No one saw Lil Nas X coming. His race to ubiquity came impossibly quickly, and it’s a rare instance of an artist’s industry story — the making-of chronicle of an underdog star — becoming to wide audiences as compelling as his music. Ever since the 20-year-old rapper rose into the public eye a few months ago, first on the madcap video platform TikTok and then in headlines amid controversy over country-music charts, fans and executives alike have been scrambling to work out the method behind his one-song success.
Of the dissections of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which has sat at the top of music charts for eight weeks now, neither the treatises on its roots as a social-media meme nor the examinations of the charming sonic wackiness of its melody have paid much attention to one crucial aspect of the story: how and why the song’s underlying beat — the source of its all-important Nine Inch Nails banjo sample — only cost the rapper $30. That Lil Nas X was able to put together a chart-smashing song for less than the price of a tank of gas is a perfect testament that the traditional structure of the music business has blown apart.
“I don’t know if I’m living in some type of simulation at this point,” Lil Nas X recently told Rolling Stone. His smash hit only started taking shape in June 2018, when a Dutch teenager named Kiowa Roukema, a.k.a. Young Kio, tossed a trap beat under a banjo loop pulled from the Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghosts IV,” which he’d found on a whim while browsing YouTube’s recommended section. He uploaded it as “Future type beat” (though it doesn’t really sound like a Future type beat) to a website called BeatStars. In November, it caught the attention of Montero Hill, a.k.a. Lil Nas, who had only been making music for a few months “out of boredom” from his sister’s home in Atlanta, Georgia. Nas recorded a song to the beat, and by the close of the year, the pair’s work was all over the internet, without the two ever meeting.
BeatStars is a digital marketplace where producers and artists are able to link up without ever getting into a studio together. Artists can pay a bargain-rate fee to download a beat, leaving it open to other artists to use as well, as Lil Nas X did. If they shell out a little more, they can get an exclusive license. The website is the brainchild of Abe Batshon, a musician-entrepreneur who only found out that “Old Town Road” came out of a BeatStars deal after the track blew up on music charts and he checked his records. “I don’t think Young Kio even knew about the song until it started having legs and trending on TikTok,” Batshon, who runs the company with a team of about 20 people headquartered in Austin, Texas, tells Rolling Stone. “Lil Nas X was just another customer. The majority of the time, the artist and the producer never meet each other.”
A number-one song coming out of an online marketplace is “pretty exciting stuff,” Batshon says, proudly. He launched BeatStars when he was working in music distribution in 2008 — introducing the idea of a collaborative digital hub long before most of the industry had even fully embraced the internet. Inspiration came from his own experiences in high school trawling AOL chatrooms and persuading producers to lease beats to him because he couldn’t afford their thousand-dollar fees. Today, BeatStars has more than a million users, and Batshon says producers are on track to earn $40 million from the platform this year, which is double the amount they earned in 2018. Sellers span 160 countries and range from 14 to 70 years old.
When an artist finds something they want to lease on BeatStars, they sign a license agreement that typically covers a standard set of performance, mechanical and synchronization rights and waives future royalties. Producers, who can customize these agreements as they see fit, charge between $20 and $200 for a beat and keep either 70% or 100% of revenue depending on whether they’re on the free or subscription tier of the site. Some users, such as a dancehall producer in Albania, make as much as $40,000 a month, Batshon says. “I always knew collaboration would move completely to the internet,” he says. “I saw that producers are completely, out of this whole equation, the lowest stakeholders in the song. One in a million producers can get a hit record. But how many producers are creating amazing content from all over the world, outside of Los Angeles and New York?”
Picture-perfect as it sounds, there is one elephant-in-the-room issue with producers leasing music to artists for cheap: While BeatStars’ transactions and licensing agreements are fully above-board, the site can’t guarantee that the underlying beat always has its own copyrights sorted out — namely, in the case of a producer using samples of other music in a beat. If an artist commercially releases a song with an uncleared sample in it, the artist who is sampled can sue them for track credit and back royalties. One recent high-profile example is Nicki Minaj’s “Baby Can I Hold You,” which featured an uncleared sample from Tracy Chapman that sparked a still-ongoing lawsuit. Young Kio’s sample of the Nine Inch Nails banjo bit was not cleared prior to it being uploaded to BeatStars — meaning it was played millions of times without the band’s approval or attribution.
Because Lil Nas X self-released “Old Town Road” before he signed with Sony’s Columbia Records in March, either he or Sony likely had to pay the band a substantial sum of money in back royalties after the song got popular, and definitely before Billy Ray Cyrus hopped onto the remix, people familiar with the matter say. (Nine Inch Nails released the song under a 2008 Creative Commons license, but such a license does not cover sharing and remixing for commercial purposes.) The amount that has to be paid retroactively for a sample usually comes down to the size of the audience, the prominence of the sample, and the leverage of the sampled artist — whether they’re a household name, for example — and it often swells if a song has hit the top of the charts. Reps for Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and the publishing companies representing the artists’ respective catalogs declined to comment.
“Artists will go after whoever has the biggest wallet to get their back-revenue,” Deborah Mannis-Gardner, whose company DMG Clearances is known for clearing samples for artists from Drake to Lady Gaga, tells Rolling Stone. “In this case, because the artist was picked up by Sony, they might’ve hit Sony’s publishing company but Sony might have said ‘This was released prior to us picking it up.’ They may go after the artist, if the artist was paid an advance. But in each case people are going to point fingers. The artist points fingers at the producer who dropped the sample in, and the producer says they didn’t release it as a song.”
Royalty splits from sampling are a notoriously messy — and often arbitrary — business. When Ariana Grande released “7 Rings” with The Sound of Music‘s “My Favorite Things” as the backbone, negotiations resulted in 90% of the royalties of the song going to Rodgers and Hammerstein, two songwriters who died decades ago. Just last week, another example of gasp-inducing split rates (re)entered the public realm when the Rolling Stones decided to give back the royalties for “Bittersweet Symphony” to The Verve, after it had forced Richard Ashcroft to hand over 100% percent of royalties from the song in a lawsuit two decades ago.
In the case of “Old Town Road” and other songs that are born out of BeatStars deals, some sources say the company can’t be held responsible for uncleared samples because it is offering producers’ arrangements of compositions, not ready-for-sale commercial products. But others in the industry strongly disagree with that view, believing online music marketplaces should establish a process by which each beat uploaded is reviewed and cleared.
“People have this mentality of ‘Well if it’s only on SoundCloud and not being sold, why do I need to clear?'” Mannis-Gardner says. “You need to clear because there’s streaming revenue and people lose out, and because you’re sampling something to create something to promote yourself as an artist. Promotion is not free. We are constantly going back and clearing stuff that wasn’t initially cleared.”
But, she adds, “If someone uses something and the artist sampled is not adamantly against it or repulsed, we always try to work out a deal. It’s the music industry. You can always work out a deal and make something happen.”
While the music business wrestles with how to deal with novel business models like that of BeatStars, such disruption is old hat to people in the taxi business or the hotel industry — or any other market that’s been thoroughly upended by the gig-economy mentality. BeatStars isn’t alone in its field: A number of other sites like SoundBetter, Airgigs, Airbit and SoundClick operate like a Taskrabbit service marketplace for music, offering affordable vocals, lyrics and melodies for musical projects. These “work-for-hire” music sites have radically cut down the cost of music production and allowed, along with a wave of cheap production and distribution software in the last decade, ostensibly painless and almost instantaneous paint-by-numbers music-making.
The rise of so-called “type beats” in music also raises concerns about limited creativity and easy conformity, especially when producers make beats expressly to mimic a specific artist’s sound (and find musicians via search bars). Batshon, at least, is not worried about beat marketplaces leading to mediocre music because of the breadth of sounds from which artists can choose. “The beauty of BeatStars is that the best music rises to the top,” Batshon says. “Recording artists are not really interested in the name recognition of the producer. It’s all about the music. It’s the attention economy. Everyone is creating.”
Now, the new world of gig music is big enough now to attract some celebrity names. BeatStars, which Batshon says the music industry laughed at when it first launched in 2008, helped Future find two of the beats on 2017’s HNDRXX — “Fresh Air” and the chart-topper “Selfish” featuring Rihanna — from Las Vegas producer Mantra; Tekashi 6ix9ine‘s bruising “Kooda” and “Rondo” both have beats licensed from BeatStars producer Koncept P. On SoundBetter, artists selling their services include OK Go drummer Kan Konopka, former Morrisey guitarist Neil Taylor, Grammy-winning engineer Jeff Ellis and Beatles engineer Geof Emerick.
As more major artists flock to these new, whip-fast music production services, the music industry is forced to try and figure out how it can adapt its traditionally slow-moving business model and fixed label-publisher-artist hierarchy to accommodate new means of producing music. It’s a question that executives have to reckon with at every turn: On TikTok, where “Old Town Road” first blew up, for example, users and record labels are lobbying the video-media app to pay artists and meme-makers real sums of money rather than treating them as hobbyist users. With type beats, some labels are hiring the producers directly so that they don’t miss out on any stray revenue streams.
Wall Street is intrigued, too. Batshon says he receives inquiries from venture capitalists every week, but he wants to wait and see what else the company can become first. “Nas and Kio — their lives have completely changed,” he says. “All the labels are scouring BeatStars for their next producers, using it as a discovery tool. I wanted to open a new door and create a more fair playing field and that’s what happened.” It’s up to the industry to decide where to go next.
Elias Leight contributed reporting.