Austin Tech Startup Facilitated Viral Smash “Old Town Road”
Lil Nas X bought the hit’s backing track via BeatStars
By Kevin Curtin,
3:35PM, Fri. Apr. 19, 2019
Throughout 2018, Lil Nas X purchased a slew of backing tracks from BeatStars, an online music licensing platform where recording artists buy beats from producers. His most significant purchase came on Nov. 5, when he shelled out $30 for a banjo-imbued trap track helmed by Dutch teen Kiowa Roukema.
Less than a month later, the budding Atlanta rapper – real name Montero Lamar Hill – released “Old Town Road,” an astonishingly catchy commingling of rural and urban themes that includes the inspired couplet, “Cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty” using the beat he licensed from Roukema, aka YoungKio, which includes elements of Nine Inch Nails deep cut “34 Ghosts IV.” After a wild, four-month ride that saw the viral song crack off on the TikTok app then rake in controversy for getting bounced from the country charts, “Old Town Road” now sits atop Billboard’s Hot 100 and broke the one-week streaming record with 143 million U.S. streams over seven days.
Turns out that old cliche that “I listen to all kinds of music – except country and rap” is bullshit, after all.
“We expected this moment to happen, and it’s finally happening,” BeatStars CEO Abe Batshon says of his platform being used to craft a No. 1 hit. “This is a testament to why I built the company.”
Batshon characterizes BeatStars as “a social music licensing platform for recording artists and music producers.” Founded in 2008, the Austin music tech startup now logs over a half a million downloads every month, facilitating the licensing of instrumental compositions that are used as backing tracks for vocalists, background music in YouTube videos, and a plethora of other purposes.
As sourcing music on the internet grows in popularity, BeatStar’s CEO confirms that hip-hop remains the top genre in their marketplace, while pop music comes in a close second. You can also find reggae, rock, country, and electronic tracks on BeatStars. Batshon notes that the platform hosts sounds from producers with platinum sales and Grammy wins as well as burgeoning beatmakers.
“We literally have kids on the platform in their bedroom making $50,000-60,000 a month selling beats,” he says of the marketplace he designed to be “a network of entrepreneurs.” “It’s very open. There are no gatekeepers.”
BeatStars’ marketplace, with its social media profile and playlist-friendly usability, facilitated over $20 million in sales last year. Producers set their own prices for beats, while artists who pay for a monthly membership get 100% of the money from their sales and nonmembers get 70%. All parties receive funds at the point of transaction – a rare occurrence in the music business. Batshon emphasizes the transparency of consumer data is what makes BeatStars artist-friendly.
“We don’t hold our user’s data hostage to them like iTunes or Spotify, where you don’t know who’s listening to your music, you can’t build a relationship with your fans, you can’t re-market to them,” he outlines. “How do you expect musicians to consistently make a living without e-commerce built in?”
As for how licensing works on BeatStars, Batshon explains that the platform gives writers access to built-in agreements with a variety of options – including whether the work is exclusive or nonexclusive.
“We make sure our producers are factoring in 50% of the writer’s share on publishing. If a song takes off – like ‘Old Town Road’ – the producer’s protected by the agreement,” Batshon explains, noting that in the case of a song becoming a massive hit, the traditional industry – major publishers and labels – will step in and the track will leave the BeatStars platform.
Thus, while YoungKio only charged Lil Nas X $30 for a nonexclusive MP3, that’s by no means the only money he’s making off “Old Town Road.”
“That doesn’t mean he relinquishes ownership of his production,” Batshon says, “but YoungKio’s still gonna get a massive publishing deal.”