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Montero “Lil Nas X” Hill’s parents were concerned when their son dropped out of college eight months ago to pursue a career in rap; as the country trap star told Time Magazine, his parents succinctly pointed out there are millions of rappers already crowding the scene. Hill didn’t listen. He had to compete with up-and-coming rappers on streaming services like SoundCloud and Spotify, but Hill had a secret card up his sleeve — a meme and TikTok.
“I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger,” Hill told Time. “I was pretty familiar with TikTok: I always thought its videos would be ironically hilarious. When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me. A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger.”
TikTok was crucial to the success of Hill’s “Old Time Road” hit, which now sits at number 15 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. A hashtag for “#yeehaw” has manifested thousands of videos with more than 67 million plays — the majority of which sample Hill’s song. Although Hill isn’t getting paid directly for the song (he uploaded “Old Time Road” to TikTok’s audio database for free so anyone could use it), the explosion in popularity has some financial benefits. Hill’s Lil Nas X Spotify page has more than 65 million streams on his song, and he receives a cut for those streams.
“I should maybe be paying TikTok,” Hill told Time. “They really boosted the song. It was getting to the point that it was almost stagnant. When TikTok hit it, almost every day since that, the streams have been up. I credit them a lot.”
It’s true, Hill owes a lot to TikTok, but the platform may owe just as much to him. The success of “Old Town Road” proves that TikTok isn’t just a place for lip syncing or choreographed dances isn’t just a place for lip syncing or choreographed dances; it’s a new platform for a song to find an audience. Internet savvy artists like Hill know that. He’s a savant, who used a song with a catchy hook that could be used as snippet to garner attention it wouldn’t find anywhere else. It paid off for him — and numerous other artists — who have flocked to the platform almost like they did SoundCloud as a chance of breaking through the crowd. TikTok is a discovery platform just as much as it is a place to waste time participating in meme culture.
Hill understands how integral to success a widespread meme on TikTok can be to his career. He told Rolling Stone that running a “meme type of account on Twitter,” helped him learn “what my audience is looking for.” Hill added, for that reason, he “put some potentially funny lines in there.”
TikTok was the next obvious step. Hill’s song, released in December 2018, arrived at the perfect time. A cowboy resurgence was happening online — Red Dead Redemption 2 was still one of the most popular games, and cowboy culture was popular among the hiphop community. This moment in time was referred to as the “Yee Haw Agenda” and, by February 2019, it became a popular trending hashtag on TikTok.
TikTok’s parent company didn’t waste any time pointing out that it all started with a meme. A blog post on TikTok’s website notes that “short videos of people sipping E-Juice, finding out it was Yee-Juice, and magically transforming into cowgirls and cowboys filled the feeds” over the last few weeks.
“At the center of this meme was ‘Old Town Road,’ a song by Lil Nas X,” the blog post reads. “The low-key, melodic banjo intro leading to an emphatic base drop was the perfect music to inspire countless creators across TikTok.”
Hill’s success on TikTok is one of the most notable, but he’s not the only artist who has seen a growth in streams and attention after a snippet of a track goes viral on TikTok. Absofacto’s “Dissolve” and Joji’s “Slow Dancing in the Dark” became trends in their own right, according to the blog. “Slow Dancing in the Dark” exploded thanks to the #MicrowaveChallenge. These TikTok videos are often collected and turned into compilations on YouTube, which reach a new audience and often attract hundreds of thousands if not millions of views. Once these reach Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram, it’s a whole new playing field for musicians. But so much of it starts with TikTok. As Pitchfork reported in February:
Downloading a TikTok video to use off the app is easy, and last summer clips of NyanNyanCosplay’s “Mia Khalifa” dance started bouncing over YouTube, where they appeared in compilations and multiple videos by Pewdiepie, one of the most popular vloggers on Earth. Plays on iLOVEFRiDAY’s official music video increased by a factor of 10, and, on YouTube, snippets of the song have been played over 200 million times. Based on reports about YouTube’s royalty rates, the video giant could have easily paid the group $150,000.
Unlike YouTube or Spotify, artists aren’t making money off TikTok plays — but in many cases, exposure on the platform for up-and-coming artists is more important than direct revenue. In the case of iLOVEFRiDAY, whose song became the hit meme “Hit or Miss,” revenue was still coming in from YouTube compilations and react videos. That’s ok for right now.
“At the end of the day, the relationship with TikTok is more important than asking them to pay me for a record,” iLOVEFRiDAY’s manager told Pitchfork. “It’s giving us exposure, and that’s what we need to push the brand forward.”
“TikTok helped me change my life,” Nas said on TikTok’s blog. “TikTok brought my song to several different audiences at once.”
Correction 4/5, 7:11 pm ET): An earlier version of this report referred to Hill’s song as a remake of a Billy Ray Cyrus song. It’s an original that Billy Ray Cyrus later remixed. The story has been updated to reflect these changes.