The “Old Town Road” rapper’s blueprint is a marketing playbook, but those who follow it should focus on the factors they can control.
Lil Nas X (via Christaan Felber for Rolling Stone)
For many folks, “Old Town Road” has been a breath of fresh air. Lil Nas X’s joyful rise has been a welcomed divergence from the reprehensible “Pump Plan” and other drama-inducing tactics that have grown in popularity. For a moment, it seemed like the best way to become a certified platinum artist was to first become a certified fuckboy.
While Lil’ Nas X’s run has been much more respectable than his clout-chasing peers, his success will be harder to replicate.
Here’s a segment I wrote last month in a Member Update:
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 20-year-old rapper’s playbook is full of insights on how to market to Gen Z, build an audience, and get more life out of his music. Those lessons can help artists both big and small. But Lil’ Nas X also benefitted from intangible factors and a little bit of luck. Those who study the 20-year-old phenom need to distinguish the factors they can control from those they can’t, and set expectations accordingly.
First-mover success is hard to replicate
Lil’ Nas X has drawn many comparisons to Soulja Boy. By the time “Crank Dat” took off in 2007, Soulja Boy had already spent two years establishing himself via YouTube, Limewire, Myspace, and SoundClick (where his page is still active!) As an early-mover, Soulja Boy was granted time to learn the technology and figure out what works. This was his R & D phase. Before long, the viral dance craze inspired countless user-generated videos uploaded to YouTube. The song’s popularity upset hip-hop’s elder statesmen but got support from other established artists. That controversy fueled Soulja Boy’s popularity.
Similarly, Lil’ Nas X had a strong social media following well before he hopped on any horses. Buzzfeed was following the kid’s moves back in 2017! But when “Old Town Road” dropped, the rapper’s early presence on TikTok changed his trajectory. The social media platform was a catalyst for user-generated content (UGC), just like Lil’ Nas X planned for. But the song benefitted from its fair share of controversy too, which is harder to plan for. When Billboard removed from the country charts, the song gained steam. And now that some of Wrangler’s customers have threatened to boycott because of the rapper’s new partnership with the clothing company, Lil’ Nas X continues to gain support from the culture.
The rapper’s success has inspired many, but the landscape has already changed. Lil’ Nas X’s process—which took time to perfect—is now widely available. But now that the playing field is leveled and there’s a roadmap to follow, the first-mover advantages are gone. There’s more competition and more talented MCs who want in. Unsurprisingly, some artists have already struggled to make it big on TikTok.
But it’s not just young artists who struggle with virality. Established acts do too. Lil’ Wayne’s #UproarChallenge and Beyonce’s #BeforeILetGoChallenge tried to cross generations by combining nostalgic samples, iconic dance moves, and black culture anthems, but neither gained much traction.
In media, reverse-engineering is an art disguised as science. If popularity was a turnkey process, then every major artist who has tried to drop the “song of the summer” would have a hit record. And similarly, each of Netflix’s data-informed movies and TV shows would be just as popular as Bird Box was.
Attention is a finite resource. Today, more outlets compete for it than ever. Those who get a head start on new platforms will always have an advantage—like Soulja Boy on YouTube, Lil’ Nas X on TikTok, or even DJ Khaled on Snapchat. But once initial success is achieved, the game is changed and the approach needs to shift.
The “Old Town Road” playbook
Making the most of an opportunity
The required strategy should not be viewed as a how-to guide on going viral. Even if the steps are repeated flawlessly, the likelihood is still slim. Instead, it’s more of a how-to guide on what to do when a hit goes viral. Smart artists and their teams make the most of the moment.
Once “Crank Dat” took off, Soulja Boy embraced all the remixes. Remember, y’all were out here cranking dat Batman, RoboCop, Roosevelt, and Spiderman before it was all said and done. In a similar fashion, Lil’ Nas X used his remix opportunity to get a co-sign from country music star Billy Ray Cyrus. It was the perfect response to the Billboard drama.
When a buzz-worthy opportunity happens, artists and brands should know when to pivot—even if that pivot requires a shift from the initial strategy.
Scooter Braun talked about this recently in a Recode Decode interview. In his early days of managing Justin Bieber, he made the most of his arrest when he refused to cancel a 2010 Justin Bieber event at a mall in Long Island, New York:
“I called every media outlet and said ‘well if I’m gonna go to jail, I’m gonna make sure [Justin Bieber] is on the cover of every magazine and newspaper tomorrow.’ And the next day, Justin Bieber was a household name, and not just some kid that a few people knew about.”
When Lil’ Nas X started rapping, he didn’t set out to become the leading delegate for the yeehaw agenda. But he had done enough research to understand how fame works and locked himself in. And we haven’t seen him without the cowboy hat since.
Lil’ Nas X has continued to build a community with his growing following. Fans like to feel like they are brought along for the ride. He asks his Instagram followers to submit cover designs for his EP, which makes them feel important. His low key flexes, like asking Kim Kardashian on Twitter to post the picture of him and Kanye, proves that he’s now in big celebrity circles.
In a New York Times interview, the country-rapper spoke to the song’s popularity. He intentionally made the first lyric “I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road” and posted the question in reddit so that it showed up immediately when fans searched “What’s that song that goes ‘I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road’? ” As several folks have called out, those are SEO and growth hacking tactics.
His moves have picked up attention as well:
— Alexis Ohanian Sr. 🚀 (@alexisohanian) May 30, 2019
It reminds me of when Soulja Boy titled his debut album ‘souljaboytellem.com’ to drive traffic to his website. Not sure how well it worked. If anything, it reminded me of the ridiculous PapaJohns.com Bowl Game. But hey, the hustle was noted.
But the Soulja Boy-Lil’ Nas X comparisons might stop there. Despite the similarities, Lil’ Nas X has yet to try and sell us bootleg electronics or complained about Tyga’s 2018 comeback. It’s still early, but so far Lil’ Nas X has been all about that positive energy.
There are two ways to use Lil’ Nas X’s strategy. The first, and most rational, is to use the attributes that are most beneficial and adapt them to an artist’s own style. Their hits probably won’t take off like “Old Town Road” did, but there’s plenty of success to be made without becoming a cultural phenomenon.
The second way is to patiently wait for a new UGC-platform to get popular, spend time understanding it, become a first-mover, and hope that some intangibles and luck work in your favor by breaking new ground.
The likelihood of success is slimmer. And from a pragmatic perspective, it’s ill-advised. But if young aspiring teens weren’t willing to give it a try, we might never have had songs like “Old Town Road.”
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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie. Contact me: info [at] trapital.co