The music industry has a new reason to worry, and it’s all because of a certain country-rap meme song. Lil Nas X, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter who was virtually unknown a year ago, a $30 beat purchased online from a Dutch producer, and a racially tinged Billboard chart controversy combined to make “Old Town Road” the most ubiquitous song of summer 2019. Bolstered by a genre-bending and ever-growing list of remixes, the latest of which features RM of Korean boy-band BTS, the song made history Monday, becoming the longest-running #1 hit of all time at 18 straight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.
Lil Nas X’s meteoric rise serves as an inspiration for small-scale Soundcloud rappers and producers, but it should also act as a warning to the traditional music industry. If he could make the song of the summer without advice from a label boss or industry analysts, other label-less artists could achieve the same feat, cutting the industry out of the picture and the profits. (Lil Nas X did eventually sign to Columbia Records after “Old Town Road” charted, but the label had no role in the production of the original song.)
In the past decade, a faction of artists has taken an alternative approach and gone independent, eschewing a label completely. Chance the Rapper is one of the most vocal artists when it comes to forgoing the industry. The Chicago native just released The Big Day, which he is calling his first album (although he has released numerous mixtapes and singles since his debut in 2012). Though it has received mixed reviews, the album continued a theme which Chance has pioneered since his first release: he has offered it for free online. How does an artist survive without a label signing bonus and with no album sales? The answer, at least for Chance, is merch. He claimed to have made $6 million in a year on hats alone in an interview on the Joe Budden Podcast. Artists signed to major labels are not always entitled to their own merch profits—so-called “360 deals” allow an artist’s record company to make money beyond music royalties. As reported by NPR, these revenues include everything from tour tickets to sponsorships.
The growing number of independent artists coincides with the rise of the streaming age—it is easier now than ever to succeed without the help of a label. Prior to the popularity of Spotify and Apple Music, artists relied on labels to get them radio playtime and publicity. Nowadays, any aspiring songwriter can upload directly to streaming services and promote their music themselves on social media. Lil Nas X is the perfect example of this, as he’s taken music memeing to the next level with relentless, self-aware promotion on Twitter, far more effective at connecting with young listeners than most expensive PR teams.
Major pop artists have recently used their platform to warn about the danger of industry deals, including Taylor Swift’s well-publicized battle with her former label, Big Machine. Swift alleges that Big Machine would not allow her to buy her own masters without signing another record deal with them. Owning one’s masters is an industry term for having the legal rights to one’s own recordings, as opposed to the record label withholding such privileges. When a label owns an artist’s masters, they can release songs, license them for commercials or movies, and edit and alter them, all without the artist’s consent. Swift is currently facing the bizarre decision of whether to pay millions of dollars to buy her own songs or take a more novel approach like Kelly Clarkson’s suggestion that she re-record her music.
The success of “Old Town Road” also has ramifications beyond the label versus independence debate—it underscores a larger trend where musical commercialization gets in the way of creativity. The power of lip-syncing app Tik Tok, which never fails to make me feel old and out-of-touch, as well as streaming algorithms like Spotify’s “Discover” feature, have rewarded artists that make meme-able music. Artists that push the creative bounds of music enjoy less online acclaim than songs designed to be retweeted, like comedian Zack Fox’s single Jesus is the One (I Got Depression) which is currently sitting at #2 on the Spotify Viral 50 chart. The song’s memorable lyrics (“If you ain’t a Christian, I’ma stab you in the face/If it ain’t ‘bout Jesus, I’ma hit you with this K”) have made it a hit. Lil Nas X’s debut EP “7” has no song over 3 minutes, a fact that he comically acknowledged was aimed at increasing streams and revenue.
Lil Nas X is a catalyst of a new era in the music industry, where promotion and “shareability” might matter just as much as musical talent. He now faces the decision of whether to continue to ride the meme or to branch out musically and challenge his image as a one-hit-wonder. While his label would likely support him continuing to use the meme-ing formula that has brought him to fame, the decision is ultimately his own, as he so resoundingly sings in Old Town Road: “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’.”