Welcome to Penny Fractions, your weekly newsletter about music streaming and occasional missives on labor concerns within the music industry. I’m still recovering from a lingering summer cold, but hopefully, I’ll be all better soon. Before I dive into this week’s topic, I’d like to request that if you enjoy this weekly newsletter, please send a friend this link and maybe even check out the Patreon. Otherwise, let’s talk about memes and Lil Nas X!
I’ve covered rap trends with a particular emphasis on dances for years and often wondered how such ephemeral moments can establish careers for artists. A decade post-Myspace and YouTube, and in the 3rd or 4th generation of new short-form video platforms (TikTok), I want to ask again: What is the value in going viral? This topic certainly could take up a book so I’m going to drill down on a recent example: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”.
The Lil Nas X Story
I first noticed “Old Town Road” earlier this year sitting on the SoundCloud charts, which led me to its extremely goofy YouTube video featuring footage of Red Dead Redemption: 2. I was amused by the song, but to be perfectly honest the rest of Lil Nas X’s music didn’t strike me as particularly interesting. Unbeknownst to me, Lil Nas X was tirelessly attempting to make the song go viral and eventually it broke through on TikTok. “Old Town Road” shot onto the Billboard charts and received needless controversy when it was removed from a Country chart due to accusations of racism being thrown at the feet of Billboard. I don’t want to relitigate the issue, but even I’ll admit drumming up controversy over a black man being pulled off the Country charts was a clear way to place the song at the forefront of the public consciousness.
More interesting than the chart drama was simply how much effort was put into promoting this single track. “Old Town Road” got a remix by Billy Ray Cyrus, another one by Diplo, a clearly well-budgeted music video with a Chris Rock cameo, and the young singer performed before the Stanley Cup finals and seemingly posed in a picture with what felt like the entire A-list of music industry names. On Twitter, he even posted fake album artwork that was just variants of “Old Town Road” remixes clearly optimized for YouTube (“Old Town Road (Bass Boosted)” and “Old Town Road (10 Hour Loop)”) rather than an effort to build up his own musical identity.
This kind of marathon tour isn’t new for a one-hit wonder, but I still think it’s reflecting on who is really benefitting from such exposure. Last month, Wrangler jeans announced a partnership with the young singer Lil Nas X that was inspired by his No. 1 song “Old Town Road,” where he croons “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.” The rapid speed of the collaboration felt like a full-circle trend of rappers co-oping brands (remember Snoop Dogg wearing Tommy Hilfiger on Saturday Night Live back in 1994?) The difference was that back in the late 80s and 90s, such co-option faced some subversion from black youths repurposing brands that typically wouldn’t have considered them a target market. Yet for Lil Nas X there wasn’t even a moment given for the song to breathe before every aspect of it was being put into a grinder for maximum profit.
The power dynamic is so oddly telling. There aren’t any public details about the deal between Wrangler, Columbia Records (Lil Nas X’s record label), and the singer himself but it’s odd that he is placed on the same flat surface of a clothing brand. That’s the language that Jenni Broyles, Wrangler’s Vice President/General Manager of Wrangler North America said in a statement reported by Complex: “We’re incredibly excited about the success of ‘Old Town Road’ and our partnership with Lil Nas X. It is another great example of the power music – and in our case, fashion – has to unite and inspire us all.”
Wrangler is a rather small part of VF Corporation, an apparel giant with revenue over $13 billion, which in no way could “partner” with a singular artist. The clothing company and Columbia are simply using the singer as a lovable mascot. It’s the Lil Yachty proposition (“I’m not a rapper, I’m an artist...and I’m more than an artist. I’m a brand.”) but now within an industry that’s mature enough to see through and capitalize on all of the sponsorship deals before an artist even hits their second single.
Internet Made the Viral Star
A genuinely exciting part of witnessing a song break into the mainstream is that anyone can join the journey. It can take the form of watching Instagram Stories, where artists take their fans behind-the-stage in increasingly larger venues. Fans can create TikTok videos with the music of those artists, which thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones is far easier than what was possible in the early days of YouTube.
Still, this path is just another retelling of the myth of success that obscures the fact that while the immediate material lives of artists improve, it’s not to the extent portrayed through an Instagram filter. This kind of lottery system is well known to legitimate lottery winners, professional athletes, and musicians in often rather grotesque forms. Yet without a dramatic shift in how society treats those who suddenly come to a large sum of money, I hold little fault in the situation of these chosen and highly exploited few. Rather, the bigger issue with viral success is who is truly in control of the direction of an artist’s career.
The trend at one point in the music industry was to sign artists, often black and young ones, to 360 deals that would sign away nearly all of the money they could potentially make in exchange for an upfront sum loan. In the streaming era, this is now shifting in the towards distribution deals, where companies are simply vampiring money out of acts by promising playlist placements, industry connections, and setting up a more solid career path. The fact that this model optimizes towards streaming (rather than digital or physical sales) isn’t the issue; rather, streaming just further abstracts an artist’s labor to potential fans.
I want to restate a little of what I wrote about TikTok in a previous newsletter:
If one can’t make money off TikTok, there can be a boost of streams from YouTube or Spotify; if one can’t make money from YouTube, then create a Patreon. Even if an obscure song by an artist goes viral on TikTok, one must hope that the interest generated can jump across to a platform that will properly compensate them. Not exactly the best system for building a career.
My goal this week isn’t to tear down the still-developing career of Lil Nas X, whose debut EP is arriving this Friday. Rather, it’s to ask what I often wondered when reporting stories on viral-hit artists like Silento, ILoveMemphis, or the dancers Ayo and Teo: What’s the next step? After one is no longer distracted by the massive numbers attached to a viral song, what is going to be done to sustain the careers of these artists beyond existing for others to extract profit?
Sudden, unplanned, viral success is a danger to one’s career and is framed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In my opinion, the collective joy that songs like “Watch Me Whip” or “Old Road Road” bring could be best considered as moments not of individuals but of the broader culture. Yet, it’s the labor of young black men (labor that’s quickly absorbed and easily forgotten) that often makes me fantasize about a world where virality is used as a foundation for establishing an artist’s career rather than as a scheme for maximizing profits.
Quick update here: the Brooklyn Academy of Music voted by 82% to join the Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers last week! This is another victory for this particular UAW local, which includes fellow New York City institutions: the New Museum, the Tenant Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. Good luck to the BAM workers as they proceed into contract negotiations.
6 Links 2 Read
Cherie Hu digs deep into recent shifts happening at Stem and goes beneath the surface of how the basics of music distribution remain in flux.
DistroKid, a company that Spotify owns a minor stake of, attempting to protect against music leaks is certainly more interesting in light of recent Playboi Carti and Radiohead leaks.
I fully expect to see a lot more stories and investigations into Spotify and nearly all music streaming services due to the GDPR and increased desire for tech regulation. More specifically, I did request my Spotify data through the GDPR last year and it took far too many emails to get something that is supposed to be easy for the average consumer to obtain.
This is a very litigious week in music news but this should be, I’d assume, the least consequential. There are reports that DJ Khaled may sue Billboard for not including albums sold along with his promotion of a multi-level marketing program—a nicer way of saying "a pyramid scheme". The fact that album sales have devolved into requiring partnerships with such shady business dealings is certainly an irony that isn’t lost on me.
What content dominates on YouTube? - Medium (Pex)
This study by Rasty Turek got covered by Billboard and Music Business Worldwide, but I’d recommend reading the full report rather than the summaries. Not only are there fun graphs in there but it helps contextualize the numbers a bit more. Though Turek says that YouTube could potentially save money by removing all of the content that gets high engagement, that would potentially put the company at the mercy of record labels, Hollywood studios, and big-time YouTubers, who’d even more rightfully say: “Without us, you’d have no platform.” The current set-up, with millions of users uploading content, allows a slight cover for the company, which ultimately makes money from only a few highly concentrated industries.
I don’t want to tell you not to click on the link but the headline here does such a good job that the rest of the story doesn’t uphold. The album “pre-save” or “pre-add” is a bullshit metric currently being pushed by Apple Music to continue its narrative of being a platform that’s friendly to artists and the album. That’s entirely hogwash, so just know that any story trumpeting such numbers is just copying-and-pasting Apple Music’s press copy.
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page or follow it on Twitter. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can at his website. The newsletter is copy-edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. My current job is Curation Analyst at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Any comments or concerns can be sent to email@example.com.