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Lil Nas X, ‘Amuse’ and the technologically driven democratisation of the music industry

Posted by Charlie O'Toole on 28th November 2019

The interactions between technology and music are something of a personal fascination. In a previous blog post, I talked about how Spotify uses machine learning to constantly offer you new and relevant music that always seems to be just what you’re after.

Taking it back just a step, though, have you ever wondered how music winds up on those streaming platforms in the first place? If you guessed that it works in the same way as CDs in stores and it was all done through labels, distributors and a cohort of other middlemen, you may be surprised to find out just how simple and easy it is for music to wind up on streaming services.

Over recent years, technology (especially the internet) has driven significant change in how all forms of media are consumed, and the music industry has been heavily affected by this disruption. In years gone by, when radio and physical formats such as cassettes and CDs dominated the market, the sheer logistical infrastructure required to produce and deliver products necessitated labels and distributors. However, as consumer behaviour has shifted towards digital consumption as opposed to physical, the need for complicated agreements, international licensing and regional distributors has all but gone.

New online platforms have taken advantage of the digital revolution of music consumption and have streamlined the route to market, making it not only viable but in many cases preferable to remain independent when distributing music. The recent posterchild for this success has been Lil Nas X, whose single ‘Old Town Road’ recently exploded in popularity catapulting him from relative obscurity into the international spotlight. It was an unheralded hit, breaking records on its way to 17 straight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.

What’s more remarkable about this hit was the way in which it was produced and released. Reportedly, the beat that was used cost Lil Nas X $30, and it was initially distributed on the online platform Amuse, which allows for free distribution to all the major streaming services.

You read that right, it was completely free to distribute the song to Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, everywhere. The rub here is that Amuse then gets the inside track on artists that distribute their work through its service — and with access to in-depth analytics, the organisation passes on high-performing artists to the more traditional label side of its business.

Lil Nas X was predictably offered a contract with Amuse, but he declined and instead signed with a more established presence in Columbia Records, an imprint of one of the ‘Big Three’ record labels.

Where Lil Nas X wound up may be more of the same, achieving international success and signing to a major label, but the route he took there with a $30 beat and a free online distribution service is evidence of a new ecosystem within the music industry.

Though, this may not be the triumph for the little guy that this seems. With the promise of being an overnight success, bedroom artists everywhere are taking advantage resulting in around 40,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify — Every. Single. Day. Which adds up to a whopping 14.6 million songs a year.

The sheer volume of tracks makes it almost impossible to cut through the noise, and with advanced metrics provided by distribution platforms to labels (for a fee of course) labels now get to separate the wheat from the chaff not just by subjective measures, but by region, age and other demographics to act as a prediction for future performance.

So now the route to market is easier than ever, maybe it was never for the benefit of the artist? For every hit song there’s 39,999 posted every day, and this way labels don’t need to stump up the upfront cash.

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