“Old Town Road” finally did it. Lil Nas X’s cowboy anthem set the record on Monday for the longest run ever atop the Billboard Hot 100 at 17 consecutive weeks, breaking out of a tie with Mariah Carey's Boyz II Men collab “One Sweet Day” and “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber.
But what does the song’s chart-busting success mean for the future of the music industry? Are TikTok dances and multiple remixes the only way to get to the top of the charts these days? Will Billboard records keep falling, or was this a one-of-a-kind phenomenon? To get some clarity, Complex spoke with several music industry experts who specialize in watching and analyzing charts and song popularity.
Billboard’s SVP of charts and data development Silvio Pietroluongo points out that “Old Town Road” followed a well-worn path to success by using social media and releasing multiple remixes. “Many recent acts have used social media to promote their songs [and videos],” Pietroluongo tells Complex. “Lil Nas X may have presented more remixes, and in a staggered fashion, than most. And [he] enlisted an impressive array of cross-genre acts to join in, but remixes of hit songs have been on the rise in recent years.”
Mike Warner, who oversees artist and label relations at Chartmetric and wrote a book about the importance of playlists for artists, agrees. “Take a look at DJ Snake’s ‘Ocho Cinco,’ with 27 remixes in one official release,” he says, bringing up other artists who have released far more remixes than Nas X. “I don’t think a lot of remixes is a formula for success. I do, however, think that once a song hits what some feel is the peak, that these remixes can breathe fresh life into the song. With streaming making remixes instantly accessible and with no purchase necessary, a song can peak in multiple markets at the same time.”
Daniel Awad knows a thing or two about viral sensations. He’s a manager and part of Good Luck Have Fun Media, which guides the careers of Mason Ramsey, Oliver Tree, and Whethan. He cops to using the “Old Town Road” model of social media and a bunch of remixes for his own artists. “It’s something we practice with our artists and now it’s just becoming more and more obvious,” Awad explains. “One of the best examples of this was with Bazzi’s ‘Mine,’ but the list goes on and on. At the end of the day, if you create a piece of music that inspires people to create their own content using it, that’s usually a good sign you have a winner.”
Awad is also, unsurprisingly, a big believer in the power of social media. “With Oliver Tree, we constantly push his image in viral videos,” he continues. “People may not know that he makes music, but the image of Oliver with his bowl cut and ski jacket is burned into their minds because he is all over the internet. It’s all about visibility on the project. If they come for the memes and stay for the music, we’re OK.”
“what does seem to be a repeatable thread is the unexpected meeting of cultures or different worlds, set to some catchy music and on-trend memes.” - Jason Joven
Taking a step back and commenting on what it means about music in 2019, Awad adds, “I think it’s an amazing time for music and the industry. We’re breaking down the genre walls a little more with each new decade and it’s allowing artists to create music that brings everyone together. The big takeaway is anyone can be anything, there’s no divide anymore. Lil Nas X was able to market his song, without outside help, to a point where he got a deal from a major label. Any artist now has more of a chance to make it on their own. All the tools they need are right in front of them online and in social media.”
Mike Warner’s Chartmetric co-worker Jason Joven tells Complex that while the particular stew that made “Old Town Road” a success may not happen again, there are lessons to be learned. He says that bringing together seemingly disparate genres, as “Old Town Road” does with country and rap, can lead to commercial gold, provided that it’s mixed with the right online jokes: “This ‘Gangnam Style’ or ‘Despacito’ type of success seems rare, but what does seem to be a repeatable thread is the unexpected meeting of cultures or different worlds, set to some catchy music and on-trend memes.”
The most popular “Old Town Road” remix, of course, was the first one that featured Billy Ray Cyrus. That version boosted the song to the top of the charts, and it also helped Cyrus’ visibility. Warner points out that the number of monthly listeners Cyrus had on Spotify shot up from 1.1 million to 32 million and climbing in the wake of the song’s success.
A close look at Spotify shows something else: Lil Nas X, at least for now, has far fewer followers on the platform than his song’s success might indicate. Joven explains that other pop stars who share space with the “Old Town Road” rapper on Spotify’s Global Top 100 have tens of millions of followers, but Lil Nas X has only 648,000. “It’s certainly a signal that people may be treating him differently than other pop stars,” Joven elaborates.
“Old Town Road”’s ubiquity leads to it being on a lot of playlists, which may play into that comparatively low follower number. Joven explains that Lil Nas X has 298 times the amount of Spotify playlist followers (the amount of people who follow a playlist that contains “Old Town Road”) than he has people who follow him, which the analyst calls “a remarkable figure.” In comparison, he points out, Ed Sheeran has only eight times more, and J. Balvin sits at 20 times.
“You add clever marketing to a unique and catchy song that crosses genre and generational boundaries, and you end up with a smash hit.” - Silvio Pietroluongo
Whatever may happen in the future with Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” stands as a singular accomplishment. As most of the people we spoke to took pains to point out, all of the TikTok videos and funny tweets in the world won’t matter if they’re not in service of a great song.
“At the end of the day, it’s the song itself that has to carry someone over the finish line,” Pietroluongo says. “You add clever marketing to a unique and catchy song that crosses genre and generational boundaries, and you end up with a smash hit.”
Even a manager whose entire model depends on internet virality agrees that a well-written, catchy song is the ultimate marketing tool. “It always comes down to the music,” Daniel Awad says. “Nas’s melodies and lyrics on the song are amazing. I think everyone at one point has felt like they were going down ‘Old Town Road.’” Downplaying any narratives about a “novelty” song like this breaking such a big record, Awad adds, “I think any song that becomes this successful and massive is going to be pigeon-holed as a novelty song. In my opinion, Nas has already proved himself with the EP he put out. His other songs are great and I think he’s going to keep doing great things. Will he ever beat ‘Old Town Road’? Probably not. That’s a once in a lifetime track.”
Will “Old Town Road”’s record remain for long? Awad is convinced it will be broken “sometime in the next 5-10 years.” Joven similarly says it’ll happen “probably sooner than we anticipate.” Warner, however, disagrees. We won’t see the Billboard record smashed “anytime soon,” he says. But it’s Billboard’s Pietroluongo who brings up a wider perspective and points out that chart records are being smashed at a rapid pace.
“It was just two years ago that ‘“Despacito’ by Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber tied the 16-week all-time record for weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100,” he explains. “And we’ve had two other songs (aside from ‘Old Town Road’) reach double-digit weeks at No. 1 since then. The age of immediacy and access that we live in lends itself to songs staying on the chart, and in the top 10 and at No. 1 longer than before. It may not be this year or next year, but I’m sure we’ll see some strong challengers rise up the charts. It will be fun to watch!”