If you're an artist looking to break chart records in the streaming era, your best weapon might just be quantity.
A viral curiosity turned story of the year, Lil Nas X's infectious and inescapable country-trap song "Old Town Road" has been untouched at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 15 weeks, just one week shy of the record for consecutive time in the No.
1 spot. If the 20-year-old rapper ties that record next week, he'll have done so at least partly by understanding one thing: In the current version of the chart system, it pays to release a song more than once.
First launched on TikTok, the video platform where users respond to song-based viral challenges, "Old Town Road" entered the charts in March. When Billboard quietly removed it from its Hot Country Songs chart, claiming the song didn't embody enough elements of current country music, the resulting controversy boosted its profile. It surged to No. 1 on the Hot 100 and, fatefully, country rulebreaker Billy Ray Cyrus agreed to hop on an official remix. Alongside a winning social media presence, Lil Nas X has kept "Old Town Road" in conversation by repeating this trick: A remix by the producer Diplo dropped in late April, and last week came a version featuring Young Thug and the viral adolescent yodeler Mason Ramsey.
That's four official versions of "Old Town Road," each of which has been listened to millions of times. But on the Hot 100, you'll only find the song's name once. That's because Billboard counts remixes, as long as they meet certain parameters, as a single entity with the original song.
"It's case by case," says Hot 100 chart manager Gary Trust, who stressed he was speaking broadly about the decision process. "But in general if it's similar in lyrics, music and production, they're rolled into one." Which means the combined hundreds of millions of listens from the four versions of "Old Town Road," two of which have new verses by the featured artists, have all been pouring into the same bucket.
Billboard charts have seen the power of the remix before: "Despacito," which holds the current record for consecutive weeks at No. 1 (tied with the 1995 Mariah Carey / Boyz II Men power ballad "One Sweet Day"), was an international smash on its own, but a remix featuring Justin Bieber helped it take off in the U.S. Trust admits, though, that "Old Town Road" has pushed things to a new level. "I think Lil Nas X is taking us a little bit further than what we usually see," he says. "And good for him, he's being creative."
But it seems his competition knows how to play the game, too. Billie Eilish, another young iconoclast breaking through in 2019, has been holding down the No. 2 spot with "bad guy," and released her own remix last week featuring — who else — Justin Bieber. Numbers for the new "bad guy" haven't yet been rolled into the original on the Hot 100, but the track has already jumped above "Old Town Road" on the up-to-date radio chart.
Monday's Hot 100 chart release will reveal if the addition of veteran chart-topper Bieber is enough to take down "Old Town Road" — but either way, there will be a compelling story to follow. If Lil Nas X stays at No. 1, his breakthrough single will have tied a record only two songs have reached before. If he doesn't, it will be because someone finally beat him — using the same tactic he's deployed so well.
This remix race is just one example of artists adapting to changes in how Billboard's charts are calculated, the results of which can be disorienting. For now, Trust says Billboard doesn't see a need to change the remix policy, which was established two decades ago in response to a different Mariah Carey song, "Fantasy," and its popular remixes — but Billboard is open to evolving as more challenges and exceptions arise. For now, he warns, a chart rivalry can always be disrupted. "Sometimes it's not about what's been trending," he says. "It's about what's going to come out in the next week."
That could very well be yet another version of "Old Town Road." Artists have been clamoring to propose their own versions — even Carey, who suggested a "One Sweet Day" mashup. Earlier this week, Lil Nas X publicly wondered if Dolly Parton and Megan Thee Stallion would join him on a remix; Wednesday night, Parton seemed to offer an enthusiastic response.