Macklemore: Indie Sellout or Savvy DIY Marketer?

Macklemore's Career Timeline 2000-2012
Macklemore’s Career TImeline by Amber Horsburgh, Hypebot

At the risk of adding to the over-exposure of Seattle’s hometown music hero of the decade, Macklemore, I felt it important to explore this question. Paul Porter of Rap Rehab wrote an interesting blog post challenging the claim by most music publications that Macklemore is an indie DIY success story. (We had a little discussion about it on Twitter, here’s the Storify of My Dialog About Macklemore With Paul Porter.) As I interpret his post, Porter proposes that Macklemore is not DIY or indie because he worked with a distributor, Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), who

  • agreed to work with Macklemore because he is a talented white rapper, an unusual characteristic that makes him stand out
  • identified big financial potential for Warner Music Group in Macklemore’s wider appeal to a pop audience, which is, by definition, larger than rap or hip hop
  • underwrote Macklemore’s airplay on pop (and not hip hop) radio stations through payola
  • thus fueled his meteoric rise on the charts,  subsequent record sales and  media exposure

And all this did not, and would not have happened, without the savvy of a major label’s distribution arm, Warner Music Group/ADA. In Mr. Porter’s eyes, this makes Macklemore less than indie, because “Indie is one that is independent; especially: an unaffiliated record or motion-picture production company.”

I think there are some really interesting conclusions you can make from these assertions, which, by and large, I agree with. I don’t know about payola, but I have no reason to doubt Mr. Porter’s long-running assertion that it runs rampant in the radio industry. I totally respect his insider perspective. From my perspective, though, it doesn’t change the fact that Macklemore was an indie artist, and he did succeed through his own efforts (and those of his crack team, led by manager and master marketer Zach Quillen) without a label. At some point, Ben Haggerty, Ryan Lewis, and Zach Quillen recognized that the Macklemore phenomenon needed help from ADA to get to the next level. That seems smart to me.

So what does this mean for other aspiring indie artists? Here’s what I take away from this:

  • It’s very possible to get on the radar screen of a major label by working hard for ten-plus years, as Macklemore did, making great music and organically building an audience through social media and other boots-on-the-ground tactics
  • Getting a smart management team with promotional experience on board at the right time, like Quillen, to grow beyond a single city (Seattle) is critical
  • It’s not possible to get to the really big leagues (top ten Billboard chart) without the support of a major label/distribution, at least at the inflection point where radio airplay becomes critical to generating PR and sales
  • It’s not possible to get on pop radio without the deep pockets money and process/connections available only to big labels
  • If you want to get major label attention, it’s critical to be not only talented, but also a marketing anomaly – you need to stand out (you can also read my blog post on why I think Macklemore’s image and music is so successful from a marketing perspective)
  • Music is a business, and if you want to attract a label, you’re more attractive if you gear your sound toward a larger pop audience instead of a more niche audience like hip hop

I don’t think any of this changes the fact that Macklemore is an incredible DIY success story as an indie artist. He succeeded largely without the help of a label until very recently. Yes, he’s a white rapper, but is he successful because he’s white, or successful because he’s different? Does any of this make his success less of an accomplishment? I would argue it doesn’t. Does it change what other indie artists should do? I would argue it doesn’t.

They (we) should still strive to be creative, create a great musical product, stand out from the crowd, find our niche (but not be too niche), work social media and every other angle, and never forget that it takes hard work and doesn’t happen overnight. And when the brass ring comes by, grab it. Or, as Porter says, “Getting drafted is the name of the game.”


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  1. This makes no mention of the year + of touring and live shows prior to Thrift Shop, the initial global AND indie success of The Town, and Seattle as an overall brand/tastemaking market that doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks by supporting quality when it sees it.

    The fact of the matter is, until Macklemore’s iTunes and youTube numbers came in, Billboard was clueless. I submit that the music business at large has been chasing Macklemore, not making him.

    1. I would tend to agree with you, Gene. Seattle is a peculiar music town. It has often set trends and nurtured musicians who were a little different – who then caught on fire big time with the rest of the country and world, mostly on their own. LA talent scouts don’t hang out in Seattle much, I think. I do think we have some advantages in being tech savvy here, which helps us with social media and things like Kickstarter.

  2. Macklemore IS DIY as you say, Solveig. Any artist who has consistently built their career over a ten year period certainly is NOT a major labels creation. As far ADA is concerned it was born as a ‘bridge’ between strong indies who, as they grow, can then crossover to Major Label attention. It is after all 51%owned by Watner Bros. that is the point! There has always been this “cooler than thou” attitude in Seattle, that its ok to support an unknown artist or band, but they better not get too big….’cause then they are “sell outs”. Total Bullshit. He worked his ads off, and deserves his current success!

    1. Good point about ADA, Chris. And about Seattle! One thing I am seeing with Macklemore this time around, though, is a lot of pride in his success. Maybe he’s broken that trend getting dissed as a sellout. I guess it all depends on whether he comes back or leaves forever for LALA land.

      1. Thanks for this Solveig. The NPR article especially annoyed me because it sprang from naivete about the industry, and co-opted that just to get a provocative headline. I don’t believe that using the term “indie” means anything anymore, especially when it’s used to imply some elevated sense of worth over that which is not indie. MM & RL ran their business and hired ADA as a subcontractor, essentially. NPR’s unasked-for clarification was more petulant than anything else.

        I would disagree about Seattle having the same civic egotism it might have had, say, 20 years ago. The music culture has expanded and there’s not as much brusque dismissal of those outside the “clique” as there used to be. At least not with the younger artists who are centered here now. You’re right, there’s a lot more local pride about Macklemore & Lewis’ success, and especially the way they got it done, than anything else.

  3. in my eyes, if an artist retains full ownership of his masters and copyrights and is in complete control of his career, he’s DIY.

    just because an artist hires some professional industry helpers, it doesn’t mean they’ve sold out or aren’t DIY… it means they’re simply smart businessmen who realized the job is too big for only a couple of people, and have hired a smart team to help them achieve their goals and maximize exposure .

    PS – NPR posted this yesterday:

    The Real Story Of How Macklemore Got ‘Thrift Shop’ To No. 1

    1. I agree, Brian. I saw that NPR piece, thanks – I think NPR lifted it from Paul’s original post. Every artist is DIY at some point, aren’t they? Then, they reach a place where they need help to get to the “next level” and it’s smart at that point to get it!

  4. As someone who doesn’t follow the politics of the music industry very closely, I have a question: does anyone know what the terms of a contract with ADA would look like?

    Does ADA have ownership of the songs? If the song is bought on iTunes, where I assume ADA’s services are unnecessary, does ADA still get a cut of that anyway?

    The way I see it, this sounds like Macklemore’s team simply paid and employed ADA to distribute for them in the markets where it didn’t make sense to do it themselves. It doesn’t sound much different from a corporation like Apple employing a manufacturing company like Foxconn to produce their product. In other words, Foxconn physically makes the iPad, and Best Buy physically distributes it, but neither of those companies own it.

    If Macklemore decides a competitor of ADA serves him better, does he have the ownership and control to employ them instead? If so, I’d say it’s fairly disingenuous to say he’s not independent.

    1. Blake – Great points all around. I don’t know the terms of Macklemore’s agreement with ADA, but I doubt they have ownership of his songs. But who knows what their cut is of the various distributions mechanisms. It’s a question worth asking whether he can change his distributor. Any exclusive distribution agreement clearly has to benefit both parties, or why do it?

      1. It’s a distribution-only agreement. I don’t know the terms, whether it’s for a number of years or just this marketing cycle and the products. My hunch would be that it’s just for this album, and that if they continue with this kind of deal they’d most likely do it album-by-album. But that’s given the current industry climate, who knows how that might change in a decade?

        ADA also handles digital distribution, so they (or more specifically WEA) do deal with iTunes and other digital outlets too. Since Macklemore & Lewis paid for their own recording, I would find it highly unlikely that ADA owns any of the publishing, and only gets points on sales or streaming (such as that is).

  5. First of all, I would never consider an article that addresses the term “sellout” as a credible source. Are we still in seventh grade? That term is obsolete in the adult world. However, Macklemore is completely DIY, and the fact that he has professional assistance does not undermine this.

    The points you made about not receiving airplay and chart positions without a major label is false. What would be more accurate is to say it is impossible to receive airplay or chart positions unsolicited. It is not necessary for a major label to do this, as an established management company can do this just fine.

    The way you address strategies to attract major record labels contradicts the point of them to begin with. Be a marketing anomaly? Stand out? These are two of the few things a record label is supposed to do for you. If you can do them yourself, why do you need a record label?

    Physical distribution with ADA was not the main ingredient to Macklemore’s mainstream success. It is easy to get the ADA swept up into the mess of whether Macklemore is DIY or not, but you must remember ADA only provided physical distribution of Macklemore’s sales. This accounts for only 30% of album sales, let alone publishing/licensing/etc. (all other forms of income) that Macklemore LLC prominently relies on. ADA was just a small portion of this success formula.

    Although ADA says they provide marketing as well as distribution, it was Macklemore’s high budget from their first licensing deal (before the Heist) that allowed them to produce a full length album and professional music video. The way they spent their money from this initial licensing deal is ultimately what propelled them into stardom, along with their core, growing fan base.

    1. Some really great points, Jack. Your last observation that Macklemore’s decision to take the money from their first licensing deal and use it to create a great music video that captured a large online following (along with some other savvy social media techniques with Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter) is especially astute. I agree it was a very savvy marketing spend.

      The term sellout in the title is meant to address head-on some of the criticism Macklemore has received (eg. the Paul Porter post I referenced). I agree with you that the term is mis-applied in this case, but I’m not the only one one who has used it (Slate: February 2013).

      The financial costs, the creative demands and the compromises required of any artist to succeed commercially will remain, I think, an issue worthy of discussion until the end of time. If Macklemore weren’t so anti-consumerism and anti-big-label in their song lyrics, I think they would be less under scrutiny. Taking strong moral positions always makes you a larger target for the “ends vs means” discussion, whether it applies or not.

      What is interesting to me is the deconstruction, in marketing terms, of the steps an artist takes to become commercially successful without buying in (or selling out) to the older model of handing over their promotion, and creative control over their music, to another marketing entity – whether it’s a label, manager, or venture capitalist. Macklemore is such a fascinating case to me precisely because Ben and Ryan (claim to) have managed to personally maintain artistic control. Or at least, they were in control 6 months ago. It’s worth asking if they still are today after their continued success and inevitable enmeshing into the music industry machine. Don’t know the answer to that question, do you?

      It’s a great question: “If you can do them yourself, why do you need a record label?”

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