If you’re an avid listener of popular music, then you probably know that rock is either dead or dying. In the 90s and 00s you could turn on a radio station and hear guitar riffs wherever you went, whether it was Nirvana, My Chemical Romance, or Blink-182. These days, even the rock and alternative stations play music that is more pop than rock. Looking at something more contemporary like Spotify, there is no rock to be found on the top charts.
The reason for this change is complex and multi-faceted. But there’s no denying that part of the equation is that some of today’s biggest internet rappers have become masters of marketing. Meanwhile, the seemingly unstoppable force that was rock music has hit a roadblock due to continuing their old-school marketing practices.
In this article, we’re breaking down the reasons that Spotify rappers are winning the digital music game, and some examples of artists who are doing it right. Also, I should specify that I use the term “Spotify rappers” as a general term to describe the musicians making music that regularly tops the charts on Spotify, and that it’s not necessarily rap music that this trend is exclusive to.
Singles vs Albums
Before the digital age, selling albums was the name of the game. If someone wanted to own a single from an album, they had to buy a CD of the whole album. With the rise of digital music, more and more listeners can purchase just the songs they wanted to, giving more power to singles and less power to full albums.
One of the biggest reasons that Spotify rappers are doing great is because they’ve realized that albums serve no purpose. Singles are all that matters! The great thing about singles is that you can release them one at a time. Most artists release one or two singles ahead of a full album release. But when you’re essentially only releasing singles, then you can maintain the hype that those songs create.
Spotify rappers can release one new song each month and build hype for it before releasing the next track. All throughout the year, they can keep songs on the Spotify charts and playlists and keep their name top-of-mind with listeners. Meanwhile, look at rock artists. They release albums every 2 or 3 years, with long periods of time in between releases. There is time for fans to forget about rock artists and take them off of the Spotify charts.
When Spotify rappers do release albums, they cut out the fluff. Albums have short track lists of short songs, and nearly all of the songs are promoted as singles. The age of being able to release a couple of music videos for singles, followed by an album every other year, is gone.
The Power of the Individual
This power of the individual is strong, but it’s not exclusive to rap music. It’s also worked for rock music in the past. People love charismatic individuals and they love story.
Part of Metallica’s success and fame was due to their music. But they stayed in the spotlight due to their drama with Dave Mustaine, fans hating The Black Album, and their Napster controversy. Blink-182 had not only one star but three in the form of Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker, and Mark Hoppus. Even in modern times, you can check any band’s social media accounts and see that the lead singer gets more engagement on their posts than the actual band account. People just don’t connect as much with a group as they do with an enigmatic individual personality, whether that personality is a positive or negative one.
This is why solo artists, and specifically the Spotify rappers, are able to be so popular. If they can exhibit enough personality and star power, fans will connect with them through their personality before their music. The musicians blowing up right now are not only musicians but also influencers. It’s not enough to pick up a guitar, play shows, and wait to get signed based on your talent. In the day of social media and digital music, your personality and ability to connect with and influence people is just as important as the quality of the music and can be the best kind of marketing.
Going solo means that it’s easier for artists to plug into where their audience hangs out. One of the best recent examples of this is the YouTuber Corpse Husband. He amassed around a million subscribers on YouTube through his horror story readings. He also created some music on the side, but it wasn’t something that he necessarily focused on. Then the YouTube craze of Among Us started, and because of Corpse playing the game with big content creators like PewDiePie, a lot more people started paying attention to him. He latched onto the Among Us trend so that he was surrounded by other famous people with different audiences, and then he spent a ton of time there, while also staying active on social media to maintain the hype even when not creating content.
His music is what ended up blowing up the most, amassing millions of streams on Spotify, and even making its way onto some music charts. That being said, his music is not necessarily unique. His star power and story is what made things interesting.
No one knows Corpse’s real name or what he looks like. He has never shown his face on the internet and is incredibly private. The internet went crazy when he posted a “hand reveal” online, causing the hashtag #OnlyHands to trend. He has an incredible amount of mystery around him, a fact which has also helped other hidden-identity artists like Marshmello and Slipknot gain notoriety. He also has a deep voice due to a medical condition, and this shockingly deep voice has gotten people as famous as congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to talk about it. Between his talent, the mystery, the deep voice, and his charismatic personality, Corpse has created a brand and a loyal audience and put himself in the right place at the right time.
Modern Virality – How Lil Nas X Changed Music Marketing
Lis Nas X become famous in 2019 for “Old Town Road”. His success is a great example of how Spotify rappers have gamed the system and made the most of the platforms available to them.
The now-famous musician dropped out of college to pursue music and was sleeping on his sister’s couch. His sister told him he had to move out soon, and his parents discouraged his music career.
Lil Nas X did the opposite of what most musicians do. Most musicians start out by creating a ton of music then figuring out how to get people to listen to it. Instead, he created a small amount of music and spent most of his time building up a following on Twitter by posting memes and making connections. Obviously the goal was to use his tens of thousands of followers to promote his music. But while the memes got plenty of engagement, no one cared about his songs.
Armed with that knowledge, Nas decided to turn his music into memes. He created “Old Town Road” in late 2018, and set it to a video of a dancing cowboy with all of his relevant music links below.
country music is evolving pic.twitter.com/BEZIw3TE8l— nope (@LilNasX) December 3, 2018
Obviously, this video went viral. It didn’t take long for the song to explode on TikTok, currently one of the most talked-about apps out there. By March 2019, “Old Town Road” was on the Billboard charts, reaching number 19 on the Billboard country charts before being removed for not fitting the country genre. As many artists will tell you, any publicity is good publicity, so all of this controversy helped Lil Nas X even more and made him part of a cross-genre music industry conversation.
The remix of “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus catapulted the song into even more fame. One day after the song released in December, Lil Nas X tweeted that he wanted Cyrus to on the song. In March 2019, the CEO of Columbia Records got the song in front of the country star, and in April the now-famous remix released. Since remixes count toward total plays of the original song, “Old Town Road” stuck to the top of the charts for weeks, breaking records left and right. It ran at number one on the Billboard charts longer than any song in history, was certified diamond faster than any song in history. On top of all that, it was one of the shortest songs in Billboard charting history, clocking in at just one minute and 53 seconds – a fantastic length for a song aimed at going viral on social media.
This success may seem like a lucky break, but it was no accident. Nas did many things right to force the virality. A Twitter video featuring the line “I got the horses in the back” went viral. So Nas changed the title of the song on YouTube and SoundCloud to that lyric, so that anyone who wanted to find the song would be able to do so easily. He made a Reddit post on NameThatSong asking what the song was – yes, he made a post pretending he was a random person wondering what the song was.
All of these unconventional marketing efforts were Lil Nas X creating his own success, and it paid off. It didn’t hurt that people genuinly enjoyed the song and it was a good track. Many people are able to replicate these tactics, but very few succeed to the same degree as Lil Nas X. Some will say that luck was a major factor here, but there is no denying that Lil Nas made at least a little bit of his own luck.
The Longevity Problem
Unfortunately for Spotify rappers, their ability to capitalize on trends is also their downfall. Trends fall off quickly, and it’s difficult to maintain momentum when other artists on innovating on whatever the next big platform is. In 2025, will we still be listening to Lil Nas X, or will he have been a one-hit wonder?
This is something that rock bands and artists with more traditional approaches don’t have an issue with. These musicians ride a long, slow wave of popularity. They will be never be as big as some of the Spotify or Soundcloud rappers were at a specific period in time, but they will be successful for longer and have more loyal fans. 1000 true fans. Lil Nas X certainly has some dedicated fans, but a good portion of them will flock to whatever the next “Old Town Road” is, no matter who creates it. Yet a rock band like Foo Fighters has been going strong for over 25 years with no sign of slowing down. They’ve had some hits, and charted on the Billboard charts plenty of times. But they haven’t been number one for weeks in a row!
The rock scene has a large “middle class” of bands that are of medium popularity, but rap and pop artists are either huge or nothing at all. There is very little in between. This is all due to the fact that pop and rap artists don’t inspire long-term loyalty like rock bands, and are all about the short-term hype. Neither is better or worse, it really depends on your goals. Being a flash in the pan isn’t a bad thing if you can make a lot of money and establish yourself in the industry!
- Don’t rely on albums – focus on hyping up more frequent singles
- Individuals can build a stronger personality-based brand than a group can
- Entertainers can have abrasive personalities but that will put them in the limelight
- Put yourself into places where the audience hangs out, which is generally social media right now
- Don’t be afraid of unexpected directions and take advantage of every opportunity
I really need to thank a few people for creating awesome content that inspired this article.
Twitter user NotLaja put together an awesome thread that gave me some areas for further research into Lil Nas X’s story. YouTuber Finn McKenty (The Punk Rock MBA) is always talking about how the younger generation of musicians are marketing creatively, and I am a huge fan of his channel. His analysis was a major inspiration for this post, and he actually posted a video about Corpse’s success as I was writing it, which helped add a lot of ideas to this piece. If you like music industry analysis and this topic in particular then I recommend checking out his videos.