As the Internet continues to usher in a new era of artists, rapper-producer duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are the latest independent act to enter the spotlight with their debut album, The Heist. Within hours of its release in October, it skyrocketed to number one on the iTunes albums chart, selling 78,000 units in its first week and entering the Billboard 200 chart at number two.1 This happened without the support of a major label.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis join a growing list of artists that appear to defy the traditional model of success. Billboard notes that, for the first time since Soundscan’s inception in 1991, The Heist (distributed through Alternative Distribution Alliance) and Mumford and Sons’ Babel (distributed through RED) are two top sellers that are both indie releases. For industry blogger Bob Lefsetz, such exceptions are becoming more common.2
Furthermore, the perception is that an indie artist and a ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) approach go hand in hand and feed success. This deserves closer inspection.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis would probably not claim as much. That would likely be the case too with other well-known exponents of the DIY creed, and notably Amanda Palmer. CD Baby founder Derek Sivers shrewdly observes that DIY more appropriately stands for “decide it yourself.”3 For Sivers, gaining control over the spoils of one’s artistry is the goal, while attempting to do too much alone is unproductive.
The Internet has certainly generated tools empowering independent artists, and the amount of work and energy an artist exerts is still directly proportional to their success. However, upon reaching a certain level, the work becomes unmanageable for one person. Additionally, the more energy an artist expends on the business side, the less time that artist has to make music. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s ability to succeed without a major label champions not the idea of do-it-yourself, but that of retaining control and ownership.
Artists still need to build a team to be successful. The 2010 Future of Music Coalition Artist Revenue Streams project concluded that high earning musicians ($100,000+ per year) were two times as likely to have certain paid or contracted team members.4 The results of the study suggest that while the Internet has enabled access to the market by anyone, revenue is still significantly affected by the presence of a team.
In the case of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the duo actively handle much of their non-musical productions, including graphic design and video, but several key figures have enabled their growth into the mainstream. Zach Quillen has managed the duo since 2010 and has played an integral role in shaping their ascent alongside Peter Schwartz, also of the Agency Group. Macklemore’s long-time girlfriend Tricia Davis is heavily involved too, aiding with tour management and merchandising. A regular roster of musical collaborators completes a powerful team with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis at the helm. (For Amanda Palmer too, a company called Girlie Action plays an important role in her career, providing press, marketing, and other management services; DIY image portrayed within the industry often overshadows the behind-the-scenes cogs in the machine5.)
At the core of any indie artist success story is a strong product and brand. The Internet is a double-edged sword, lowering entry barriers but increasing marketplace clutter. A unique brand is needed more than ever to compete on a national level.
A case can be made for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis based on their music and image. At the music end, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have found their resonance through lyrically transparent songs that tackle personal and social issues. While he dislikes to be labeled a ‘conscious’ artist, Macklemore has received praise for covering drug abuse and gay marriage, the first in songs like Otherside and Starting Over and the second in Same Love.
Regarding image, Macklemore is a red-tinged Irishman with hipster sensibilities, closer at first glance to the indie rocker stereotype than the rapper. This makes him more universal and in time may give him more market opportunities. Careful tour planning also adds to the group’s exposure. As manager, Zach Quillen, remarks, “I’ll never put [Macklemore and Ryan Lewis] in a venue that they can’t sell out”.6 Their trajectory in Boston, a single market, is proof. In a span of three years, the duo went from opening at the Paradise (cap 850), to headlining the Brighton Music Hall (cap 408), then headlining the Paradise, and, finally, the House of Blues this November (cap 2,425).
In the digital space, an active social media presence helps an artist fill a gap left by the absence of major label marketing dollars. Social media offers a platform to connect with an audience authentically, and the most successful independent artists embrace this. At the time of writing, Macklemore boasts 318K Facebook fans, 147K Twitter followers, and over 64K Instagram followers.
This record is based on regular postings of quality content. It is not unusual to see Macklemore respond directly to fans, or repost fan art. He frequently uploads candid photos from a tour to Instagram. For music blogger Solveig Whittle, Macklemore’s astute use of the unusual hashtag #sharkfacegang helped his search engine marketing efforts.7 (For other indie artists, of course, the golden standard will remain Amanda Plamer, who both used Twitter to generate $19K in sales in one night from a shirt she designed and tapped a devoted base of 700K+ followers to raise over a million dollars via Kickstarter.8)
As Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s story suggests, building a career as an artist is not just an individual enterprise. The indie route to success has less to do with a rigid DIY view of one’s own career than the intelligent exploitation of existing opportunities. It always involves other people.
Being an indie artist, in short, is quite different to making it on one’s own. No one really can. And there should be little confusion, as the trade generally defines an artist as ‘independent’ according to whether or not there is a major label contract involved.
All musicians will, nevertheless, continue to be intrigued by the question of exactly how to attain success, whether or not they are signed to a major. General answers and artist typologies can reassure, of course, but their value may be limited—if only because the market views every talented performer as a unique and differentiated product.
By Colin Ramsay
1. Caulfield, Keith. “Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s ‘Heist’ Album Debuts At No. 2 On Billboard 200, Mumford Holds at No. 1.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 17 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/record-labels/macklemore-ryan-lewis-heist-album-debuts-1007981732.story>.
2. Lefsetz, Bob. “Jimmy Iovine.” The Lefsetz Letter. Bob Lefsetz, 9 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://lefsetz.com/wordpress/index.php/archives/2012/10/09/jimmy-iovine/>.
3. Smith, Clyde. “Derek Sivers Explains DIY (Decide It Yourself).” Hypebot.com. Hypebot, 17 Aug. 2011. Web. <http://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2011/08/derek-sivers-explains-diy-decide-it-yourself.html>.
4. Thomson, Kristin. “DIY Musicians–Alone Together.” The Music Business Journal. Berklee College of Music, July 2012. Web. <https://www.thembj.org/2012/07/diy-musicians-alone-together/>.
6. Horowitz, Steven J. “Macklemore & Reps Talk ‘The Heist’ Debut & DIY Marketing Plan.” Billboard.com. Billboard, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.billboard.com/column/the-juice/macklemore-reps-talk-the-heist-debut-diy-1007976062.story>.
7. Whittle, Solveig. “DIY Artists Macklemore and Lewis Release New Album “Heist” To Popular Acclaim.” Shades of Solveig. Solveig Whittle, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.shadesofsolveig.com/2012/10/12/stealing-stardom-macklemores-diy-success-with-heist/>.