Lil Nas X continues to dominate the US charts, having just racked up his ninth consecutive week atop the Billboard Hot 100 with Old Town Road.
As we’ve previously reported, the artist is signed to Columbia Records out of New York – with that label’s Chairman, Ron Perry, making a crucially good impression on Lil Nas X (real name Montero Lamar Hill) via Instagram before striking a deal with the act in March.
But could Old Town Road have been an independent smash hit instead of a major label one?
In a word, yes. That’s according to Diego Farias, the CEO of the track’s original distribution company – Stockholm-based startup, Amuse.
Speaking on a streaming-focused panel today (June 4) at Midem in Cannes, France, Farias called Lil Nas X’s success a “very good proof point” of his company’s business model.
Amuse allows any artist to digitally distribute their music via its platform – for free – to all key digital services. The firm then upstreams select acts from this pool into a record label-style licensing deal (should artists accept such a contract) in which it offers significant monetary advances and marketing support.
Amuse has financial firepower at its disposal: a year ago, it raised a $15.5m funding round led by Lakestar and Raine Ventures.
Farias explained that Lil Nas X uploaded two tracks through Amuse last summer (“not much happened with them”) before uploading Old Town Road towards the end of the year.
By the beginning of 2019, says Farias, Amuse had noticed that Lil Nas X was “popping” and offered the act a licensing deal. This was turned down, before Amuse returned with a bulked-up offer in the spring.
How much money was involved in that latter offer?
Said Farias: “It was obvious this kid was taking off. The initial conversations we had with Lil Nas X [were]: ‘I want to stay independent, I want to do this on my own, blah blah blah.’ I ended up offering him an insane check with incredible terms… north of a million dollars.”
Cue mini-gasp from the watching Midem audience.
“I ended up offering him an insane check with incredible terms… north of a million dollars.”
Diego Farias, Amuse (speaking at Midem today)
Farias continued: “[This was] a million dollars to a kid who was 19 years old, who didn’t even have the money to pay for a distribution service when he used Amuse the first time.
“To a large extent, this is the story a lot of us dream of: a self-published artist with little means who has an incredible talent, comes through this system, somehow gets [noticed above] the 40,000 tracks a day being uploaded to Spotify and Apple Music, and… becomes a global star.”
Farias acknowledged the role of TikTok in making Old Town Road a global hit – but he was less generous with his praise when it came to the Sony label that ultimately signed the artist (for an deal we now surely have to presume was worth significantly north of a million dollars).
Said Farias: “Very quickly, somewhere in January, [Old Town Road] was trending tremendously on TikTok; it went from 20,000 hashtags to a million-and-a-half in three days, [and Lil Nas X’s] social media was blowing up.
“He’s one of those standout artists who really, really makes it on their own. My challenge would be: excuse me, what did Columbia actually do in this? The kid is seven-times platinum and a lot of that momentum was already built up. He was doing millions of streams per day before Columbia picked him up.”
“My challenge would be: excuse me, what did Columbia actually do in this? The kid is seven-times platinum and a lot of that momentum was already built up. He was doing millions of streams per day before Columbia picked him up.”
Diego Farias, Amuse
Columbia might counter that sideswipe, for one thing, by noting that Ron Perry pulled together the Billy Ray Cyrus remix of Old Town Road, which smartly capitalized on controversy surrounding the song’s exclusion from Billboard’s Country chart.
That Billy Ray Cyrus remix has now been streamed over 300m times on Spotify – with more plays than the original version of the song.
Scott Cohen, Warner’s recently-hired Chief Innovation Officer, gently goaded Farias throughout the Lil Nas X discussion (while noting his respect for Amuse as a company) – and prompted the “north of a million dollars” revelation.
Summing up the Lil Nas X story from his point of view, Cohen said that, with many independent artists who begin to enjoy success, “There’s a point where they go, this [indie deal] helped me to here, but [now] I want to go somewhere else.”
Amuse recently launched a ‘Fast Forward’ service, which delivers advances to artists at various levels of success, based on future forecasts of their streaming performance.
You can watch the full panel from Midem today – featuring Farias and Cohen, plus Marie-Anne Robert, Global Head of Artist Development at Believe Digital, and Martin Nielsen, CEO of African streaming service Mdundo – below.
It was moderated by Veva Sound’s Director of Industry Relations, Helienne Lindvall.Music Business Worldwide