Lil Nas X is everywhere with his song “Old Town Road,” the top single in North America for the last seven weeks. Thanks to its two versions–the original and the Billy Ray Cyrus remix–it streamed 11.2 million times in Canada last week, about twice the number of “I Don’t Care,” the duet between Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. In the US, that number increases to 126.7 million streams. In a week. That’s four times the number for second place “Bad Guy” from Billie Eilish.
Awesome story, right? Twenty-year-old rapper writes a song in desperation so he won’t have to give up music and go back to school only to have that Hail Mary attempt blow up worldwide. Amazing. Truly.
There is a big “but” coming. And it has to do with that all-important banjo sample, the thing that gives the song its essential vibe. Lil Nas X didn’t write that. He bought it from a company called BeatStars, a site based out of Austin, Texas, that sells beats to performers for bargain prices. With over a million customers in 160 countries, the company might make as much as US$40 million this year. Meanwhile, creators of these beats have things licensed on their behalf so if anything comes out of their beats, they get a piece of the action. (According to Rolling Stone, there’s a dancehall producer in Albania who’s bringing in US$40,000 a month.)
In the case of “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X bought the banjo beat from BeatStars for US$30. Great, right?
Well, not really. That beat was created by a teenager in The Netherlands named Kiowa Roukema, who works under the name Young Kio. He found that banjo loop on a track called “34 Ghosts” which appears on disc four of the 2008 instrumental Nine Inch Nails album, Ghosts I-IV. He put a trap beat under the loop and then uploaded it to BeatStars hoping that they would be able to sell it for him.
Fast-forward about a year later when Lil Nas X was browsing through YouTube videos at his sister’s house in Atlanta. That’s when he found Young Kio’s beat, downloaded and experimented with it, and then contacted Young Kio to collaborate further.
Once original was complete, it was uploaded to the video platform TikTok. and that’s when things went batshit crazy. Which brings us back to to the NIN track.
Although Trent Reznor and collaborator released “34 Ghosts” under creative commons, that doesn’t cover anything that might happen to the work when it comes to sharing and remixing for commercial reasons. In other words, Lil Nas X can’t just take that sample and make money with it
In other words, copyright has infringed.
So now what? The song is a huge, huge hit. Lil Nas X nailed a major label deal with Columbia. The label is probably on the hook for a whack of back royalties. If you check the Wikipedia page for “Old Town Road,” the songwriting credits are listed as Montero Hill (aka Lil Nas X), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor, Ross and Young Clio are also listed as producers.
So far, no one from the Nine Inch Nails camp has said anything. Meanwhile, BeatStars has a problem. How many other beats are they selling have been used in ways that might turn out to be illegal because of uncleared samples?
Read more at Rolling Stone.