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Beyonce Wins Album-Sales Battle, But Will Amazon and Target Win the War?

Beyoncé, Amazon, Target, Walmart

The relationship between Beyoncé’s Beyoncé and commerce offers plenty to keep pundits chattering well into 2014. Yes, of course, there’s the surprise-release model, which will no doubt be emulated by acts who aren’t Beyoncé much like Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want In Rainbows release model was emulated by acts who weren’t Radiohead — probably with diminishing returns. She sold 617,000 copies domestically in the album’s first three days, after all, and is on track for another likely No. 1 this week.

But almost as worthy of untangling will be Beyoncé’s connections to retailers and other brands. Those 617k-plus sales, of course, came through an iTunes exclusive. Reacting to the digital-only release, Target has decided not to carry 2013’s best R&B album. While Amazon didn’t comment to Billboard, the online retailer, too, is being a scrooge about Beyoncé: Unlike Target, Amazon is selling the album in a digital format, but if you want to buy the CD through Amazon, you’ll have to go through third parties on the Amazon marketplace. “This product will not be available in time for December 25 delivery,” Amazon‘s product listing warns.

Clearly, Amazon and Target’s rebellions aren’t hurting Queen Bey’s sales much. And she has turned the situation into a publicity coup: On December 20, Mrs. Carter-Knowles made a surprise appearance at a Walmart in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, buying a copy of her album (Walmart sells it!) and handing out gift cards to shoppers. As Business Insider notes, though, Amazon and Target probably don’t mind losing this battle as long as they win the broader war. The implicit message to the record companies and performers who aren’t Beyoncé: Choose Apple over us, and we will ruin your sales through our stores.

There’s another business aspect here that will also be interesting to see unfold. Justin Timberlake famously promoted The 20/20 Experience’s “Suit & Tie” by placing it in multiple TV commercials. It originally looked like Beyoncé might be going a similar route: We first heard “Grown Woman” in a Pepsi ad, and she teased a since-forgotten song, “Standing on the Sun,” in an H&M commercial. But Beyoncé’s stealth arrival forestalled any similar commercial tie-ins — and frankly part of the thrill of the album’s release was that ability to hear it as a work in itself, without all the extra-musical associations of a full-fledged promotional campaign.

Still, the “Grown Woman” video ended up streaming on Pepsi’s website. And Bey’s visit to Walmart proves she hasn’t suddenly started rejecting all commercial entanglements. What she does to support her new album as it gets a few weeks and months old should be well worth watching.