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The Austin company behind Lil Nas X's record-breaking 'Old Town Road'

Deborah Sengupta Stith
Lil Nas X broke the record for longest run at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts with "Old Town Road," a song created with a beat he licensed on the Austin-based music company BeatStars. [Chris Pizzello/Associated Press]

Last week, “Old Town Road,” the country trap anthem that’s become the ubiquitous and oddly appropriate soundtrack of summer 2019 in America, made Billboard history, topping the music industry magazine’s Hot 100 Charts for 17 weeks, the longest run ever recorded. The "Old Town Road" also ran through Austin.

Breakout rapper Lil Nas X, with an assist from “Achy Breaky” country crooner Billy Ray Cyrus, unseated 1990s R&B collaboration "One Sweet Day" from Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, which was tied with a Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee joint, "Despacito," from 2017. The 20-year-old Atlanta artist also known as Montero Lamar Hill rode in out of nowhere.

“Wow man, last year I was sleeping on my sister’s floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches. Now I’m gay,” the rapper, who came out of the closet publicly at the end of Pride Month in June, tweeted last Sunday.

Internet savvy, with sharp marketing instincts, Hill harnessed the new social media music video platform TikTok to whip his country rap ramble into a viral sensation that became a cultural phenomenon. Since its March release, the song has spawned a series of remixes, from the Cyrus feature, through a Diplo take, to a new K-Pop version, “Seoul Town Road,” featuring international heartthrob RM from BTS.

it’s crazy how any baby born after march has not lived in a world where old town road wasn’t number 1

— nope (@LilNasX)July 26, 2019

The original track was born online, when Hill spent $30 to lease a beat from a young Netherlands-based producer named Little Kio on, an Austin-based online platform that connects songwriters and producers. The company boasts 1.5 million active users and claims over $50 million in payouts to producers.

The site functions as a searchable streaming service, a music licensing service and a download service. Producers use keywords to tag their tracks, which are searchable by mood, tempo, speed, genre and artist. One of the most popular tags in the system is Drake. The Canadian rap artist has never licensed a BeatStars track, but the tag pulls up songs that producers consider Drake-type beats, moody hip-hop grooves occasionally augmented with chilly R&B hooks that beckon the Drake-ish rhyme styles dominating modern rap.

Jonathan Gilchrist — who rhymes as G-Christ, half of the excellent Killeen-based rap duo Crew 54 — has purchased beats from a few different producers on the platform.

“Some of the producers using are really using every inch," he said. "They have folders for different types of sounds.”

He’s currently scouring the service in search of a few beats to finish a new LP for the group. “So far, I have no complaints," Gilchrist said. "It's easy, and you get everything you need for quality mixing.”

Producers on the site set their own rates for a variety of music licenses. At $30 or less, the cheapest are generally nonexclusive licenses for low-quality MP3s of pre-mixed tracks with limited uses. They are designed for emerging artists, like Lil Nas X, who just want to create and share music, primarily on social media platforms.

Higher quality files with broader usage terms — such as more streams, downloads, and video and radio rights — cost more money. If a song, like “Old Town Road,” exceeds the terms of the original agreement, the artists are able to negotiate a new contract.

Hill, who has since signed to Sony, and his producer Young Kio, who has signed a publishing deal with Universal, both hired lawyers to work out a new agreement for “Old Town Road.”

Early disruption

As a young hip-hop enthusiast who cut his teeth running a record label in the Bay Area, BeatStars founder Abe Batshon was an early adopter of the concept of leasing beats. In the mid- to late 1990s, as the digital revolution remade the music industry, he haggled with producers in AOL chat rooms, trying to persuade them to disrupt traditional music licensing practices.

“I was connecting with producers from all over the world and telling them, ‘Hey man, you could keep selling that beat nonexclusively. Here’s 40 bucks. Let me just have the .MP3. I just want to have access,’” he said.

Batshon started BeatStars in 2008, while he was living in the Bay Area working for InGrooves, a pioneering digital distribution company. “I hired a developer for like a couple thousand dollars to make me a custom blog site where I could feature my friends’ beats,” Batshon said. “I just wanted to create a place where I could curate and feature beats and talk about great production music.”

Initially, it was a closed community, an invite-only blog site with a few posts a day, he said. “And then I started getting like a ton of inquiries from songwriters like, ‘Yo, I really love these beats you’re posting. Can I buy them? I want to buy it.’”

He eventually added a PayPal button to handle the requests, sharing revenue from sales with the producers whose work he hosted. Over time, the company evolved. In 2011, BeatStars opened its marketplace on a subscription model. Producers could pay a set monthly or yearly fee, Batshon said, “to utilize the technology and have cloud hosting and all the do-it-yourself website creator stuff that we created.”

As they built the platform, Batshon and his team worked closely with the producers using the site to determine what kind of features should be fast-tracked for development.

“We always embraced the community, really early on, and developed personal relationships with a lot of our users. Very close. Everyone on our team, we all know a few hundred people on our platform, and it’s those relationships that really helped us know what our road map was going to be for them,” he said.

Batshon moved the company to Austin in 2015. BeatStars is still a small operation, with only five employees locally, 10 others elsewhere in the U.S. and an additional 15 scattered around the world at offices in Madeira, a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa, and Brazil.

“I love Austin’s culture, especially centered around music,” Batshon said. Like many other Bay Area tech execs, he said he became enamored with the city during regular visits to the South by Southwest Conference and Festival. “I’ve had nothing but great experiences coming here as a performing artist and as an executive working for digital music companies.”

He also saw room to make a mark: “Austin is known for its music. It’s known for its tech, as well. There’s a lot of tech and startups and things like that, but there isn’t a music tech company, like really waving the flag of Austin.” Batshon said he hopes BeatStars will be a “music tech company based here, that grows here and turns into something substantial.”

E-commerce for artists

For Austin-based artists Christopher Gomez and Mark Hardin, who collectively are known as the production house Beat Demons, discovering the platform in late 2016 was a game-changer.

The duo cut their teeth doing production work for local artists, but “it got to the point where it just wasn’t substantial enough to, like, do it for a living, so (we) started trying to do it online,” Gomez said.

Using other online platforms before they moved to BeatStars, he said, the group was “maybe making, tops, two grand a month.”

When they moved their music to BeatStars, their following and sales skyrocketed. “I feel like their marketplace and the way they’ve built the community, it was easy to grow in it," Gomez said. "And on top of that, all their stuff worked flawlessly.”

A BeatStars producer Pro Page, which costs $19.99 per month, serves as an e-commerce platform for artists. Beat Demons post three new beats for sale every week. They can track audience response to their work with advanced data tools.

“I’m really into looking at my analytics and seeing what I could do to find who my audience is and target that specific audience to increase our sales,” Gomez said. “I could target by area, by age. I kind of know what age group likes our beats, and then on top of that I see, like, what beat is selling the most, and then I would just put a bunch of ads behind that beat.”

BeatStars aims to cultivate that business-minded focus among artists in the community, Batshon said. “What BeatStars always keeps implanted in our whole mission is: How can we enable creators to think like entrepreneurs? And how can we provide those tools for them to establish small businesses for themselves?”

Within a year on the platform, Gomez said, Beat Demons began to pull in roughly $10,000 a month. In two years, that number had doubled. They now have over 63,000 followers on the site and 2.4 million plays for the 480 tracks they’ve posted. Thousands of artists from all over the world are using their beats. They range widely in style and skill level.

“We will get industry people that are more professional, and then we’ll get people that are everyday Joes that are just starting,” he said. The quality of the tracks artists create with their beats vary. “Sometimes we’ll be like, ‘OK, this is a good song,’ or we’ll know like this is just a beginner. I mean, we don’t hate anything, but see room for improvement from some people who do use our beats.”

In late May, Gomez and his partner Hardin were awarded their first platinum sales plaque, for the song “Netflixxx,” a Brytiago track featuring Latin trap superstar Bad Bunny. But that career milestone came with a catch. When “Netflixxx” first appeared online, with a beat suspiciously similar to one Beat Demons had uploaded to BeatStars and YouTube, the Austin production team was not credited. They hired a lawyer who successfully negotiated adding Beat Demons as songwriters on the track.

Uncleared samples, beat theft and plagiarism are common problems on online music platforms. In addition to the BeatStars presence, Beat Demons hosts an active YouTube channel. They have a partnership with the streaming video platform, and YouTube regularly scans their platform and flags copies of Beat Demons' work.

“We keep finding videos of people basically ripping, like, pieces out of our beats and looping them or trying to add their own drums to it. That’s starting to be a regular thing, and I think that’s more because we’re kind of big online. It kind of comes with the territory,” Gomez said.

BeatStars does not have a similar sound scanning tool, but the company has a Digital Copyright Millennium Act form on the homepage for anyone that wants to report a copyright violation. A BeatStars contract provided to the American-Statesman by an artist states that the artist licensing the beat is responsible for clearing third-party samples.

The “Old Town Road” beat includes a sample from the 2008 Nine Inch Nails song “34 Ghost IV” that was not initially cleared. Hill told Rolling Stone that he was not aware the sample was in the beat. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross from Nine Inch Nails now share songwriting credit for the track. (Hill and Sony Music are also facing a lawsuit over a sample for his 2018 single “Carry On” that the label recently re-released. The beat for “Carry On” was not purchased on BeatStars.)

Batshon said accusations of beat theft reported to his platform are extremely rare and said his company advises artists who reach out through its support platforms to consult with a lawyer who specializes in copyright law.

For now, Batshon is reveling in the success of “Old Town Road,” a song with humble origins that has taken the title for longest No. 1 hit run in history.

“Holy crap, this is what we always dreamt about,” he said. Batshon said his service helps to lower the entry bar for anyone who wants to make music and hopes Hill’s success will inspire other artists to build their creative visions.

“Everyone can do it. Everyone can open up a TikTok and do something funny," he said. "Anyone can open up a YouTube and sing a cover or do something. It’s cool. It’s ingrained in us as human beings. It’s in our DNA to be creative. It’s part of who we are."