How ‘Old Town Road’ Hacked the Algorithm and Became a Billboard #1 Song
If you’ve listened to the radio in the past few months, you’ve likely heard of the song Old Town Road by the rapper Lil Nas X. It’s a catchy songs that lies in the midpoint between country and rap, an uncommon combination but one that’s quite successful with executed correctly. At the time of this posting, the song is on its ninth consecutive week atop the Billboard Hot 100. This is an impressive feat that only a handful of songs have ever accomplished, but it wasn’t luck. Lil Nas X figured out how to make a song successful and put a plan into motion. The important thing about his plan: it worked.
Before Old Town Road, Lil Nas X was a digital hustler. He had accumulated some recognition as a Twitter personality and creating a Facebook page curating viral content. On Twitter, he had a fan account named “NasMaraj,” a name paying homage to rappers Nas and Nicki Minaj. Most importantly, he embraced new features on social media sites. An example of this would be his scenario threads on Twitter. These choose-your-own-adventure tweets gained a lot of attention while engaging users. It also took advantage of a new Twitter “thread” feature as soon as it was released.
He’d eventually start releasing music on Soundcloud where he gained some attention, but not enough to actually chart on Billboard. Lil Nas X claimed he was just posting songs for fun at first and trying to break into rap. After a few tracks he decided no to follow anyone else’s mold and do things his own way. This meant blending the rap and country sounds, and he purchased a beat for $30 and recorded the song that would become Old Town Road.
Given his background, it was only a matter of time before Lil Nas X decided to take his knowledge of social media and gather some attention. Posting on Soundcloud was a start, but it can be hard to stand out on such a competitive platform. So what did he do? He classified the song as “country,” a far less competitive genre on Soundcloud. This allowed to song to get recognition from a specific audience, though the number of people looking for country music on Soundcloud isn’t as great as the number of people search for rap. This meant the song wouldn’t get popular on Soundcloud alone.
Enter TikTok. Lil Nas X uploaded the song to the up-and-coming social media network TikTok. He promoted the song on the site and marked it as the “Yeehaw Challenge.” In this challenge, people will start in their regular clothes. As the tempo of the song picks up the subject of the video will perform a move and return in frame wearing western clothing. Simple enough, and similar to other challenges (think “Black Beatles” and the mannequin challenge) this resulted in major publicity for the song.
The song was originally uploaded to YouTube in late 2018. At the time there was no music video, but to capitalize on current trend visual component of the YouTube video is footage from the game Red Dead Redemption. Suddenly this song is starting to find its audience and gather interest from a younger audience.
Becoming a Number One Song
This is where the magic happens. While making a song popular on TikTok is an accomplishment, it won’t get you on Billboard’s charts. These charts are comprised of data.
At its core, the Billboard Hot 100 collect its data from three sources: Streaming totals, digital music sales, and radio audience. Billboard continuously tweaks its algorithm, most recently giving dominance to streaming. Whether you stream on a paid Apple Music subscription, Spotify’s free tier, or YouTube will impact how significant your stream will be in the calculation. But, all them count for something and that means no stream is a bad stream.
Here is why Old Town Road really works in all three categories measured by Billboard.
First, there’s the sales aspect. True sales of songs, especially digital downloads have been declining rapidly in favor of streaming. Still, some audiences are more likely to purchase music than others. One genre that seems to gather a lot of sales: country. Despite Billboard deciding this song was not country even though it debuted on the country chart, that doesn’t really matter for sales. As long as country music fans like the song they’ll purchase it. Let’s be honest, Lil Nas X is not a big name in the music world yet. Purchasing a digital single will likely suffice for a country fan who might wait for a the full album from a more popular artist like Carrie Underwood. For this reason, Old Town Road has sat at the top of the iTune charts for weeks.
The song is also very radio friendly, especially when you consider it will likely be branded as a rap song. Rap is hugely popular and many songs crossover to pop radio, but it now seems the popular rap songs are overly explicit. So explicit that they’re not played on the radio at all. While Old Town Road might have a word or two censored, it doesn’t even wear an “explicit” tag on music services. It’s no secret that radio loves clean lyrics, and Old Town Road checks that box. As a new artist with little money, Lil Nas X wasn’t able to persuade radio to play his song on its release date. This isn’t a bad thing. Once this song gained popularity radio stations will add it to their lineups. Thing means radio will help the song sustain momentum once it decreases in popularity in other areas.
Of course, Old Town Road started its climb to popular thanks to the internet. It’s no surprise that streaming is the main reason the song became successful. As a new artist, Lil Nas X doesn’t care how you’re streaming so long as you’re listening to the songs. This is why the Red Dead Redemption video on YouTube or engaging Soundcloud’s country listeners is important to the song’s climb to popularity. First they hear the song online, then they stream the song on Spotify or Apple Music. Numbers increase and the song climbs the Billboard Charts. This song also contributes to a growing trend of shrinking songs. The original song is under two minutes long with the Billy Ray Cyrus remix clocking in at 2:37. So, listeners are more likely to hit the replay button. This allows for the song to get more numbers in less time.
Every element of Old Town Road fits perfectly into Billboard’s calculations. When you put these elements together you’ve got the recipe for a #1.
Now that the song has hit #1, Lil Nas X has a lot to look forward to. He’s gained millions of fans, changed the visual of country music, and secured a brand deal with Wrangler. His next step is to release his first EP and see if he can maintain success after the first hit. While Old Town Road sounds like it could be a one hit wonder, Lil Nas X has a good head on his shoulder and a mind focused on success.
Through this process he remains quite humble. He executed his plan perfectly, but still recognizes success was not guaranteed. Of course, his success wasn’t luck either, but he doesn’t let that go to his head. In his interview with Time he was asked if TikTok should be paying him each time his song is streamed. He stated that he should be paying TikTok, because without the platform his song wouldn’t have gotten is success.
I’m prepared to have Old Town Road hammered into my head this summer. At least I’ll know that the performer doesn’t take his success for granted and worked to earn his airtime.
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