When Trent Reznor Accidentally Co-Wrote One of the Biggest Pop Songs of All Time

Nine Inch Nails from Los Angeles, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons. Felipe Tofani from Berlin, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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Back in the early 2010s, a major creative transition happened with Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor.

Not comfortable with being pigeonholed as the “Nine Inch Nails” guy for the rest of his creative days, he impressively pivoted beyond his industrial metal empire and began to establish himself as a prolific and talented composer in the world of film soundtracks.

Alongside Atticus Ross, his frequent collaborator, Reznor has since crafted evocative and memorable scores for a ton of hit films like “The Social Network,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Gone Girl,” and “Bird Box,” among others. Their soundtrack for “The Social Network” earned them critical acclaim and an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

But then something profound happened. A then-unknown pop/country/rap crossover artist named Lil Nas X exploded out of nowhere in 2018 with a remix of his song “Old Town Road” with country star Billy Ray Cyrus. The song quickly reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and stayed there for 19 consecutive weeks (a record at the time). What’s all that have to do with Reznor? Well, here’s where the story gets interesting: Reznor and Ross received co-writing credits for the track, even getting nominated for a Country Music Award in the process. Here’s how it happened.

Did Trent Reznor Write “Old Town Road”?

The Dutch record producer YoungKio crafted the beat used for “Old Town Road” a year before the song’s release and made it available for sale on his online store for beats. To create the beat, YoungKio sampled Nine Inch Nails’ track “34 Ghosts IV” from Ghosts I–IV as Reznor had allowed anyone at the time to use the album under a creative commons license (a special type of license issued by the copyright owner to allow anyone in the world to use his or her copyright work in any manner consistent with that license).

YoungKiio used studio techniques to give it the vibe of an old field recording. He then rearranged sections of the sample to make it more catchy and unique. Interestingly, YoungKio had never heard of Nine Inch Nails before stumbling upon “34 Ghosts IV.”

Lil Nas X, unknown at the time, purchased the beat from YoungKio for a mere $30. Interestingly, the purchases on YoungKio’s online store were anonymous, so he had no idea that Lil Nas X was the buyer until he saw the song mentioned in an Instagram meme in December 2018.

When the song first started to take off, and the issue of clearing the sample’s use arose, Reznor’s response was surprisingly positive. He could have easily stopped the song’s rise, as Lil Nas X and his producer had not cleared the sample beforehand. However, Reznor chose not to be a roadblock and allowed the track to flourish. Reznor recalled later to Rolling Stone that he received a call from Lil Nas X’s manager seeking clearance for the sample:

“The way it was presented to me originally is I got a call from my management saying, ‘We got a call from a panicked manager saying they had used the sample of something off Ghosts. They should have cleared it, but it didn’t get cleared. It’s picking up some steam on the viral Spotify charts. What do you think about that?’ And I said, ‘Look, I’m fine with it. I get how stuff goes. They’re not saying they didn’t sample it. Just work it out, but don’t be a roadblock to this.’ I hadn’t heard it yet. Then a few weeks later, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”

Despite being offered a cameo role in the “Old Town Road” music video, Reznor declined, feeling that the spotlight should be on the artists responsible for the song’s success rather than on him:

“I don’t feel it’s my place to play any kind of social critic to that…It was a material that was used in a significant way and it turned into something that became something else, and those guys should be the ones the spotlight is on…. They asked if I wanted to do a cameo in the video, and it was flattering, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to shine a light on me for that. I say that with complete respect.”

Reznor’s stance on the matter demonstrated his willingness to embrace creativity and innovation in music, even when it meant his work being reimagined in unexpected ways.

In the fall of 2021, the song became the then second-highest certified song ever by the RIAA with 16-times platinum status in the United States. It went on to sell over 18 million records, crowning it as one of the best-selling singles of all time. 

Reznor himself is still a bit dumbfounded by the track’s success and his accidental involvement:

“Having been listed on the credits of the all-time, Number One whatever-the-fuck-it-is wasn’t something…I didn’t see that one coming…But the world is full of weird things that happen like that. It’s flattering. But I don’t feel it’s for me to step in there and pat myself on the back for that.”

While Nine Inch Nails had spent decades as a wildly successful musical force, things are obviously a bit different now for Reznor (and Ross). Between their movie scores and Reznor’s accidental “Old Town Road” success, the duo proved to the musical establishment at large that they weren’t one-trick ponies, and they embraced their newfound pop culture opportunities head-on, turning a ton of heads in the process when they produced pop star Halsey’s 2021 concept album about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power.” Reznor and Ross would also go on to win yet another Academy Award for Best Original Score for the Pixar hit “Soul” that same year.