The Hidden Beat Makers Behind Music’s Greatest Hits

At the same time, the freedom to earn money multiple times for a single beat means producers could lower the cost of licensing the beat – typically between $25 and $200. “It’s cheaper for people who want to use music in their content,” says Craig Hamilton, a researcher at Birmingham City University’s School of Media who specializes in popular music and the role of digital technologies.

This means that the types of people who can create new music using these beats are wider than ever. Independent artists can afford to license beats, for example. “If the song blows up, or if the artist gets signed and makes a lot of money off that track, the publishing revenue is split between the producer and the artist,” says Khamlichi. “It’s a win-win situation for both sides.”

‘Ride that horse until they can’t no more’

And some songs really exploded, including the biggest worldwide hit of 2019. “The big story about that is that Lil Nas X paid $30 for a beat on ‘Old Town Road,'” Hamilton says.

The American rapper, singer and songwriter, who broke records for sitting atop the charts, created his hit song with the help of a Wesley-like beat salesman. “[The beat seller] got a big break,” Wesley says. “It’s also opened the eyes of other people around the world. He’s getting a lot more attention now.

Wesley’s biggest hit is a track called “Backseat Lover,” an R&B instrumental involving plinking guitar sounds, drums, and more, all layered using synthesized keyboards. First developed in 2014, its licenses sold out every day for months.

“That one beat really helped my business take off,” he says. People who first came to see him for “Backseat Lover” ended up becoming return customers. “Some of my clients spend a few hundred dollars every year just on my music,” he says.

Some producers have even become minor celebrities themselves. “We’ve gotten to a stage where the producer becomes as popular for a track as the artist,” says Khamlichi. “Before, you would hear a track and only think of the artist, not the producer behind it. Now it’s almost 50/50.

But it is unclear whether this success will continue. The rise of tech-based beat-making has made some people very successful – but the march of technology may be the downfall of those people.

“I think AI is the wild card of the pack,” Hamilton says. “I’m pretty sure you won’t need to buy a beat anytime soon. The way companies frame it is initially something to augment the production process for professionals but in potential long term applications if they are right about the technology you will be able to say [to an AI]: ‘I’m having a barbecue, create a complementary melody to this kind of content.’”

Perhaps that’s why Wesley diversified his income by starting three other businesses on the side. They are all related to music and beat production, including Soundee, its own beat selling platform.

But until the technology evolves, to use a phrase from Lil Nas X — who has profited so much from the industry — these producers are likely to ride that horse until they can’t.