A 20-year-old college dropout with big dreams is now celebrating the longest-running number-one song of all time. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is the earworm people can’t seem to get enough of this summer.
He spent a mere $30 for the beat he used to create the song that has made him worth millions. The young artist from Atlanta and his rise to stardom is arguably a perfect success story of today’s gig economy. Yet, the road to turning a passionate hobby into a successful freelance career is difficult to navigate and few budding entrepreneurs actually succeed.
Some people call Lil Nas X an overnight sensation, but in an April interview with NPR, the rapper, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, explained how his internet savviness got him started years ago. “I started to get into every side of the Internet around 13-ish. Not even intentionally, just learning how it works and how to use it to my advantage,” he told NPR. His story is one a lot of young entrepreneurs can relate to. He tinkered online and managed to successfully turn his hobby into a money-making brand.
He purchased the beat from an online platform called BeatStars that allows music producers to sell their work. It’s like Fiverr, Upwork, or Etsy for the music industry. These platforms give solo professionals a marketplace to sell their skillsets in a way that didn’t exist just a few years ago. According to CNBC, the teenage producer who sold his work to Lil Nas X has since negotiated a new contract with the rapper, but perhaps he could have made more money from the start if he had priced himself accordingly.
The gig economy is full of “what ifs” and challenges. Yet, freelancers and contract workers are projected to make up the majority of the workforce by 2027, according to a 2018 study published by Upwork. Already, more than a third of Americans consider themselves freelancers and each year more of them report finding their work online. Websites like Fiverr are an easy “in” for many creatives, but making a healthy income can be difficult because of competition and the expectation of low rates. In many industries “freelance” is still synonymous with “cheap” and it is up to the workers to change that by understanding the market and their own worth.
But how do you do that when you’ve spent your entire professional career as a cog in someone else’s machine? The leap into freelance work is a step into the unknown with no promise of a steady salary and all of the benefits that come along with a traditional 9-to-5. Revenue Attraction Specialist Sherri Somers teaches budding entrepreneurs how to turn their new businesses into money-making careers. Somers started out navigating the gig economy the same as everyone else. She is a former law enforcement officer who wanted a different lifestyle for her family. Now she is an award-winning, successful business owner who helps others realize their dreams.
The first challenge, she says, entrepreneurs face in the gig economy is identifying whether there’s a need in the market for their passions, and then understanding how to use their skills in a way that can be profitable.
Referring to Lil Nas X and his country trap music style she says, “He is amazing. He picked a market that doesn’t have much competition in his demographic. He got his own lane.”
She compares it to her own career as a Revenue Attraction Specialist, “I was really good at Livestream, so I used my Livestream to educate people on finances. There aren’t many people in my demographic, a black woman, who do that. Finding your lane is going to require to find a passion you’re willing to study, breathe, and live it. For me, I had to learn about stocks and dividends.”
Finding a niche isn’t easy. Successful entrepreneurs generally conduct some kind of beta testing – surveys, challenges, and research to let them know whether their idea is profitable. Somers typically recommends her clients offer a low ball price for their services first, then scale up. You’re worth whatever someone is willing to pay and it only takes one big purchase to get you off the ground.
“When I started in 2015 I remember making $8,000 on a workshop. I remember saying wow I can make money here. If you can get one person to pay your price, that’s a clue that you can get more customers,” Somers says. “That music producer had other songs, other accounts, it only takes one thing to make it big or lose it all.”
In the case of the music producer, he likely will never charge $30 for a beat again. “Old Town Road” is likely his “in” to the music industry. He’s fortunate he could negotiate a contract with Lil Nas X after the song went viral, but that doesn’t always happen. Freelancers and entrepreneurs get taken advantage of every day.
Reality star Bethenny Frankel, best known for her role Real Housewives of New York City, famously told CNBC in 2018 that she is the only person to put in her contract that, “everything I ever do, I own.” Frankel went on to build the Skinny Girl brand empire, which she sold in 2011 for $100-million. Somers says when building a business, or even just freelancing, she tells her clients to operate as if their business is already there. That means contracts set in place, even if the gig feels small.
The freelance economy is certainly full of challenges, but overall it is an evolution of the American Dream. “For years, we relied on 401Ks and IRAS,” Somers says, “All we heard about as children was to stick to our 9-to-5 and we’ll live a good life. We now know that isn’t true. What if I want to enjoy the life I have now? Your life and business is a reflection of you.” It is about sacrifice and understanding the game.