“Old Town Road” was an unexpected hit from 2019 that blends country with hip-hop in ways few had ever heard before. It swept the charts, seemingly out of nowhere and made a serious impact on popular music. This inter-genre marriage of music creates a fresh sound that people are clearly responding to, and even introducing the genre of country to a wider audience of young people.
Being as obsessed with music as we are here at Control Play, we had to know more! Through researching its origin and distribution, we found a story that’s both interesting and inspiring.
This is the story of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X.
Criticism of Country
There are a lot of traditional, patriotic roots in country music that resist the test of time. Country has durable, familiar, reliable themes that resonate with working-class Americans and reflect their ideals.
While those are some of country’s greatest strengths, they can (and have) also been recognized as country’s greatest weaknesses. Country is criticized for being repetitive, formulaic, and unoriginal, and especially with young people who can sniff out the faintest whiff of inauthenticity, it’s been identified as “pandering.”
Musical comedian Bo Burnham demonstrated his disdain for the genre in his 2016 Netflix special Make Happy.
“I think some of the greatest songwriters of all time are country artists,” Burnham acknowledges, “Dolly Parton. Willie Nelson…you know? And if you’re writing honestly, that is art and I would never bash that. The problem is, with a lot of modern country music…is that it is not honest.
“It’s the exact opposite of honest,” He declares, “where instead of people actually telling their stories, you’ve got a bunch of millionaire metrosexuals who’ve never done a hard day’s work in their life, but they figured out the words and the phrases they can use to pander to their audience.”
Burnham goes on to mimic popular country tunes and call out recognizable tropes and clichés modern artists use in their music. While his commentary is harsh and his perspective is jaded for comedy’s sake (that’s kind of his brand), he does level some fair points against the popular style.
Burnham’s critique and comedy resonates with millennials and Generation Z. And after seeing how these generations have already influenced the development and distribution of the music industry, and that they’re just a few short years away from dramatically influencing the financial market, the tastes and opinions of young people are more valued and powerful than ever.
It should come as no surprise that in 2019, the world was ready for something to shake up the genre.
The ‘soundtrack for daydreams’
“Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X was only released in December 2018, but its history starts a whole decade earlier.
In 2008, industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails (NIN) released their sixth studio album Ghosts I–IV. They’d just severed ties with their former label in 2007, so this album was significant to them because it was technically their first independent release.
“I've been considering and wanting to make this kind of record for years,” NIN front man Trent Reznor wrote on the band’s website alongside the release, “but by its very nature it wouldn't have made sense until this point. This collection of music is the result of working from a very visual perspective—dressing imagined locations and scenarios with sound and texture; a soundtrack for daydreams. I'm very pleased with the result and the ability to present it directly to you without interference.”
All 36 of the tracks were released under a Creative Commons license and together became the first Creative Commons album to be nominated for a Grammy. But what is Creative Commons?
“Creative Commons is a system that allows you to legally use ‘some rights reserved’ music, movies, images, and other content—all for free.” The Creative Commons website states. “CC offers free copyright licenses that anyone can use to mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry. For instance, a musician might use a Creative Commons license to allow people to legally share her songs online, make copies for friends, or even use them in videos or make remixes.”
In the same year, a little website named BeatStars launched. Its goal? To let independent producers sell their music directly to musicians without the restrictions and networking obstacles the music industry traditionally had.
BeatStars CEO Abe Batshon told Fast Company, “We can inspire young people to pursue their dreams and actually do what they love doing, because not every city in the world has a music industry.”
Making the stuff you want, not the stuff that sells
Since its launch, BeatStars has accumulated 1.5 million users, and in 2016, a 16-year-old Kiowa Roukema in the Netherlands discovered the website. This Dutch producer, who goes by the name YoungKio, couldn’t afford the professional membership at the time. To earn enough money to join, Kio uploaded his tracks to YouTube with descriptions instructing anyone interested in buying them to email him.
And they did. Using this simple method, he sold enough tunes to cover a pro account on BeatStars in 2018, and in June he uploaded the beat that would become “Old Town Road.”
“I had just mastered my melody game and I was trying to get more into sampling. I knew how to sample, but I wanted some crazy challenges,” Kio told Billboard. He hunted down classical music like Beethoven and other unconventional sample choices, and his research brought him across the Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghosts IV.”
“Normally, when I sample something, I chop it, filter it—I turn it into something different. But this sample, I thought if I chopped this and filtered it, it’s going to ruin it. I tried to keep as much of the originality of the sample, but I also wanted to have the trap vibe, so I sped it up.
“It was just me trying to find a challenge for myself and randomly stumbling on a sample like, ‘Damn. I have to do something with this.’”
Did he know it was a banger right off the bat? Absolutely not. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Damn, this will not sell anything.’” Kio admitted to Fast Company. “The thing is, I really enjoyed making that beat because it was different. Making different stuff, it makes you have fun again—you’re not just doing the same thing because of the revenue. ‘Old Town Road’ made me think to make more stuff that I want and not the stuff that I have to sell.”
Old song, new sound
It started small. A single notification, a spark that would go on to set the whole internet on fire. Someone had purchased the track Kio thought would never sell. BeatStars is set up so artists remain anonymous, Kio explained to Billboard. “I just get a notification that they purchase it, and that’s it.”
2018 was the year the “Yeehaw Agenda” picked up traction. Major artists and fashion designers were incorporating country-western elements into their music, art, clothing, videos, magazines, and shows.
And the cherry on top of the trend arrived at the end of the year. Lil Nas X began teasing “Old Town Road” by including small sections of it in a few short viral video clips on Twitter. It created some buzz as users asked what the song was and tried to identify it. He even asked his followers to help him get Billy Ray Cyrus to contribute to the track.
On December 17, he released the full version of the song on Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, and YouTube. A fan of YoungKio tagged the young producer in a meme of a cowboy dancing to his beat. That was when he first discovered Lil Nas X, the artist who purchased his music just a few months prior.
“I went on SoundCloud and it had like 10,000 streams or something,” Kio told Billboard. “My name wasn't on there because when they buy it, they don't have to credit me. We didn't really have any connection. It was just him buying it from my beats store and me finding out after.” So, he messaged the artist and asked if he could help promote the track in exchange for producer credit. “He was cool with it.”
Their combined networks and the viral nature of the internet caused the song to explode. “It hit a million on SoundCloud and Spotify simultaneously.” It was a huge milestone for them, but their journey was only just beginning. “After that, I think it was the TikTok memes that really boosted it.”
TikTok is a short-form mobile video platform, and its users took on the “Yeehaw Challenge” with enthusiasm. User @nicemichael started the trend by changing from shorts and a hoodie into blue jeans and a plaid shirt while dancing to “Old Town Road.” The rest of the platform seized the format and used the song to magically transform themselves into cowboys and cowgirls, too.
They loved the fusion of trap and country. The track’s online popularity leaked into Billboard’s pop, rap, and country charts, all at the same time. And while Billboard removed it from their Hot Country chart, its popularity and impact was not lost among listeners.
Music and innovation
Control Play is passionate about music and innovation, which is a main reason why this story resonates here. We add new music for our subscribers daily so they can exceed their guests’ expectations at their bars or restaurants. You can’t be sure what the next “Old Town Road” will be, but you can be sure that as soon as it happens, it’ll be in our player immediately for all subscribers.