Conservatives’ Tendency to Buy Downloads Could Send ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ to No. 1
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Conservatives’ Tendency to Buy Downloads Could Send ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ to No. 1

Artists have long complained that streaming pays poverty wages — fractions of a cent per stream — and increases the difficulty of sustaining a recording career through a slow trickle of royalties. Some conservative-leaning artists are proving to be an exception to the rule with fans who still buy downloads at a time when streaming dominates music consumption.  

Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” became a surprise hit — and could reach No. 1 on the Hot 100 — thanks to a confluence of two factors: As we’ve seen with several other songs recently, when a song gets caught up in — or leans into — the American culture wars, conservatives often buy downloads. “Rich Men North of Richmond” was an instant success: From Aug. 10 — the day with the first sales and audio streaming activity — to Aug. 15, daily U.S. streams went from zero to nearly 700,000 in just two days, according to Luminate, while daily U.S. downloads went from zero to more than 20,000 in each of the next four days. To put that in context, in a typical week the top track on the Hot 100 might sell 15,000 downloads.

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In the seven-day period ended Aug. 15, “Rich Men North of Richmond” had 11.2 million on-demand audio streams that earned him roughly $40,000, Billboard estimates. But the track amassed an impressive 117,000 track downloads that netted Anthony about $81,000 — or 65% of the royalties earned from U.S. sales and streams. And because the track is distributed by DistroKid, which charges a flat fee for distribution, and owned by Anthony, he pockets the entire amount. Although the YouTube video hosted by radiowv has 21.6 million views, Luminate shows no video streams for the recording and Billboard does not know if Anthony is earning royalties from YouTube.

Such high download sales make “Rich Men North of Richmond” an outlier in popular music. More often than not, a No. 1 track on the Hot 100 gets most of its revenue from streaming. Download sales have fallen precipitously in recent years and accounted for just 1.1% of U.S. track equivalent albums year to date, according to Luminate. On the most recent Hot 100, for the week of Aug. 19, Morgan Wallen’s chart-topping “Last Night” generated about 80% of its revenue from 20.8 million on-demand audio streams compared to just 5% from 5,000 track downloads. When Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire” topped the chart for a week in July, 81% of its revenue came from 31.3 million on-demand audio streams compared to 6% from 9,000 track downloads.

Some people have speculated that the song’s instant success must be the result of astroturfing — the use of fake grass-roots campaigns to gain public awareness. The themes in “Rich Men North of Richmond” — it criticizes both tax-hungry politicians and poor welfare recipients — struck a chord amongst conservatives and almost overnight became a favorite of rightwing politicians, pundits and instigators such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, Matt Walsh and Kari Lake. While there’s no clear evidence of such a campaign at the moment, the track’s rise was quick even by the standards of today’s internet viral hits.

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What’s clearer, though, is that “Rich Men North of Richmond” has a lot in common with K-pop tracks that soar to the top of the Hot 100 because fans buy downloads with the express purpose of getting the artist a good chart position. When Jimin’s “Like Crazy” topped the Hot 100 for a week in April, 241,000 track downloads accounted for 85% of its revenue. When his BTS bandmate Jung Kook hit No.1 with “Seven” in July, 59% of its revenue came from 138,000 downloads.

Conservative music fans act like K-pop fans when it comes to supporting a song. Track purchases helped Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” reach No. 1 on the Hot 100. In the week of Aug. 5, when the track sat atop the chart, 175,000 downloads accounted for 56% of revenue generated from streams and sales, according to Billboard’s estimate. Two weeks ago, “American Flags,” a patriotic song by rapper Tom MacDonald, sold 18,000 track downloads in the week — second only to “Try That in a Small Town” that week. The following week, the No. 11 most downloaded song was “Go Woke Go Broke” by Jokes on Woke, a country song that attacks recent villains in conservative culture such as Bud Light, CMT, Disney, Ford, Adidas and Barbie.

It’s not necessarily just fans voting with their money, though. The shopping habits of conservative-leaning music fans can help explain why Oliver, Aldean and the others have sold so many downloads. Notably, the country music market — which tends to lean conservative — was slower to adopt streaming (however, it has recently been catching up) and sees a higher-than-average level of purchases. Country music accounted for 35% of the top 100 track downloads in the week ended Aug. 10 — and six of the top 10 — while Christian/gospel accounted for 3%. Both genres have less representation on the Hot 100, which also incorporates streaming and radio spins. Country accounted for just 21% of the tracks on the current Hot 100 chart, while Christian/gospel was absent from the chart.

Whether it’s K-pop or country, songs typically can’t count on download sales alone to provide longevity on the charts. “Try That in a Small Town” sales fell 85% in a week, dropping the track from No. 1 to No. 21 on the Hot 100 in the week dated Aug. 12. Similarly, “Like Crazy” fell from No. 1 to No. 45 the week after its peak. As the culture wars quickly move onto the next issue, the lasting endurance of “Rich Men North of Richmond” depends on how many real fans Anthony has made in this time.

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