“Rapstar,” the new melodic trap anthem from Polo G, is the biggest song in the country, debuting at No. 1 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. Ten months ago, however, “Rapstar” was just a piece of a song, a half-formed idea posted to YouTube.
“It was just a freestyle,” Stacia Mac, Polo G’s mother and manager, tells Billboard of the 93-second clip from May 2020 that featured the Chicago rapper standing alongside producer Einer Bankz, tossing out bars about the trappings of fame as Bankz delivered a riff on a black-and-white ukulele. “He puts out the snippet, and the fans go crazy for it,” Mac recalls, nodding to the hundreds of comments calling for the clip to be fleshed out into a full song, which persisted well into 2021. “Ten months later, they were still going back to the snippet and asking him, ‘Can you drop it? Can you drop it?’”
After nearly a year of such questions, Polo G relented — but not before posting multiple new teasers to his Instagram, including a stylized animated clip and a music video preview, heightening anticipation for the Apr. 9 release of “Rapstar.” The new teasers earned millions of views, and when “Rapstar” finally arrived in full, the song exploded. The rapper had never cracked the top 10 of the Hot 100 as a lead artist prior to this week, but his first No. 1 single scored the third-biggest streaming total of 2021 with 53.6 million U.S. streams, according to MRC Data.
In recent months, success stories like “Rapstar” have demonstrated the power of song teasers in the modern music industry as digital marketing tools to help locate, cultivate and eventually blow out fan interest. Some of these teasers occur as happenstance, with artists testing out snippets of unreleased songs on social media; others are designed by labels as flashy coming attractions for imminent song releases (and still others, like “Rapstar,” function as a hybrid of both).
Artists from Taylor Swift to Lil Nas X to Maroon 5 to SZA have been sharing new music a few seconds at a time lately, commanding the attention of diehard supporters and curious casual fans before unveiling their songs in full. It’s the music-biz equivalent of a new trailer previewing an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster, designed to maximize online chatter, turn a song release into an Event, and produce major chart hits.
“It keeps your audience chomping at the bit,” says Tarek Al-Hamdoumi, senior vp of digital marketing at RCA Records, “where they know that something is coming soon, they want it now, they can’t have it now, but they can’t stop thinking about it.” Al-Hamdoumi says that RCA has increasingly relied upon the teaser-rollout format over the past year, and that “knowing sooner rather than later what is and isn’t working” has helped the label quickly sniff out recent hits like SZA’s “Good Days” and Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First.”
“We’re always trying to drive the conversation in any way, shape or form,” Al-Hamdoumi adds. “And getting access to content that you feel like you shouldn’t be getting access to, that feels special, can be a real motivator to get [fans] excited and share that content with other people.”
Previewing parts of a song before it arrives in full is not a new practice, especially in the streaming age: artists have been playing clips of soon-to-be-released music for years, first on YouTube, then Vine, and now TikTok. Kathy Baker, head of U.S. label relations at YouTube Music, says that K-pop artists have been using the strategy with both upcoming songs and videos for some time on YouTube — BTS, for instance, launched a teaser for their eventual No. 1 hit “Dynamite” days before its full release. “The clips will vary from a few seconds to maybe 30 seconds, and sometimes it’ll be a teaser of the video itself or just a song,” says Baker, “but it definitely gets the fan base totally engaged and excited for the full release.”
Yet the teaser strategy has become a ubiquitous major label move in 2021, adopted across genres, aimed at different platforms and often yielding notable Hot 100 hits. TikTok’s rising influence — and inherently snippeted nature — has been a clear catalyst for the commercial impact of teasers, with hits ranging from “Calling My Phone” by Lil Tjay and 6lack to “Beautiful Mistakes” by Maroon 5 and Megan Thee Stallion previewed on the platform prior to release.
Meanwhile, a few seconds of Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” could be heard in a Super Bowl commercial, and a snippet of Taylor Swift’s “You All Over Me” (feat. Maren Morris) was shared on Good Morning America. Luke Combs teased his single “Forever After All” last August, first on TikTok and then on Instagram — and the fan reaction was so strong that when the song arrived in full two months later, it streaked to No. 2 on the Hot 100, the country star’s highest peak to date.
“Luke has had a long history of giving fans early glimpses at tracks, dating all the way back to his Vine days,” says Paige Altone, vp of marketing at Sony Music Nashville. Altone adds that “Forever After All” was teased “with the intent of just testing the waters and seeing what the feedback was. But after the reaction was as strong and immediate as it was, we knew we needed to adjust our marketing plans to support the track and meet fan demand.”
Labels have recently been refining their deployment of teasers, in part by trying out new technological tools. Last December, YouTube launched its Trailers feature, which allows creators to upload a preview of a new video between 15 seconds and 3 minutes in duration; P!nk utilized the tool to preview her “Cover Me In Sunshine” video in February.
They have also been tinkering with the timing and frequency of song teasers to identify sweet spots in audience engagement: while more established artists can post one teaser hours before a song release to jolt a huge fan base to attention — as Swift did with “You All Over Me,” previewed on GMA the day before its release — smaller artists might need multiple teasers over the course of a week or two to build up a sense of urgency.
According to Al-Hamdoumi, the multiple-teaser approach helps rising artists stay front of mind by flooding the market with new content, and also allows labels to prepare for a song to take off before it’s even released. With McRae, whose single “You Broke Me First” was given multiple teasers before its release last spring, RCA was able to view early fan enthusiasm and dig in for a long pop radio campaign. The breakthrough hit eventually reached No. 17 on the Hot 100 earlier this year — all the while, more McRae songs have been teased, and released. “For an artist like Tate, it’s about staying in the game, staying productive as an artist, not getting burnt out due to this process … and when the music’s out there, it’s about reading the market next,” says Al-Hamdoumi.
That hyper-productive mentality may be the new normal in a music industry where, as Baker puts it, “there’s simply too much to keep track of these days.” In order to distinguish a new song from the endless stream of music being released each week, artists can use teasers as a more personalized way to activate a fan base — tipping off listeners early, often on their TikTok and Instagram pages, before their song is swallowed by the enormity of a Friday release schedule.
Nick Holmstén, the music and tech investor and former global head of music at Spotify, recalls the “brutal” competition to get songs premium placement on a New Music Friday playlist when he was with the company, and believes that jockeying has only gotten worse since his 2019 departure. “I think labels and artists realize that they can’t just sit and wait and focus on getting added to playlists,” he says. “So they’re starting to create using the leverage that they have — the biggest leverage, which is the [artist’s] relationship with their fans.”
Ultimately, labels relying on that relationship may result in artists having more say in which of their songs are released, and when. It’s easier than ever for artists to play a snippet of an unreleased song on a social media account and personally monitor fan feedback; whether that snippet is a unplanned leak or a calculated preview doesn’t necessarily concern those fans. Last July, SZA played a few seconds of “Good Days” on her Instagram stories, unexpectedly causing an uproar from fans who wanted to hear the full song. SZA eventually unveiled “Good Days” in December and collected her first top 10 Hot 100 hit as a solo artist, with that early fan interest translating into a streaming smash.
“I think the biggest secret in the industry is, the times we know what we’re doing and the times we’re just moving as quickly as possible — more often than not those times are nearly indistinguishable,” says Al-Hamdoumi with a laugh. “And a leak can look like teasing music early, but at the end of the day, it could also just be a leak.”
Regardless of the behind-the-scenes machinations of these teasers, expect labels to keep trying to perfect the process of effectively rolling them out — and for artists to become more influential in that process. As Holmstén puts it, artists “usually know their fans way better than the labels,” and that bond can help amplify the reaction to a few seconds of new music. That was certainly the case with “Rapstar,” which Polo G’s co-manager Steven “Steve-O” Carless says upended the marketing plan for the rapper’s next album. The song was the rapper’s second standalone release of 2021, and third since his 2020 album The GOAT — and by far the most successful of the bunch.
“We had a pretty clear-cut route on which way we were gonna go with this album rollout,” says Carless, nodding to multiple solo songs and collaborations available to ramp up to Polo G’s next project. “But he recorded [‘Rapstar’] in full and said, ‘No, this is it. I have to go with this song. My fans have already told me, and they only have a snippet of that song.’”
“He saw the reaction, and listened to the fans,” adds Mac. “And I’m glad he did.”