How YouTube helped make ‘Old Town Road’ a viral hit

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Lil Nas X, whose viral hit “Old Town Road” was removed from Billboard’s country charts because officials there decided it wasn’t country enough. (Eric Lagg/AP)

For many news sites, the coverage of Lil Nas X’s viral hit “Old Town Road” centered on one theme: Billboard’s role as country music’s gatekeeper.

On YouTube, things were moving faster. The song had already been digested, meme’d, reacted to and dissected for an audience that generally isn’t paying attention to Billboard as closely. Instead, they’re watching people breathlessly react to, dance to, critique and remix songs.

Billboard began factoring in streaming numbers to its charts in 2012 with mixed results, and those charts are a quick way to gauge the music landscape. But Billboard is following the discussion, not leading it. It’s important to consider that YouTubers are the tastemakers for millions of younger music fans. According to a recent Pew Research study, 91 percent of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 29 say they use YouTube. Billboard can’t match the scale of that influence, nor can any other music publication.

Lil Nas X released the song on YouTube (and SoundCloud) in December, pairing the song with video clips from the wildly popular video game “Red Dead Redemption 2,” which is set in the Old West. The timing of the release aligned perfectly with a surge in country music memes, humorously referred to as the “yeehaw agenda” on Twitter. “Old Town Road” quickly became the meme’s unofficial theme song.

Four months after the original song’s release, it has been viewed more than 35 million times. But that only tells part of the story. Search the song name on YouTube, and there are 21 videos that each have more than 1 million views. The way YouTubers have used the song to create new videos is a perfect example of the participatory appeal of the platform. It’s a huge reason it and other social video platforms, such as Tik Tok and Instagram, have found huge audiences.

There’s a whole ecosystem of supplementary content surrounding “Old Town Road” on YouTube, including exuberant reaction videos and simple lyrics videos that show text on screen as the music plays. One of those karaoke-ready videos already has 15 million views. Another has more than 2 million views. Not a bad return on what can’t be much of a time investment.

Once Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from its country chart, the song rode another wave of interest. Lil Nas X brought Billy Ray Cyrus in for a remix, four months after releasing the original song, and music YouTube sprung into action, ready to capitalize on the additional attention to an already viral song.

YouTube reviewers and reactors created their videos at a dizzying pace. The “Old Town Road” remix was published April 4, and on the same day, dozens of reaction videos were already filling YouTube feeds. The incentive is clear: The faster you turn around those videos, the more likely you are to find eyeballs, and grow your channel’s audience. There’s another factor at play: Audience interest in a song is generally proportional to the popularity of the artist. A review or reaction to Ariana Grande’s latest hit will usually perform better than a review of a lesser-known band. So the remix to “Old Town Road” was a strong bet.

The original version of the song wasn’t immediately met with tons of secondary videos, but that wasn’t the case for the remix.

Established YouTube music critics such as Anthony Fantano reviewed the song and called Cyrus “one of the bigger opportunists in the music industry.” Fantano showed a time-lapse video of himself listening to the song before sharing his thoughts to his 678,000 subscribers. After calling it a “pretty light remix,” Fantano methodically deconstructs the track, before concluding that Cyrus’s inclusion in the song is “kind of awkward.”

Fantano touches on the Billboard controversy, adding that “these genres of music, country and rap, aren’t really as far removed from one another as we’d like to think.” His approach, similar to his other videos, is deliberate, even keeled and thoughtful.

Other YouTube reviewers blasted the track while dancing along and pointing out their favorite lyrics.

“He’s giving it to this beat,” Shawn Cee excitedly yelled as the camera zoomed in on his nodding head, eyes closed. In the rest of his 10-minute video, Cee touched on the merit of genre-crossing music and the composition of the song.

Cee said he thinks the song has a lot of the characteristics that we traditionally associate with country music and ends the video by asking his audience if genres are too rigid. “Is the obsession to classify certain music … separating people from listening to music for what the music is?”

Other music reviewers, such as LawTWINZ and Lost In Vegas, took a similar approach: Enthusiastic, animated reactions to the song as it plays, followed by a wide-ranging discussion.

There’s also a video of Lil Nas X explaining the lyrics behind his hit song in a video for music annotation site Genius, which has been viewed more than 7 million times.

And then there’s dance YouTube, an unusually joyous and wholesome part of the site. You’ll find hundreds of videos, most featuring a group of teens performing coordinated dances. The best videos include at least one person wearing a horse mask.

As is the case for a lot of videos on YouTube, many of the best mash-ups originated on Tik Tok, where people were participating in the “yee-yee haw” challenge by sharing short videos of themselves jumping into cowboy attire to the beat of the song.

Lil Nas X joined in as well, posting a video of some of the meme mash-ups to his YouTube channel, which had been the only place where DJs could find his song. While a lot of artists passively watch as their songs move through different YouTube communities, the 20-year-old Lil Nas X is taking an active approach to distribution. At every turn, he has replicated what YouTubers have done for years — humorously leverage mainstream media skepticism, in this case Billboard’s, to build his own audience.

It’s working because it comes across as authentic, not opportunistic. He’s in on the jokes, and other YouTubers seem to love it.

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