I got the horses in the back

I stumbled onto a profound communications lesson when “Old Town Road” broke the record for most weeks at number one. In the entire 60+ year history of the Billboard charts.

I’ll confess I was astounded when I heard about this achievement. If this was a movie, it would be dismissed as too far-fetched. I mean, my kids have been singing it incessantly, and every third car that drives by was playing it this summer. But seriously?

A 19-year-old no-name buys a beat for $30 off the internet, puts together a 2-minute song, and with his first effort, knocks off the greatest artists of multiple generations? This song beat the Beatles’ best? Mariah Carey (teen-age Michael’s fav) holds the record for most total weeks at the top (79), but Lil Nas X’s sensation shot past her classics. Even Elton John’s famed tribute to the late Princess Diana couldn’t hold a candle to this out-of-nowhere juggernaut.

But when I saw the pair of songs tied for the previous record, something started to come together.

“One Sweet Day,” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men . . .

“Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, featuring Justin Bieber . . .

Unseated by “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus.

Do you see it?

These three all-timers represent collaborations, and two of the three blend different musical genres.

Clearly their popularity stems as much from their appeal to multiple audiences as from their catchy choruses.

What happens when a song unites two armies of fans, followers of two of the biggest acts of the ‘90s? “One Sweet Day” sets the new record with 16 weeks at number one in 1996.

And then what happens when a song that’s topping the Latin charts adds a remix featuring a teen pop champion? Countless millions of “Beliebers” merge with fans of Latin music, and “Despacito” ties that record in 2017.

To Lil Nas X’s credit, he hit number one by himself, and then the next week released the remix featuring Cyrus that propelled his song to 19 weeks and counting. Neither artist had anywhere close to the existing fan bases as the stars they toppled. Sorry Billy Ray, but “Achy Breaky Heart” doesn’t count anymore, and being Hannah Montana’s dad only takes you so far.

Their triumph came more through combining two masses that, until now, may have been headed in the same direction but drove in separate lanes. “Old Town” isn’t the first song to combine hip hop and country music, but it’s clearly the first mainstream hit.

There are lots more PR lessons in this success story – the role of conflict in a narrative (attention soared after Billboard dropped the song from its country chart), Nas X’s artful use of memes and social media to push the song out himself, and the influence of emerging platforms like TikTok.

But the primary takeaway I’d like to emphasize is this one:

For your next big content project, seek a collaborator who brings an audience that’s different than yours. Maybe your combined followers will power you to the business version of a runaway smash.

This article was originally published on August 15, 2019

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