How Lil Nas X changed music history on Twitter
5 min Case Study
Lil Nas X made music history in 2019 with the release of “Old Town Road,” a country-trap song that spent a record-breaking 19 consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart earlier this year. The single, first released in December 2018, crisscrossed music genres like a line dance, making headlines and creating conversation before being remixed into the now ubiquitous version featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.
Lil Nas X has since been awarded accolades from the Country Music Association Awards, American Music Awards, MTV VMAs, and the Teen Choice Awards, culminating in six Grammy nominations. From the beginning, one of Lil Nas X’s key methods of self-promotion has been social media, highlighting his music through memes, videos, and jokes. Building his fan base this way has paid off — when the song first dropped in December 2018, Lil Nas X already had a strong Twitter community to share it with. Now that number is 3.5 million, and growing with each new single release and award nomination.
According to John Salcedo, digital marketing director at Columbia Records, Lil Nas X’s early followers were “other absolutely hilarious people on Twitter, and rising creatives and musicians.” Nowadays that fanbase includes the likes of Janet Jackson and Bruno Mars. When asked about how his Twitter community compares to that of other platforms, “They’re way more opinionated and rabid in conversation,” Salcedo says. “They’re more creative and sharp as well.” This creativity can be seen in the fan art and memes that Lil Nas X Retweets, and in his own unique style of promoting his work.
Read on to discover how Lil Nas X used Twitter to support the promotion of “Old Town Road” and help cement his place in history as one of the most talked-about musicians on Twitter in 2019.
Being online 24/7 and Tweeting about a project multiple times a day isn’t the right strategy for everyone, but given the prolific nature of Lil Nas X’s Tweeting habits, it makes sense that he promoted “Old Town Road” on Twitter several times a day. His lighthearted approach — here even Tweeting about, well, Tweeting, paired with a video of himself dancing — demonstrates his playful, self-aware approach to promoting his work. At this point, the original version of “Old Town Road” had already reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, but Nas used Twitter to keep the conversation flowing around the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus.
THANK U TO EVERYBODY WHO STREAMED OLD TOWN ROAD THIS WEEK!! IN A FEW DAYS WE FIND OUT IF WE BROKE THE RECORD!! ITS BEEN A LONG JOURNEY & WHETHER WE HIT IT OR NOT I APPRECIATE & LOVE ALL OF YOU!! 🐎⚡️⚡️⚡️— nope (@LilNasX) July 26, 2019
As the single continued to reach unprecedented levels of success during the summer, approaching a now record-breaking number of weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, Lil Nas X was keen to share his appreciation for fans on Twitter. His use of emoji, punctuation, and capitalization — or lack thereof — in his Tweets adds to the authenticity of his communication with his community. According to Salcedo, this genuine nature and congeniality toward fans gives them “a front row seat to literal life-changing events.”
Twitter can act as a sounding board and a great way to seek opinions, from polls garnering a song’s popularity to questions that could determine an artist’s creative strategy. After the success of “Old Town Road” and “Panini,” Lil Nas X turned to his community on Twitter to gather feedback on which of his songs should be the next to receive a music video. He’s also playful in sharing his success, in a conversational way. These simple interactions with fans help them feel like part of the creative process, and are a great way to gather instant feedback at the same time.
Lil Nas X is no stranger to meme culture. His innate understanding of it goes beyond his own Gen Z experience as a digital native — his Tweets are just as much a part of #JokeTwitter as they are about his music. Memes, by their very nature, invite others to reproduce and collaborate. Nas’s self-made memes not only demonstrate a creative approach to promoting himself and his music, but also act as a fun way for fans to interact with him, resulting in Lil Nas X Retweeting his favorites.
Retweeting — with or without comment — is a simple but effective way to reward fans and publicly acknowledge their support. It’s also a great way to bolster an artist’s own creative narrative. “From day one, Nas built his community on Twitter through these type of engagement points,” Salcedo says. “If you take a look at what he does Retweet and reply to, they tend to be super curated, within his type of humor, and continue to build on the story and the music.”
2019 has proved to be one wild ride of a year for Lil Nas X. He’s shared every step of his record-breaking journey on Twitter, and naturally that includes the excitement of hitting personal and professional milestones. In June he shared a clip of himself performing at Glastonbury Festival in the UK, Tweeting about his “first time in another country!” and in November when he became a Grammy nominee and Country Music Awards winner, he shared his shock and excitement with his community. This genuine response to his meteoric success is not only endearing but authentic, and an opportunity for fans to celebrate with him.
Between April and September 2019, the #OldTownRoad hashtag was used on Twitter over 3.5 million times. During the same period, Lil Nas X was the fifth most popular musician people were Tweeting about in the United States. As the awards and nominations for “Old Town Road” continue to roll in, he remains one of Twitter’s most talked-about artists and continues to take his fans on the ride.
“Lil Nas X started out on Twitter as a fan of the platform and the culture first and foremost. That, coupled with his authentic voice and humor, is what allowed him to grow an organic fanbase,” says Kevin O’Donnell, manager of music partnerships at Twitter. Through building a sense of community and remaining authentic to that voice, Lil Nas X “established a built-in core of people who were interested in what he had to say — and that's what helped his career take off faster than almost any other artist in recent memory.”
Authenticity is a quality that is often lauded as a way of achieving success on social media — whatever those metrics look like to a given individual, publisher, or brand — but in Lil Nas X’s case, it’s true. As O’Donnell says, “It also helped that his music remained true to who he was as an artist and Twitter savant: funny, irreverent, and drawing on an array of sounds and cultures.”