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.”