple’s iTunes, ahead of pressing CDs, says Mr Sabey, was not just because it is the world’s largest music retailer but because “their corporate culture is shrouded in secrecy”.
Mr Sabey has worked with Beyoncé since her early days in the girl band Destiny’s Child, then managed by her father, Matthew Knowles, who was an executive at Xerox. “He was very intuitive and driven and understood where he wanted to go and how to help his artist get there.” He has a reputation of being controlling – did that create a problem? “I never experienced that.”
Originally from Seattle, Mr Sabey studied international business at Georgetown University before moving to New York and landing a job in reception in Columbia Records, working his way up in the international department. There he would take established American musicians and try to expand their business overseas. “The likes of Celine Dion and Mariah Carey started happening in the early 1990s. What became obvious was you had to go and compete as a local in every single individual market. I remember the first Destiny’s Child promo back in 1997. We went on 14 trips to Europe.”
In 2007 he left Columbia to help rebrand Mariah Carey, before joining Beyoncé’s management company in early 2011.
“When I started talking to Beyoncé about what she wanted to accomplish with the next 10, 15 years of her career it was inspiring. At the time she was 31 years old, but she [was] 16 years in the game. She has such a solid understanding of her own brand.”
Does he not feel squeamish describing musicians as brands, rather than artists? “I don’t think any person sets out to be a brand, but you mean something to people. It’s the reason people connect with artists. They speak to them.”
Simplicity is key. “The market is so incredibly cluttered. I don’t care if you’re in financial services or music, if your message isn’t crystal clear you go awry.”
The singer is keen to exploit technology, forging direct relationships with fans. “There [used to be] a pipeline that existed in the entertainment industry that created a network of gatekeepers. That no longer exists.” By nature, Beyoncé is a private person, he claims. Instagram and Facebook images of private moments with her husband, hip-hop star Jay-Z (real name, Shawn Carter) and daughter Blue Ivy, are carefully curated.
Mr and Mrs Carter keep their businesses very separate, Mr Sabey insists. While Parkwood Entertainment and Roc Nation (Jay-Z’s company) are just across the road from each other in New York, their recent tour was the first time the pair had worked so closely, he says. “Melding two very different systems is always complicated.”
Magazines, gossip websites, social media are abuzz with news about Beyoncé. Does the marketing team contribute to it? “We don’t . . . but the machine has got so voluminous over the past 10 years. It’s just exploded. You spend a lot of time watching the media report on the media. It’s quite funny with what they’ll come up with.”
After U2’s decision to give their album away to Apple customers, could Beyoncé do the same? “I never like to see anything free,” Mr Sabey says. “We’ve never played the pricing game. There’s a misconception that recorded music sales are not an important piece of the mix of any artist business. They’re still really important.”