As an avid vinyl collector and Beyoncé fan, I preordered the limited edition Cowboy Carter record the day she posted it on her website in early March. There’s a standard timeline that record collectors have been conditioned to expect when a megastar announces that they’ve got a new album dropping in just a few short weeks: It’s going to take a while to get here. When Taylor Swift announced her Folklore in July 2020, fans who preordered the vinyl were warned that orders wouldn’t begin shipping until right around Thanksgiving. Last year, while Travis Scott released his Utopia at the end of July, no one was able to drop a needle on it on their turntable until December. Artists such as Beyoncé, Scott, and Swift have very particular ways of announcing their releases—their singles are meticulously planned, information such as track listings and collaborators are teased out in social media drops, and information about the release is strictly protected. (Columbia Records, which released Cowboy Carter, declined all press interviews before the album’s debut.) Pressing vinyl records, meanwhile, is a slow process that hasn’t changed a whole lot since the format was the primary way for audiences to listen to music at home. And yet on Wednesday, two days before Cowboy Carter would hit streaming services, I got a notification from Beyoncé’s web store: My order had shipped. 

The Cowboy Carter record didn’t hit brick-and-mortar stores on Friday morning—that release date is currently unannounced—but the limited run sold on was already in transit while Texan fans were refreshing Spotify at 11 p.m. for the album drop. I asked a record label head if he’d ever heard of a highly controlled, surprise-drop album shipping vinyl the same day it hits streaming services. “That’s never happened before,” he told me. I wanted to understand how she might have pulled it off, and—without Columbia making a representative available for interview (see above)—spoke with Jenn D’Eugenio, founder of the music industry advocacy nonprofit Women in Vinyl and the sales and customer service director for the Austin-based record-pressing plant Gold Rush Vinyl. 

D’Eugenio didn’t work on the release of Cowboy Carter, but she provided some insight to how the vinyl industry works—and how Bey might have pulled off the feat. There are two key factors, she explained: First, the business has changed dramatically since the supply chain shortages of the Folklore era. In 2020, not only was the entire world struggling with the pandemic, but the year had started with some seriously bad news for record collectors. Apollo Masters Corporation, the only U.S.-based facility that manufactured lacquer discs (which pressing plants use to create the master copies of the records they’ll be pressing on vinyl), burned down. The only other plant capable of producing them is based in Japan, and other technologies, such as direct metal mastering, which uses copper instead of lacquer to produce a master copy, are rare. (According to an unconfirmed but widely discussed story among vinyl lovers, the last piece of equipment capable of producing copper masters was purchased by the Church of Scientology in 2005 to preserve L. Ron Hubbard’s speeches). The pandemic created further complications, as vinyl plants weren’t considered essential businesses during COVID shutdowns, creating a backlog of records at the plants that were able to obtain their lacquers from Japan. 

These days, though, the system has smoothed out quite a bit, according to D’Eugenio. “What we were seeing in 2020 and 2021, with a year-plus for a project to turn around, it’s significantly different now,” she explained. Vinyl plants have sprung up in the U.S. to cover gaps at a steady clip (“There’s almost too much capacity now,” she said, given that all lacquers still have to come from a single facility in Japan), and a well-organized team can get their projects turned around in as few as ten weeks. 

That, according to D’Eugenio, is the other key to how Team Beyoncé might have been able to pull this off. “I would say from start to finish right now, ten weeks would be the safe assumption,” she explained. “Usually, it’s within four or five weeks for your test pressings, and then the balance for your finished goods order, assuming that you approve everything pretty quickly.” Delays around test pressings, which artists and labels use to ensure that the physical vinyl records sound the same as the infinitely reproducible digital versions of the album, are one of the things that can throw off an entire release plan, she explained. 

“There are so many things that go into making your record. You have to submit the audio correctly, you have to submit your art in the proper template,” she said. The center label on a vinyl record isn’t just a sticker that gets applied at the end of the process, for example, but rather a component pressed into the actual record. “I can’t press something until I have all the parts there. A lot of people, when they’re frustrated about something taking a long time, it’s because there are so many steps involved,” D’Eugenio said. “If one thing goes wrong, it can set off a release date. I’m always trying to buffer with my clients, because if you don’t approve a test pressing on time, that could set it back another four weeks.” These factors are unique to vinyl production, which creates a learning curve for those who aren’t as familiar with that aspect of the industry. CDs can be replicated very quickly, while records just take time. 

If there’s one thing Beyoncé and her team are known for, though, it’s impeccable organization. While we don’t know which plant she used to produce her records (although, since they’re shipping from Eastern Michigan, one of the three Detroit-area plants is a likely bet), a reasonable guess would be that they had test pressings approved not far after the time when Cowboy Carter was announced during the Super Bowl, back in early February. 

That means that folks who are well outside the Columbia Records/Parkwood Entertainment inner circle heard Cowboy Carter a month or more before the rest of us. Given the secrecy around the album, I asked D’Eugenio if that created a risk of the album leaking early. Could a record plant employee grab a copy off the line, rip a digital version, and upload it to the internet? She said that while it’s likely everyone involved signed some form of a nondisclosure agreement, leaks weren’t a common issue. “In the time I’ve been in this industry, I’ve heard of one leaked release that the person got fired over at a pressing plant overseas,” she said. If the record’s label sticker doesn’t say Cowboy Carter or feature a photo of Beyoncé, employees might not even know what record they’re pressing. And, more importantly, manufacturing vinyl records isn’t exactly a lucrative line of work. Most who work in the record biz, she explained, do so out of a love of music—which means that the one-way ticket out of the business is a pretty serious deterrent. 

“It’s a repetitive job to shrink -wrap all day, or even to press records all day, where you’re looking at the same thing day in and day out,” D’Eugenio explained. “But if it’s for an artist you love, it really is exciting and special to be able to see it later, hear the artist talk about it, and be like, ‘Well, I had a hand in it.’ That piece of it is really exciting.”