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“Old Town Road” has been managed like a product. After five weeks on top of the Billboard charts, it will gracefully transition from the growth to harvest stage.
His gameplan— “milk the fuck out of old town road”— questions hip-hop’s conventional advice to young breakout stars. They are often told to have that next single ready. But the country-rapper’s tactics make sense considering how he came up. He built an audience, understood its desires, then released the product they wanted.
“If anything, Lil Nas X is a blueprint for the business of music. Before his chart-soaring hit, he was a prolific presence on Twitter and ran a popular stan account. X is fluent in the mechanics of social virality, and his rise is the outcome of smart engineering (which is not to say he lacks talent; he doesn’t). “I knew the way I was going to have to push the song to get it to hit more people’s ears,” he told Rolling Stone. “I run a meme type of account on Twitter; I know what my audience is looking for. So I put some potentially funny lines in there.”
The 20-year-old first pushed the song on Tik Tok, which is dominated by Gen Z. He intentionally placed “Old Town Road” on the country charts where the song had a better chance of standing out. “[Country charts are] favorable versus trying to go to the rap format to compete with the most popular songs in the world,” said country music manager Danny Kang in a Rolling Stone interview.
And when ‘Big Country’ pushed back on the song’s place on the country charts, Lil’ Nas X attracted a rebellion that proudly rallied behind an unconventional star that the establishment did not support. It’s one of today’s most powerful forms on fandom (as I wrote about in last week’s member update on The Rise of Lizzo).
Having that next single ready is not a proven defense against becoming a one-hit wonder—especially in the streaming era. It makes sense in concept but can fail in execution.
Here’s a couple of recent rappers who followed that sage advice and got nothing to show for it:
- Fetty Wap – After “Trap Queen” blew up in spring 2015, he dropped “679,” “My Way” (and its remix with Drake), and “Again” all before the summer was over. He was the first artist ever to have his first four singles reach the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. If they sold Fetty Wap futures on Labor Day 2015, you probably couldn’t have afforded them.
Where did that summer grind get him? Last I saw Fetty Wap, he was on TV a few months ago. He made a guest appearance at a birthday party for one of the daughter’s of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Yes, that’s where we at right now.
- Desiigner – He came out hot with “Panda” in 2016. He essentially got a remix out of Kanye West’s “Pt. 2” on The Life of Pablo. He got the G.O.O.D. Music cosign, had a charting single with “Timmy Turner” a couple of months later, but hasn’t done much since.
If Lil’ Nas X fades away by 2020, it won’t be because he didn’t immediately drop a new single. Careers are hard to predict. Remember, L.A. Reid and many others at Def Jam thought that Teairra Mari was gonna be bigger than Rihanna. The industry has its methods to evaluate artists, pattern-match their attributes, and use intuition to determine their likelihood of succeed. But even then, the odds are slim.
The longevity of Lil’ Nas X is actually the least interesting part of the discussion. He already provided a solid blueprint for how to make a catchy single, promote it, and milk it for all its worth. Sure, there’s some luck involved. But a lot of this was carefully planned out. The risk is that if Lil’ Nas X fades away, the blueprint may get ignored because of survivorship bias.
But that’s not for Lil’ Nas X to worry about. All he has to do is ride this wave till he can’t no more.