How Beyoncé created an empire

In an extract from her new book, Tshepo Mokoena lays out how Beyoncé took control of her business, rewriting music industry history in the process.

by Tshepo Mokoena
10 November 2021, 11:36am

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a music industry anomaly. 18 years after “Crazy in Love” dropped, pulling the rug out from under the pop world’s feet, she’s now formed a new blueprint for success, one that prioritises creative and economic autonomy. In her new book, part of a series entitled Lives of Musicians, writer Tshepo Mokoena charts Beyoncé’s rise from a child raised in Houston to a stadium sell-out, giving us an insider-slash-superfan’s insight into how pivotal each part was in making the star we see today. 

She is an artist, actor, philanthropist, and the CEO of Parkwood Entertainment, a media conglomerate that all of her creative endeavours -- from the music, to its corresponding movie work, to her fashion deals -- fall under. Here, in a chapter titled Beyoncé Inc., Tshepo gives us a run through of just how Bey did it, and why, if we look back through the history of Black music in America, this was so revolutionary. 

Parkwood Entertainment changed Beyoncé’s career – and life – for good. And for the better, too. The business truly came into its own during the making and rollout of Beyoncé. But Beyoncé had been building it up for years. Since founding Parkwood in her twenties, its purpose grew more clearly defined, its ambitions reaching further towards the sky. 

In not much more than a decade, the company morphed through several iterations. Primarily, it began as a video and film production unit. Feature films Cadillac Records (2008) and Obsessed (2009) fell under its initial purview – although both films were made in collaboration with other production houses. Within a decade, though, Parkwood’s remit would span artist management, TV, apparel, philanthropy, a record label and select outside investments. 

Beyoncé opting to manage her career and dismiss her father firmly jammed Parkwood Entertainment’s flag in the fresh earth of her future. ‘When I decided to manage myself, it was important that I didn’t go to some big management company,’ she said in 2013. ‘I felt like I wanted to follow the footsteps of Madonna and be a powerhouse and have my own empire and show other women when you get to this point in your career you don’t have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success.’ Instead, as she summarized, you get it done yourself. 

At first, Beyoncé had only meant for the company to be a video production arm. Instead, at various stages throughout her solo career, Parkwood – named after a Houston street on which the Knowles family once lived – would reinforce her sense of independence. It granted her multiple streams of creative expression – a rarity for a musician in her position, expected to cede much control to the fame game. Tightly controlling the company’s inner workings allowed her to find a space of her own in the fishbowl of celebrity. She was able to live in some ways like an independent artist, while signed to one of the ‘big three’ major labels. To understand her progression in her thirties, you have to understand Beyoncé Inc.

After moving Parkwood’s headquarters from Houston to a Manhattan office in 2011, Beyoncé sketched out her rise from performer to chairwoman. Just a couple of years into running her business, she reflected on the notion of ownership. ‘Now I’m controlling my content, controlling my brand and archiving it for my daughter,’ she began. ‘You see Puffy [rapper and entrepreneur Sean Combs], and you see my husband and you see these male artists that become moguls, and the female artists might become legends, but there’s not enough of us that become moguls.’ This concept, of trying to own the means of production rather than solely turn up and perform, would nudge her along. The goal: mogul status.

To achieve it, she brought on a team of assistants, executives and digital media experts who helped her redefine her place in pop culture. Her publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, and A&R lead, Teresa LaBarbera Whites, had been with Beyoncé (and Destiny’s Child) from the very beginning. She slotted them into prominent roles at Parkwood. She also brought in visual director Ed Burke – often marvelled at by journalists as the person solely responsible for filming and documenting hours of her life. Creative directors, a general manager, a brand manager; all found themselves among the core group that would come to delight fans and fascinate many a music business commentator.

You can demarcate this as a time when Beyoncé transitioned from a symbol, or product in the marketplace, to the distributor of a variety of ideas and investments. At this time, many other Black American musicians were toying with novel ways to express themselves. It couldn’t all be writing, recording, promoting, touring, in an infinite loop. No – artists from rappers Tyler, The Creator and Donald Glover to funk genre-bender Janelle Monáe also spent the 2010s pushing back against the constraints of what a musician was expected to do. They successfully dipped into designing apparel, programming festivals, acting, nurturing other artists on labels or collectives. Through Parkwood, Beyoncé often appeared the most visible in these efforts, but her venture into a diversified creative output swam shoulder to shoulder against the tide with other Black artists. This change had been decades in the making.

The music industry had historically done the bare minimum to support Black American acts, siloing them off in racially segregated charts, venues and radio stations since the advent of recorded music. Fundamentally, white record label executives invested very little in so-called ‘race records’ between the 1920s and 1940s. Record labels belatedly clocked the appeal of Black American blues, a thundering hotbed of lyrical heft. And yet Black performers were offered terrible deals.

Some would be persuaded to record original songs without so much as a signed contract, while others inadvertently agreed to deeply exploitative terms as performers. In the 1920s, Blues pioneer Bessie Smith famously earned no royalties while making Columbia Records millions as the first Black woman whose recordings they pressed. In time, Black artists would find their songs handed to white counterparts to be repackaged for ‘mainstream’ – read white – audiences. The minds behind many major 1950s and 1960s hits would not earn royalties for their work.

Sure, by the early 2000s, terms weren’t as brutally unfair. But the music industry had still not been substantially overhauled – incremental change had bred progress, rather than a complete rethinking of the relationships between Black creators and record labels. Prince tugged at the confines of the label-to-artist relationship for years. And just ask groups such as TLC or NWA about the complexity of contractual pitfalls.

Beyoncé emerged into adulthood in the shadow of that history. By the 2010s, Parkwood offered her the chance to forge a sense of independence, even as one of the most famous women in entertainment. Further forays into apparel, film and philanthropy facilitated this independence. From one project to the next, she was showing that she had more to offer the world than performing – of course, her contributions in that realm were already near-stratospheric. In 2014, she established the Ivy Park clothing line – named after her daughter and her childhood neighbourhood’s Parkwood Park. The brand began as a joint venture with fast-fashion retailer Topshop, picking up where the middling success of House of Deréon (in collaboration with her mother) had left off.

an illustration of beyonce on a book cover

This time, Beyoncé drove aspirational messaging into the core of the brand. Ivy Park’s athleisure wear – mostly leggings, hoodies, bra tops, all items soft to the touch and humming with latent femininity – was perceived by fans as a route to empowerment. By its March 2016 launch, her followers were ready to receive its blend of approachable and tough styling. That overarching sense of the brand’s value system was amplified when, in 2018, Beyoncé bought Topshop owner Philip Green out from the Ivy Park partnership. Green had been accused of sexual, physical and racist abuse by former staff, allegations he has firmly denied. Soon, in April 2019, she scooped up an Ivy Park deal with Adidas instead.

Ivy Park was unlike her previous endorsement deals with, say, Pepsi or L’Oréal. Her former general manager Lee Anne Callahan-Longo described the joint venture in 2015 as a clear evolution. Beyoncé was now, to be blunt, famous enough to be choosy. ‘So we decided that endorsements were not something that she was interested in anymore,’ Callahan-Longo said. ‘You know, “why am I using my face, my brand, my voice to sell someone else’s products? I’d rather invest in me.”’ This is why you no longer see Beyoncé’s smiling face in adverts for another company’s product. She has leveraged herself in a way that is still, at least within pop music, rare.

This is because she cares deeply. When her name is attached to a project or a piece of work, Beyoncé is the sort of perfectionist who can’t resist then checking over people’s shoulders to make sure everything is in line with her vision. Awe tends to surround her commitment to every element of her work in this way. Footage taken at various points in her career will show her checking the lighting before one show, firmly tweaking the choreography before another. This attention to detail then extended to how she approached film.

Where Cadillac Records had flopped at the box office, Obsessed made millions but was critically panned. So Parkwood pivoted away from scripted films. Instead, it became the driving force behind music-based works, either about the process behind some of Beyoncé’s later albums, or taking on the form of the albums themselves. Running her own production company allowed Beyoncé to not only surprise-release her self-titled album, but also follow its release with a package of YouTube videos delving into the making of said album. These were DVD extra features rejigged for the digital age, created and shared by the artist herself.

Her fifth album, Lemonade, released in partnership with HBO in 2016, would be a multimedia, audiovisual artwork. Its release became a global event, with fans around the world clamouring to attend viewing parties, or gathering around a single mobile phone streaming the film in the early hours of the morning. The hour-long film became appointment television. The music itself was teased with little promotion beyond the single ‘Formation’, and initially only available to stream on artist-owned service Tidal. Beyoncé once again created the mix of media circus, exclusivity and fan frenzy that had characterized Beyoncé’s surprise release.

Ultimately, Beyoncé learned to trust herself. She rounded out her extended pursuits with philanthropy – under the BeyGood banner – and the mentorship of young musicians, via Parkwood’s record label. Primed to focus on charity through her church and family, BeyGood was founded in 2013 to align and amplify these benevolent projects. The organization could move from acquiring school supplies for children in underfunded communities to supporting those devastated by the long-running lack of clean, safe water in Flint, Michigan. In many of these projects, she cradles an implicit nurturing of Black and under-represented communities. Whether in Haiti or Houston, she threads a consistent ethos through the work. In this way, Beyoncé can advocate for oft-ignored groups and indirectly raise the question of why elected officials are not doing so. Put simply, BeyGood strives to ask: where is the accountability?

June 2017. Beyoncé had her hands full, looking after newborn twins, Sir and Rumi Carter, with her husband, Jay-Z. That year’s BET Awards had just honoured her with the Viewers’ Choice gong for Lemonade song ‘Sorry’. Beyoncé herself was not in attendance at the live awards ceremony, having so recently given birth. Instead, two young women picked up the award on her behalf. Chloe and Halle Bailey, a sibling duo, headed onto the stage looking confident and delighted. Chloe was weeks away from her nineteenth birthday; her younger sister, Halle, was seventeen. They read a statement from Beyoncé that included a warm farewell: ‘To everyone at the show tonight, you all look so beautiful, and at home, thank you and have a wonderful, wonderful night. From Beyoncé.’ The Bailey sisters stood beaming onstage, in lieu of one of the world’s biggest stars, because she had added them to the Parkwood Entertainment stable in 2015. By 2020, Chloe x Halle had earned Grammy nominations, acting roles on sitcom Grown-ish and released two studio albums. As a curator of talent, Beyoncé had found yet another skill set.

No doubt Beyoncé recognized her younger self, watching the girls perform song covers on YouTube (as many a singer is now discovered, from Canadians Justin Bieber and Alessia Cara to Australian Troye Sivan). She saw enough potential to sign the duo. And so, by expanding Parkwood into both a record label and an artist management firm, she leveraged her magic touch as a form of mentorship. Not every Parkwood artist has been as successful as Chloe x Halle, with their tight harmonies, experimental styling aesthetic and authentic pop-R&B; Sophie Beem and Ingrid Burley, for example, are as yet barely known outside the BeyHive.

Pop stars are rarely expected to be businesspeople, too. Yet Beyoncé enforces her performance prowess with the seemingly mundane decisions she makes to turn the cogs behind her star power. She watched her father closely, learning what to do – and crucially, what not to – from his manoeuvres as she grew up. Speaking in a pre-recorded message for all those graduating in 2020, she laid out the significance of her work offstage. ‘The entertainment business is still very sexist. It’s still very male-dominated,’ she said. ‘And as a woman, I did not see enough female role models given the opportunity to do what I knew I had to do, to run my label and management company, to direct my films and produce my tours. That meant ownership, owning my masters, owning my art, owning my future and writing my own story.’

Next, she was blunt on where race and gender create a suffocating Venn diagram within the industry. ‘Not enough Black women had a seat at the table. So I had to go and chop down that wood and build my own table,’ she said. By this, she meant building the team at Parkwood that would see her through, and which she shook up with new faces in 2016. She learned not to follow the template set at other companies, instead ‘hiring women, men, outsiders, underdogs, people that were overlooked and waiting to be seen’

In the sleek, private LA offices where her team decides how next to astound fans, she has created an incubator of talent across multimedia platforms. In the final years of the 2010s, Parkwood would propel her creative vision into a stratosphere that even she may have never imagined. At her most raw and honest, her complete arsenal of sound, visuals, live performance and curation reached a fever pitch. She was ready for her homecoming.

Lives of Musicians: Beyoncé by Tshepo Mokoena will be released by Laurence King Publishing on 11 November.

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