Thursday, August 1, 2019

Lil Nas X Lessons | Lefsetz Letter


The younger generation is online all the time…how else will they connect with their peers? And the younger generation is all about new platforms. Oldsters are on Facebook, you can’t find anybody under twenty who uses that platform. So take the temperature of the younger set, see where they play, and go there. Furthermore, today it’s less about the star than the listener. TikTok works because it’s about the user, not the maker of the original music. This is a sea change in consumption and word of mouth. Oftentimes songs are just a vehicle to make the listeners famous!


Which is asleep. Believe me, none of the oldster reporters is living on TikTok, you’ve got to tell them what’s going on online. Unless it’s war, stories always start online. The story in this case was that “Old Town Road” was rejected by “Billboard”‘s country chart makers. Forget that that chart means little, it’s all about radio airplay in country, and Mediabase rules, but suddenly it was a story of us vs. them, of black vs. white, of racial equality, of bias. The truth is this was untrue. Country radio was unaware of “Old Town Road” and the decision at “Billboard” was made willy-nilly, it’s not like they convened the editors to make a judgment. But this story appealed to the mainstream press, and got universal traction, as people on all sides of the issue debated it. It wasn’t about the record, but the CONCEPT! In other words, with a publicity stunt, Lil Nas X and his team surfed the zeitgeist…and people had to listen to the track in order to make a judgment. And the hardest thing to do today is to get attention, listens, and this PR stunt delivered that. But don’t repeat it exactly, it won’t work, just like acts tried to replicate Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” promotion, with its name your own price feature. The key is to know that stunts still work, but you’ve got to get one with a hook, that’s a twist on what came before to succeed. And the more people who try stunts, the fewer that succeed.


This is where the remixes come in. In the age of cacophony, where everybody is deep into their own rabbit hole, not only is it hard to break through, it’s hard to keep it alive, even though tracks last longer than ever. And the reason they last longer than ever is radio wants familiarity, and they stick with that which delivers ears, i.e. ratings. Radio loves playing the remixes of a hit, and they’re always a story online. And getting Billy Ray Cyrus to do the first was a masterstroke. A has-been country novelty act with nothing to lose was willing to sell out and say and do anything for attention, which hit country acts probably wouldn’t have done.


17 weeks at number one? WHERE? “Panini” ranks higher than “Old Town Road” on Spotify. You have to get to #17 until you find the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. And it’s #13 on the Mediabase Top Forty chart, which is the bible of the format. No one is vetting these figures, they’re just deferring to “Billboard” with its formulas that make no sense. With their weighting and… But everybody’s #1 somewhere, some obscure chart, maybe in their bedroom, and in a world with few fact-checkers, you can trumpet this before anybody catches up with it! Yes, “Old Town Road” is #1 at the iTunes Store, but that’s almost like being #1 on the SACD chart. Track sales represent an infinitesimal sliver of consumption, why are they weighted so high? No real music fan buys anymore, it makes no sense when you can get everything for ten bucks a month anyway, and the compressed sound is a far cry from high fidelity. Tell someone, anyone, that a track is #1 on the iTunes chart and they’ll shrug, maybe laugh, because that’s a passe backwater. But “Billboard” anointed “Old Town Road” and there’s a story about the track going #1 for seventeen weeks in all media outlets. Not to mention that #1 isn’t what it used to be anyway. Comparing Lil Nas X to the Beatles is like comparing your flag football team to the Patriots.


If you’re a one hit wonder, best to align with a major that can spend all the money to do remixes and pound the pundits/writers. They’ve got the money and the power.


“Old Town Road” itself is nearly irrelevant. Yes, it shows the power of TikTok, but the track isn’t even as ubiquitous as “Macarena” in terms of mindshare in the public at large. “Macarena” was all over TV…today kids don’t even watch broadcast/cable TV. Active viewers employ on demand streaming services, and they don’t even watch the same thing! Ratings of TV shows are a fraction of what they used to be, even “Stranger Things” and “Game of Thrones.” So to say something is #1 today…usually means almost nothing.

And speaking of #1 I’d say we need new charts, but the charts are already there. We’ve got streaming, sales and radio. Three charts of three different stripes. Radio is behind streaming and sometimes never catches up. “Billboard” has Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” as the #1 country track and in the Mediabase Country chart…IT DOESN’T EVEN APPEAR!

And you wonder why music doesn’t move the culture like it used to.

The truth is there’s no consensus. Oftentimes what is hyped has a relatively tiny footprint, and if looky-loos check it out they don’t like it, and they check out less new stuff.

One could say that music is a harbinger for media consumption, but you could also say the industry is in a race to the bottom. The majors only want to promote narrow genres of music that many people don’t like and the reporting on the industry is clueless.

And you wonder why people don’t pay attention.


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