For music producers uploading their work to YouTube, a few keywords can make all the difference in netting a hit. And it helps if those words are “Drake,” “Future,” “Roddy Ricch,” or the names of any number of popular artists who have a sound that up-and-coming rappers and vocalists are looking to tap into.
Welcome to the digital world of “type beats,” where producers are as focused on finding the right keywords for their creations as they are the right hi-hats or synth patches. It’s a realm where imitation—or at least, inspiration—may not be the highest form of flattery, but it is the quickest way to gain attention. A type beat is a fairly simple concept in practice: A beatsmith creates a composition that sounds similar to one that, for example, Drake may use, or one that they could potentially hear Drake on, and then uploads it to YouTube with the title “Drake Type Beat.” The hope is to draw in vocalists searching for a backing track to purchase for a new song. Repeat the process for Young Thug. Or NBA Youngboy. Or even Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen. And by doing so, the producer can capture a new audience and customer base who may not have been aware of them beforehand.
If done right, type beats can be a lucrative business model: YouTube will typically rank the instrumental higher in search results, leading to more views and potentially more sales and leases for the track. And while leases typically cost between $15 and $150, they can add up quickly. The best type beat producers can make thousands a month—and possibly as much as $60,000, according to Abe Batshon, CEO of BeatStars, a leading beat marketplace. And that can be all because they understood the algorithm as much as they understood the rhythm. “In the last few months, April and May specifically, producers are set to earn almost $6 million on the platform,” Batshon says. “The money isn’t centralized to a few users—we are seeing more and more creators generating income on our platform.”
Few appreciate this as much as Maxwell Nichols, who produces under the name MjNichols and has worked with the likes of Gucci Mane, Juice Wrld, and Lil Uzi Vert. After dropping out of college in 2012, Maxwell began uploading type beats to YouTube. Since launching his channel nearly a decade ago, he’s gained nearly 150,000 subscribers and notched over 45 million views. One of his instrumentals was even purchased by 6ix9ine, who found it after searching for “6ix9ine type beats.” The rapper used it to create “Buba” from his debut commercial project Day69.
MjNichols uploaded his first video in April 2012 as a Kendrick Lamar type beat, and continued to add instrumentals titled after the rising artists of the era—Future, Wiz Khalifa, and Mac Miller, among others—until it soon became virtually impossible for rappers not to see MjNichols’s instrumentals in the platform’s “recommended videos” tab. Then, as new artists such as Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug, and Lil Uzi Vert emerged, MjNichols adjusted his titles and his sound.
“It was constant,” he says. “You didn’t want to have a dated sound so you had to keep up with the times.”
In the description of each of MjNichols’s videos was a link to purchase the beat on his BeatStars profile. Each could be leased multiple times to several different artists, or it could be sold at a premium as an exclusive. By 2015, MjNichols was making enough cash off of his type beats storefront to quit his job at Starbucks. But he didn’t want to be known just online. After building his reputation with type beats and notching a few credits, he teamed up with superproducers Taz Taylor and Nick Mira—the team behind Juice Wrld’s megahit “All Girls Are the Same”—and joined them in L.A. as they were booked for sessions with larger artists. Since then, under the imprint of Internet Money, Mj has worked with some of the industry’s leading rappers, including Tory Lanez, Lil Tecca, and Gucci Mane—and inspired a new generation of producers to build their own empires online. Instead of spending late nights in the studio with a single artist, producers have the option to upload their catalog to BeatStars and reach thousands of artists at once.
“We are on pace to pay out over $50 million alone on our marketplace, and the majority of each transaction is not an exclusive sale,” says Abe Batshon, the CEO of BeatStars. “We have even had certain producers generate hundreds of thousands of dollars from nonexclusive sales on one beat alone, which if they had sold exclusively, they would have lost out on the long tail.”
Yet Abe Batshon says the music industry wasn’t initially receptive to the idea of nonexclusive licensing. At first, the transition was resisted by “industry” producers who felt that the practice would cheapen their work. But as producers like MjNichols and Nick Mira racked up placements with XXXTentacion and Trippie Redd, their fears proved unfounded. In fact, artists were naturally compelled to purchase the exclusive rights to the beat.
“Some people said if you sell beats for $30, no one will pay you for a placement,” Mj says. “We broke that stigma and showed that that wasn’t true. There were people doing [type beats] before me and Taz Taylor—but we were the first wave to get big on it.” Now that Mj is working in the music industry, no one ever brings up his past as a YouTube producer. And if they do, it’s often to give props to his hustle—and get some tips.
After seeing the success others were having with type beats, Martin Purcell, a French producer who goes by the name Soulker, created his own YouTube channel. One evening in June 2017, the then-high-school student uploaded a guitar-laden instrumental type beat named for Lil Peep—a rapper who gained acclaim for blending hip-hop and Midwestern emo before his death later that year—and waited to see whether anyone would listen. It was his first time uploading a Lil Peep type beat and he wasn’t sure how it would be received.
A few months later, the instrumental was removed for its use of an unauthorized sample from the rock band Silverstein. But before then, Soulker says, the beat was one of the first videos recommended to users who searched for “Lil Peep type beats” and had accumulated over 300,000 views. When 25 viewers ended up leasing the beat from BeatStars at $20 a piece, Soulker netted his first paycheck of $500. He’s continued to upload type beats, but it’s taken him four years of grinding consistent uploads to accumulate 400,000 subscribers on YouTube and over 40,000 followers on BeatStars. “To have a successful channel you need loads of beats to blow up—one isn’t enough,” he says.
Today, his YouTube channel routinely receives millions of views per month from type beats. He says 20 percent of his revenue comes from YouTube placing advertisements on his videos, while the rest of it comes from leases, which can earn him as much as $12,000 a month. But unlike MjNichols, who conquered the market by using search terms like “Kendrick Lamar type beat” and “Wiz Khalifa type beat,” Soulker has also made a name for himself by broadening his search titles to include moods and themes, such as “Japanese type beat” and “Egyptian type beat.” These categories have sizable audiences, but not many producers know about them, which allows Soulker to absorb the traffic. “I just find it fun to get inspired by all the different cultures out there,” he says.
Eric Schellderfer, who produces under the name PremiseOnTheBeat, also began uploading type beats on YouTube when he was in high school in 2014. In the description of each upload he puts a link to his BeatStars account, which now has over 12,000 followers. He says he makes $10,000 a month for his productions, enough to cover his college tuition.
Often, Premise says, it’s not unusual for some of his 100,000 subscribers to request specific type beats for him to upload to his YouTube channel. After Roddy Ricch’s “The Box”—the hit song that spent 11 weeks at no. 1 on the Billboard singles chart earlier this year—started gaining popularity, Premise created a “Roddy Ricch x DaBaby type beat,” which gained over a million views. Since then, he’s stuck to his formula of listening to his audience’s requests and keeping a close eye on the charts to spot trending sounds.
Batshon of BeatStars feels that his business empowers music producers to build a sustainable career for themselves. “There are so many cases when a single beat can generate thousands of dollars for these producers,” he says. “When it comes time for a label to purchase the beat, the producers have all the leverage not to sell it for cheap.”
The emergence of type beats has not been without its critics, however. Patrick CC, a YouTube hip-hop commentator who recently released a video titled “Why I Don’t Agree With Type Beats,” says type beats encourage rappers to “copy the artists they are searching for.” But MjNichols disagrees. The purpose of type beats isn’t necessarily for a producer to mimic an artist’s sound, but rather to market their music online, he says. “Some people thought we were just stealing other peoples styles, but it was just a way to get views on YouTube and grow my channel,” Mj says. “My beats were mixed well and high quality. My goal was always to make better beats, make better videos, and ultimately build my brand.”
However, some artists like Tommy Lloyd, also known as Shrimp, see Patrick’s point. In his opinion, type beats may benefit producers more than the artists. “It doesn’t differentiate you at all: If you find a type beat and there are 20 other rappers using it—you don’t have a distinct sound,’’ Shrimp said. Since he began his career, Shrimp hasn’t used any type beats, and his biggest song, “This Body Means Nothing to Me” has gained over 700,000 views on Spotify.
While some artists can craft the perfect beat, the vast majority are reliant on producers to create their sounds. YouTube beats give these struggling artists an opportunity to lease a beat in minutes and then take it to the studio that same day, without going over budget. Adam22, the host of the No Jumper podcast, which The New York Times dubbed “The Paris Review of the face-tattoo set,” hosts livestreams on YouTube for artists to submit their music and has seen firsthand how rappers can transform a well-known type beat into a fresh hit. The day before YBN’s Nahmir’s song “Rubbin off the Paint” was released on YouTube and became a viral phenomenon, it was submitted for review on Adam22’s livestream. Once his listeners—many of them aspiring rappers themselves—heard the song, dozens spammed his chat to mention they recognized the beats as one from Izak, a well-known type beat producer on YouTube and BeatStars.
“Rubbin off the Paint” currently has more than 180 million plays on YouTube and 200 million on Spotify. In an interview with Genius, Izak explains that the beat was inspired by Playboi Carti’s 2017 hit “Magnolia.” “When Rubbin off the Paint” first came out, many of the fans listening recognized it as a type beat,” Adam22 says now. “But it didn’t stop it from going on to be a big song,” Adam22 says. “Now, if Drake had a song on his new album and it wasn’t a surprise for his audience, he would want to replace the song. But for YBN Nahmir, it didn’t matter that people had heard the beat he rapped on previously.”
While not every artist can repeat YBN Nahmir’s trajectory, type beats are still their best chance to make a name for themselves without going broke. Trent Leek, who raps under the stage name Safe Sin, found a Clams Casino type beat on YouTube by producer Sketchmyname. Trent then leased it off Sketchmyname’s BeatStars account, and turned it into his breakout single, “Baby Do You Hate Me.” “Around then [Sketchmyname] was leasing for such a low price, which is cool for people starting out like I was,” Trent says via email. “I wasn’t surprised that a hit came from a type beat. It’s really just a marketing strategy for producers to get noticed. Some of the kids making type beats on YouTube like CashMoneyAP and Nick Mira a few years ago are on the Billboard every month now.”
Deon Davis, a vocalist who goes by Heroine Diaries, says that both of his songs with over 1 million plays on SoundCloud—“Bad Love Breaks Hearts” and “You’re All I’ve Got But I Don’t Even Have You”—were recorded over type beats he found on YouTube. If it weren’t for type beats, he wouldn’t have been able to start his burgeoning career. “Starting out, every beat I ever used was a type beat because I wasn’t big enough to get people to just send me beats,” he says via email. “Now I use less type beats as people send them to me, but I still use them a lot, as there’s so much to choose from when searching for type beats.”
As rappers become more established, the amount of type beats named after them on YouTube then becomes a barometer for success. For Swerzie, a Tennessee-based rapper with more than 25,000 followers on SoundCloud, having type beats named after him is an indication that he’s moving out of the underground and gaining traction with a larger audience. However, he is undecided on whether or not he would work with them. “I check [Swerzie type beats] out all the time—and some of them are hard as fuck, but I prefer to stick to my own team of producers,” he says.
While some see type beats as an easy hustle, making a career off it is harder than it sounds. No gimmick or strategy can replace talent, and even if one video takes off on YouTube, there is no guarantee the next one will too. For every producer who uploads type beats only a few have the skill, and the marketing forte, to make a living off their art. For every channel with 50,000 followers, there are countless others who never get more than a few views. And while some people are looking for beats to lease, others like Swerzie are just using it for inspiration. “Some of these producers on YouTube have ridiculous-ass melodies and sometimes I will make something over the type beat then export the a capella and send it over to one of my producers. Then he will recreate a new beat with my vocals, but nothing close to the type beat—a whole new different beat,” Swerzie says.
Not every viewer is a lead. Most are just window shopping. Noah Kruse, an Arkansas producer who goes by Nk Music, says some viewers may use ripping software to download the beat and never pay—leaving amateur producers such as himself without much recourse. His beats, which typically are leased for $15, have been viewed millions of times. Yet few have actually translated into sales. “I can’t really do much about it, so I don’t really let it bother me,” Noah says.
To be successful, producers can’t sit back and expect a few videos or keywords to do the work. They need to watch their tracks and be prepared to fight for their percentage of a song’s streams. Soulker says that an Italian singer by the name of ANNA illegally downloaded one of his beats off YouTube to produce her song “BANDO,” which reached no. 1 on Italy’s charts. At first, Soulker was ecstatic at the success. However, his delight turned to disappointment when he didn’t receive any proceeds. The issue taught him to lawyer up. “I got a big share of that song now,” Soulker says. The hiccup isn’t enough to stop him from uploading beats onto YouTube. But now that Soulker is at the top of a digital kingdom, he has to put in work to protect his turf—especially when dealing with artists he doesn’t personally know. “There’s so many new songs every day with my beats—99.9 percent of them don’t go over 1,000 views.” he says. “But if a hit is made on my beat and it wasn’t purchased, I will get my money.”
There is no longer a stigma surrounding producers who sell type beats on a platform like BeatStars—instead it’s a step toward financial stability, independence in an inherently unstable industry that rarely wants to cough up cash. Rather than having to rely on a hit song, which is as likely as hitting the lottery, producers use type beats to build a consistent business model off their art and reduce their dependence on industry politics and notoriously shady industry executives looking to cut them out of a deal. While selling type beats online may not be as prestigious as selling a hit song to Drake, it can still be lucrative. Producers can market their work to artists around the world from the comfort of their bedrooms, and as long as there is someone with $20 and the drive to create a classic, there will always be a producer willing to make the sale.
Seth King has contributed to Rolling Stone, Quartz, The Jerusalem Post, and others. He’s based in Boston.