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Oliver Anthony’s ‘Rich Men’ Has Cooled Compared to Other No. 1 Hits — But His DIY Approach Has Advantages, Too

today11/17/2023 18

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For artists who choose not to sign with a record label, some may be independent and others will be do-it-yourself independent.

What’s the difference? Take Laufey, the Icelandic jazz artist whose latest album, Bewitched, reached No. 23 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in September. Laufey is signed to AWAL, the Sony Music-owned company that provides marketing and distribution services for independent artists. She hasn’t signed away the rights to her music, but AWAL helps promote her recordings at digital service providers and retail.

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Oliver Anthony Music, on the other hand, is DIY independent. By all appearances, the “Rich Men North of Richmond” singer, whose real name is Christopher Anthony Lunsford, has left his recordings on autopilot without any kind of marketing behind them since he broke into the national consciousness in August and topped the Hot 100 for two straight weeks. Following the success of “Rich Men,” Lunsford has released more songs without the usual promotional muscle required to get new music noticed. As he told Billboard earlier this week, he manages himself and is avoiding record labels as he prepares to record an album.

He’s clearly getting some help. Lunsford has a basic but professional website and an e-commerce store that sells a handful of variations on Oliver Anthony Music hats, T-shirts, bumper stickers and beer koozies. For concerts, Anthony signed with UTA for representation and has a year of touring ahead of him, starting in February with dates in Europe and the Eastern half of the United States. He has an informal publicist who helps with media requests. And he told Billboard he has encountered “many artists,” such as country star Jamey Johnson, who have lent support and guidance.

Comparing “Rich Men” to other tracks to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 this year, though, suggests being DIY creates some missed opportunities. Combined sales and streams of Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers,” Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero,” Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” and SZA’s “Kill Bill” dropped between 17% and 55% over the 10-week period after the last date those tracks were No. 1. “Rich Men,” in contrast, dropped 83.4%. It makes sense: A major label marketing machine is better than an independent artist’s system in helping a track get hot and maintain momentum over months and years.

With a little help, “Rich Men” could arguably have far more sales and streams. As a DIY artist, Lunsford uses social media activity to keep listeners engaged and depends on the continued interest of journalists to keep him in the public eye. As he told Billboard this week, becoming a full-time musician means “you’re essentially a business owner and an entrepreneur and a lot of other things, too. And those are things I’m not quite used to yet.”

But Lunsford has done extremely well taking the DIY route. Billboard estimates that “Rich Men” has grossed $2 million from recorded music and publishing royalties from U.S. sales and streams since its release in August. While his weekly download sales are down sharply from their peak in August, our estimates still put the track’s royalties at an impressive $60,000 per week. And because Oliver Anthony Music is a DIY independent artist who retains the rights to his master recording and publishing, he should be pocketing nearly all that money (less any fees for distribution and publishing administration).

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Besides, Lunsford seems content being a DIY artist — even if that means leaving money and celebrity on the table. There’s something to be said about saying “no” to the usual impulses to staff up and scale a business as fast as possible. Lunsford can ease into stardom at a comfortable pace rather than jump headfirst into the music business’ shark-filled waters. Read through the YouTube comments to his videos and you sense that listeners put value in Lunsford not being an industry insider — it adds to his authenticity. At the end of the day, not being too much of a business is probably good for Lunsford’s business.

Surprisingly, “Rich Men” has held up better than a couple of other No. 1s in 2023: Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” and Jimin’s “Like Crazy.” Track sales and streams for “Try That” dropped 91.1% in the 10 weeks after it was No. 1. For “Like Crazy,” the first No. 1 for a solo member of superstar K-pop group BTS, track sales and streams dropped 92.9% over the same period. Although “Rich Men” has fallen far from its peak, its 83.4% drop in track sales and streams is considerably better than those other two hits.

There are obvious parallels between “Try That” and “Rich Men.” Both reached No. 1 because of widespread media attention. Both started conversations about social issues: race for Aldean, class for Lunsford. Both were celebrated as conservative anthems, although Anthony has distanced himself from political partisanship. Both are country tracks — Aldean’s a mainstream song built for maximum radio play, Lunsford’s a more old-fashioned slice of Appalachian roots music.

What’s more, both “Try That” and “Rich Men” did brisk business in track sales. As Billboard noted when “Rich Men” ascended the chart, artists popular with conservatives often have strong download numbers. In a typical week, the No. 1 track on the Hot 100 might sell 15,000 downloads, but when the culture wars stoke demand, the No. 1 will sell ten times that many. “Try That” sold 175,000 downloads in the week it was No. 1, while “Rich Men” averaged 132,000 weekly downloads in its two weeks atop the Hot 100.

Download buyers don’t offer the same consistency as streamers, though, and both “Rich Men” and “Try That” lost 99% of their track sales in the 10 weeks after they topped the chart. And because download sales were a big reason why those tracks reached No. 1, their total consumption (measured in both download sales and streams) dropped more than No. 1s that relied more on streaming. But heavy download sales were instrumental in getting each track to No. 1, and “Rich Men” still sells well, too: Last week, the track was the No. 41 most purchased track in the United States., according to Luminate.

Lunsford could easily ditch the DIY approach and assemble a team, but he’s in the rare position of not necessarily needing one. “Rich Men” succeeded without help from a marketing expert, social media guru or even a manager. Instead, Lunsford benefitted from an unprecedented groundswell of interest that gifted him an immense online following. His 1.15 million YouTube followers give him a similar audience as more established country musicians Kenny Chesney and Zac Brown Band, and twice as many as Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves. He has about as many Spotify followers as Bailey Zimmerman, a rising country star signed to Warner Music Nashville and Elektra Records.

When Lunsford eventually releases a new album, he won’t need many resources to instantly reach millions of fans — and he prefers it that way. “I think the most special thing about it being on the chart at all,” he told Billboard, “is that it made it to the chart without some big, corporate schmucky schmuck somewhere pumping a bunch of money into making it get there.”

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