Inside the 'Old Town Road' Charts Decision

ISSUE 22 2019 - NOT OUT YET!!!! DO NOT USE - OUT ON 9.19.19
Miller Mobley
Lil Nas X photographed on Aug. 30, 2019 at Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in New York. 

When Lil Nas X self-released “Old Town Road” on Dec. 3, 2018, he marked it as a country song in the track metadata that streaming services use. “It’s a country trap song,” he now says firmly. “But once you take a look at it, I feel like it leans more toward country. Of course it’s easier to get seen [as a rap song], but I didn’t expect to see it on any chart. It’s not like my music was selling prior to it coming out.”

Billboard uses the genre tags provided by content creators as guidelines, and the charts team initially tracked “Old Town Road” as it had been listed. In March, as the song began to gain velocity on the charts -- aided by escalating video views from TikTok -- Billboard’s team examined the song more closely. “The charts team reviews titles each week as they’re released, as they gain in popularity and start to populate our various sales and streaming data feeds, which we receive from Nielsen Music,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s senior vp charts and data development, who adds that even in the streaming era, genre-­specific charts remain “reflective of how the music industry markets and promotes music, as well as how fans consume and gravitate” to it. (Digital services may not offer genre charts, but genre-driven playlists like Spotify’s Rap Caviar have unquestionable power.) Pietroluongo calls Billboard’s genre charts “an [organizational] tool to help the industry and consumer slice through data,” adding that his team determines genre after looking at an artist’s chart history, listening to the song, looking at streaming services and examining how and where the label is promoting and marketing the song.

In March, after signing Lil Nas X, Columbia did not initially promote “Old Town Road” as a country song, and ultimately the charts team decided to remove it from the Hot Country Songs chart dated March 19. “We did reach out to Sony in Nashville to see if they were involved with the project, which they were not at the time,” says Pietroluongo. Removing “Old Town Road” from Hot Country Songs was, he says, purely an internal decision. Lil Nas X recalls that, at the time, he was happy just to still be on the Billboard Hot 100. But he still points out that Florida George Line and Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be” made the country charts, and “there’s trap drums on that.”

Pietroluongo allows that country music has shifted recently to more “beat-­heavy tracks” (pointing to Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett), but notes that “Meant to Be” was “actively worked by the label to country radio and eventually hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart.” That, along with FGL’s long-­established presence on the country charts, got “Meant to Be” country classification. Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” -- another trap-flavored track -- was promoted to country radio by Nashville-based Broken Bow, and Brown had a history of recording country music, thus Billboard tracked it on the country charts.

“Old Town Road” may well redefine the world around it. Pietroluongo points to “Uptown Funk!” as another “borderline song” that opened doors -- a throwback funk track from Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, it connected at top 40 radio before crossing over to R&B stations. It was not tracked on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, but its success meant that R&B radio subsequently embraced Mars’ classic-­sounding 24K Magic tracks -- “That’s What I Like” hit No. 1 on both the Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.

“We made the decision we felt was consistent,” Pietro­luongo says now of “Old Town Road.” “We understand that everyone hears music differently, so we understand how people can look at that and think differently.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Billboard.

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.