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TLDR - Lil Nas X was a college dropout sleeping on his sister’s couch with a negative balance in his Wells Fargo account. 5 months later he'd broke Mariah Carey’s record for the most consecutive weeks at No. 1. I think the story is full of lessons for Indie Hackers about the importance of building an audience and self promotion!
Most musicians think like failed startups. Too much time creating. Not enough time promoting.
When Lil Nas X dropped out of college to pursue music he didn’t create much. Instead, he lived on Twitter, made online friends and got popular posting memes. His account quickly grew to 30,000 followers.
The plan was to use his following to promote his music. But it wasn’t that simple. In Nas’s words:
I’d post a funny meme and get 2,000 retweets. Then I’d post a song and get 10.
So Nas got creative. He stopped tweeting SoundCloud links and started writing a song he could promote through memes. In his words:
It had to be short. It had to be catchy. It had to be funny.
Old Town Road was the result. And on the 3rd December 2018 Nas paired it with a video of a dancing cowboy and shared it with his followers (play video):
The video went viral. So Nas stuck to this formula: Short viral videos. To the tune of Old Town Road. With the full song linked underneath.
As an unknown artist, it was the only way he could get the word out. And the views started piling up.
Inspired by Old Town Road's success on Twitter it spread to TikTok, and then onto Billboard's country music charts. Yes, the country music charts. Nas listed it as a country song aware that the charts were less competitive.
One week later Billboard removed it for “not being a country song”. Ironically, this was the best thing that could have possibly happened. Billboard's decision turned Old Town Road into a national talking point and two weeks later it was No. 1.
Nas wasn't stopping. He began lining up remixes with some of music's biggest stars.
Billboard has a loophole whereby remix plays count towards the original song's chart placement. With every remix millions more streams poured in, and Old Town Road became impossible to budge.
17 weeks later he'd broke Mariah Carey's record for the most consecutive weeks at No. 1.
It's easy to forget quite what an extraordinary achievement this is. Five months earlier, Nas was a college dropout sleeping on his sister's couch with a negative balance in his Wells Fargo account.
On my first day researching Old Town Road I read a quote from Nas:
A lot of people like to say “a kid accidentally got lucky”. No. This was no accident.
The more I learned about Nas the more I believed him.
A key moment in Old Town Road's rise was a video of a man standing on a galloping horse going viral on Twitter. The audio was set to Old Town Road. Different versions of the video were viewed millions of times.
I wanted to know how the video spread, so I did some digging and found it first posted on the 24th December (play video):
I asked the Twitter user why he made the video. He told me that Nas sent it to him. But it doesn't end there.
Aware that people watching the video would search for the full song, Nas changed the song title on YouTube and SoundCloud to include the lyric from the viral video — “I got the horses in the back”.
He also posted on the NameThatSong subreddit which ranked on Google. Now, anyone searching from the video had an easy route to the song.
Things didn’t happen to Nas. Things happened because of Nas.
Virality is not mystical. The story of Old Town Road is not magical.
Look behind the curtain: Nas is sitting in his underpants, on his sister's couch, iPhone in hand, making the whole thing happen.
No one knew him. No one wanted to check out his song. No one promoted anything for him. He made friends, made them laugh, and built an audience. Then he packaged his song in a way that fit into their life. The rest is history.
So, I posted Nas' story up on Twitter. It went somewhat “viral” and got 1000 retweets. Let's peek behind the curtain once again. Because it's not magic!
I have an email newsletter who got sent this article. I added this message to the bottom of the email. And, well ... it seems to have worked ... (thank you Courtland. i stole the idea from your podcast emails!):
Thank you for reading a lot of words! If you want to learn more about marketing I share more examples over on Marketing Examples