Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for the fourth week in a row with their hipster-hop banger “Thrift Shop” featuring Wanz. You know the song: the crazy sax beat, the catchy chorus, the line about the leopard mink that smells like R. Kelly’s urine-scented sheets. If you’ve been near a radio, bar, shopping center, music website, dance club, university, or actual thrift shop recently then you’ve almost definitely heard it. If you live in the greater Seattle area (where Macklemore is from), then you were probably already calling it “overplayed” two months ago.
It’s an undeniably big deal: an independently produced, do-it-yourself song by an unsigned artist conquered the brand name, major label stars that typically own Billboard’s Hot 100 list and reached number one for only the second time in history. Billboard magazine created the genre-blind list 54 years ago. Since then, the only other time a label-less song topped the charts was in 1994, when Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” snuck up on number one after appearing in the movie Reality Bites.
Inevitably, the song’s historic rise has a lot of tongues wagging and a lot of keyboards clicking. People who normally give a negligible number of shits about the Billboard charts (myself included) are suddenly paying a lot of attention to them. People are throwing out random Hot 100 stats like they’re Oprah with free cars. Speaking of which, here’s my obligatory list:
Surprisingly, “Thrift Shop” is the first rap song to reach number one in two years — Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” was the last.
It’s been 21 years since a Seattle rapper had a number one song. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s eternal “Baby Got Back” climbed to the top of Mt. Billboard back in 1992.
My personal favorite: Mack and RL are the first duo to go number one with their debut single since the “Macarena” dudes in 1994. (Bonus question: does anyone who isn’t a wedding DJ know the name of the Macarena band?)
Dangerously specific stats aside, many voices are claiming that the success of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis could become more than just a piece of trivia and actually mark a major tectonic shift in the industry itself. The interwebs are currently bursting with people arguing that Macklemore’s success indicates “the era of dominant music labels is crumbling.” Apparently the industry standards are shattered. Nothing will be the same. Droves of independent artists are going to start waving the middle finger at major labels. Or at least, they would, if they weren’t going to need both hands to carry all that creative control and royalties cash to the bank.
Have we fallen into the Pit of Hyperbolic Overreactions, or did a white rapper named Ben Haggerty just break the music industry?
Yes, we have, and no, he didn’t.
There’s seems to be a general misunderstanding about the “independent” part of Macklemore’s success. While it’s true that the creators of “Thrift Shop” are not signed to record label, there is a misperception that this means the song achieved total ubiquity without any label help — and that simply doesn’t happen. In reality, Mack and RL made The Heist with their own funds from touring and previous album sales. Then, they signed a distribution deal with Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), an indie-friendly subsidiary of mega-label Warner Bros., in order to get their music out there.
This isn’t two guys in their garage pressing CD’s and posting their songs on iTunes. This is a big business with all the connections of a major label putting a record in every radio station manager’s hand and on every department store shelf in the country. They are doing so for what we can assume is a substantial cut of the albums earnings. How did so many people get the wrong impression about the album’s “independent” nature? Well, Haggerty himself has occasionally been a bit misleading, and even major magazines have left it a little ambiguous.
Businesses like ADA got started because their parent companies realized there was a lot of money to be made turning modestly successful independent releases into potentially huge major releases. For labels like Warner Bros., investing in the promotion and sales of a completed album is less expensive, less risky, and more likely to provide quick returns than signing an artist. That is because when a label signs an artist, it usually has to front the artist the cost to spend months producing an album that might end up unlistenably awful, and then pay to promote and manage sales for that album. When a label picks up an indie release, it loses control over production but probably has a decent idea of how the album will do commercially.
In Macklemore and Lewis’ case, four songs on The Heist were released over thirteen months leading up to the album’s actual release, and the success of those singles is what (I assume) got them a distribution deal before the release of the record. Some critics questioned why songs that had been out that long would end up on the album (though “Victory Lap” and “My Oh My” were only bonus tracks on the deluxe version), but those hits were the best evidence ADA had that the album could sell. (I suspect a similar situation motivated the decision to include Frank Ocean’s smash “Thinkin’ About You” on Channel Orange, despite its presence on the internet for about a year beforehand.) Macklemore spent ten years building a following, a brand, and a modest discography; he had just enough money to make the album on his own and just enough leverage to get someone else to help sell it.
And sell it they have. Wanz certainly has more than twenty dollars in his pocket at this point.
“Thrift Shop” is only the fourth song ever to sell over 300,000 copies for at least five weeks straight, per Billboard.com. It just passed 3,000,000 in total sales. The song is all over pop radio and even a lot of alternative stations. Oddly, until recently the song wasn’t really getting spins on rap-specific stations — less than one percent of its overall audience came from urban radio. The last couple of weeks it has more than doubled its rap-radio airplay. Why? Record labels are very much in bed with radio stations. ADA and Warner Bros. thought the song would appeal to pop audiences more than hardcore hip-hop fans, and started the song on pop radio. Now, as Gary Trust points out, “Warner Bros. [is] promoting the song to R&B/hip hop radio.” (See? This is why you don’t get a number one song without the deep pockets and first-name basis connections of a big label.)
I don’t mean to try and derail the speeding steam engine that is Macklemore’s bandwagon right now. Maybe this is a good time to mention that I have been drinking the Macklemore Kool-Aid since I first heard “The Town” three years ago. (I was deep in the post-Sonics depression period in which I exclusively listened to semi-obscure Seattle music.) I pre-ordered the deluxe edition of The Heist. I was extra stoked on “Thrift Shop” because I could relate: in high school, my friends and I shopped almost exclusively at Value Village and Goodwill. That is, when we weren’t out kneeboarding.
All I am saying is that if the question is, “would the success of ‘Thrift Shop’ be one hundred times more significant if it had actually reached the top of the charts without any label help?” then the answer is,”absolutely.”
Nevertheless, that shouldn’t take away from what Haggerty and Lewis have done. There are countless aspiring songwriters, garage bands, and would-be rappers in the world, but most of the music they make is only heard muffled through walls by roommates and neighbors. If they are lucky, they can convince some family and friends to sit through a living room concert, or maybe even pay a couple bucks for a coffee house show. Maybe they record some of their songs with an old 8-track or GarageBand. The chances that any one of these independently produced songs (even one recorded in a studio and mastered by professionals) conquers the pop culture world are as low as the chances that Caltech basketball goes undefeated next season. (Well, maybe not that low.) Those are the odds Macklemore beat, albeit with some label help. But even getting that help was only possible because of the hard work and savvy business done by Haggerty, Lewis, and the small team around them.
While Macklemore isn’t going to spark the industry revolution everyone and their producer is predicting, it’s possible that his success could help accelerate a subtle trend in the music business that started in the early 1990’s. When Beck released a single called “Loser” on the (obviously indie) Bong Load Custom Records in 1993, the song was catching significant attention despite a modest release. A bidding war ensued for the rights to distribute what smelled like a big hit. Most people saw Beck as a one-hit-wonder, and were reluctant to sign him to the traditional record deal he wanted. Although Geffen Records eventually gave him a deal, the distribution-only light bulbs had already gone off in label execs’ heads. Subsidiaries like ADA were born.
Those distribution companies could be getting a lot more business in 2013 if more independent artists opt for the road Macklemore has paved, rejecting record contracts in favor of distribution-only deals for their homemade albums. It’s still difficult to make an album without the resources of a record deal, but its becoming easier. Recording software is relatively cheap, user-friendly, and capable of producing impressive audio quality. Programs like Kickstarter are helping artists raise money for projects. Services like Bandcamp and iTunes make selling your own music laughably easy considering the impossibility of that prospect fifteen years ago. The potentially huge exposure Youtube allows is also changing the industry: independent artists can generate buzz out of the blue, and A&R departments can find them without leaving their desk chair. Justin Bieber, Panic! At The Disco and The Lumineers all got a chance because someone important saw them on the internet.
There are definitely benefits to going the do-it-yourself route (beside the fact it’s getting easier), particularly given the drawbacks of signing with a label. Macklemore himself wrote the song “Jimmy Iovine” (named after the chairman of Interscope who made Eminem famous) about how surprisingly undesirable record deals can be, ending with the declaration, “I’d rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked.” Those awesomely subtle lyrics were inspired by the well-chronicled disparity in bargaining power between an artist borderline desperate to be signed and a label borderline annoyed to be signing them. Furthermore, there’s the notorious pressure labels supposedly put on artists to write songs with commercial viability prioritized over artistic vision. In going independent, Macklemore definitely took advantage of his creative freedom: “Jimmy Iovine” and “Same Love” are the kind of potentially controversial songs a label may have been hesitant to push, while approximately a third of The Heist’s total lyrics are “indie pride!” humblebrags about how much creative freedom he has.
Record labels aren’t inherently invasive on the creative process, however. Beck chose Geffen in 1993 despite the fact that they offered him the least money. The people at Geffen knew Beck wanted creative control, but they also recognized that the dude was weird as fuck. So they lowballed him money-wise but offered to release two albums made however he wanted (provided the first one had “Loser” on it) and also let him release any independent records he wanted to while under contract. In their minds, they would make enough on Mellow Gold by riding “Loser” (which peaked at number ten on the charts) that any returns they made from the subsequent album would just be found money. After Beck had been writing slow, folky songs for the second album for awhile, he decided to change course and record a more “fun” record with the Dust Brothers producing. Geffen reportedly said, “Yeah, cool. Just let us know when it’s done.” Fortunately for everyone, Odelay was born, nabbing two Grammys and the unofficial title for Highest Concentration of WTF Moments On A Single Album.
Which (sort of) brings us back to Macklemore and the real question buried beneath the buzz: what will he do now?
He could go the totally unprecedented route and continue to make albums entirely independently, using labels only for distribution. He’ll get a much bigger piece of the album sales pie, he could stay on his fuck-the-industry-and-look-at-my-creative-control swag, and he could potentially even impact the industry standard like so many pundits think he already has. But that would also be turning down a lot of resources that could make his music flourish.
Reportedly, Mack and RL wanted to use a few samples on The Heist, but the prices they were quoted to be able to use them were prohibitively high. Stubborn to stay independent, they opted to do all of the production live instead. If they sign with a major label for their next project, Ryan Lewis will be in producer heaven. He could afford to clear about as many samples as he wanted through the label’s money and connections. For live productions, he could record with world-class guest musicians in top-of-the-line studios. Meanwhile, Haggerty could probably afford to get his idol Lil’ Wayne to do a guest verse with him. Rihanna could sing the hook.
On one hand, they would probably feel like sellouts, and some people would definitely call them that. On the other hand, how the fuck do they turn that down — particularly if they’re offered the kind of creative freedom their independent success should warrant. The duo has proven they can make a successful album on their own; while they won’t get the totally hands-off Beck treatment (very few in pop-rap do, apparently), the label probably won’t interfere much with Mack and Ryan’s creative process.
People will have differing opinions about how the quality of Macklemore’s music would be affected by signing (especially since a lot of The Heist’s appeal is its unmistakable indie flavor). For Macklemore and his sidekick producer, the benefits of a record deal are obvious. However, even with a record deal, commercial success is not guaranteed, particularly when the benchmark has been set so high. The duo have undeniable potential to become a one-hit-wonder. If The Heist isn’t able to produce some other hits — which seems likely given that several singles from the album were released way before the album itself — the danger is that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis fall back into relative obscurity, albeit with a bigger cult following than before.
“Thrift Shop” is the kind of hit that’s very hard to follow. It’s really a perfect storm: the video is hilarious (83 million views and counting), the beat is infectious and danceable, the concept is goofy and hipster-chic with a dash of novelty, the rapper is white (which historically has attracted the enormous demographic of white hip hop fans), and it has the crossover appeal to get airplay on essentially any radio station playing music that is new. To recreate something with the kind of staying power to even smell the top ten on the charts again, will be very difficult. I’m rooting for them to continue to make bank (deal or no deal), but the ceiling looks alarmingly low from here.
Still, you can’t argue that things could have worked out better for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis so far. They swore off the presumably shitty contracts record companies were offering them before The Heist (“a can of beans and a pair of shoes”), despite the fact they’d been in the game for a several years. They made an album themselves at the highest production value possible on the (relative) cheap. They released a few singles with well-done accompanying videos (shot by friends) that attracted fans and label distributors alike. Then they signed the deal with ADA, promoted the gatorskin off the record, and “Thrift Shop,” improbably, became the biggest song in the country. Now when those same record companies come back, they’ll have much better contracts in hand: bigger cuts for Haggerty and Lewis, more creative freedom, less fine print.
The question is whether they take it or they try to continue their improbable indie run. Either way, it looks like their hunt for a come-up is over.