We love a frontiersman story—and in rap these days, instead of battling the wilderness, one's up against the all-powerful music label. So when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis got "Thrift Shop" and its defiant anti-consumerism message to Billboard's top slot without a major label in sight, no wonder they whooped it up on Facebook and even Funny or Die.
And then of course the twosome—who are part of the Yahoo! On the Road lineup—repeated the deed with "Can't Hold Us," becoming the first duo in Billboard history to have their first two singles go to the top, kind of the lyrical equivalent of occupying Wall Street. (Take a look at the full On The Road schedule, and follow along to see how you can score tickets to concerts.)
The self-made Cinderellas accomplished this through social media promotion, creating a live show and touring (lots of sitting in the middle seats in coach, the duo tweets), and producing everything from T-shirts to videos in-house. "It really came down to just not wanting to deal with lawyers and fork out a bunch of money," Ben "Macklemore" Haggerty told Rolling Stone about the decision to go independent. "The couple samples we had in mind that we got quotes for was a ridiculous percentage. We decided to record our own musicians." That talk makes sense for a shopper who refuses to pay more than $12.99 for his second-hand ladies' fur coats (although he is known to splurge on a pair of $450 blue velvet Stubbs & Wootton slippers).
The entrepreneurs did outsource one important task: Alternative Distribution Alliance, owned by the Warner Music Group, got "The Heist" in stores like Target and on iTunes, and Warner Bros. radio made sure that "Thrift Shop" had Top 40 play after the YouTube video racked up numbers. The FM band is still territory pretty much owned by conglomerates. "You really cannot get a radio hit at this point without major label backing," Billboard's Gary Trust told NPR's Planet Money.
Still, even though Macklemore & Lewis had to sell a little piece of their soul, their arrangement reveals a power shift. Artists can get enough of a fanbase through social media and sell out clubs in good markets. Cutting your own album is way more affordable these days, and even the ability to make a home video didn't exist a couple of decades ago.
In an interview at SXSW, Macklemore credits the touring, live show, and especially videos, which play "an imperative role in just how people receive information these days."
"To have a great video, to have an identity really be showcased... as kind of a sidekick to the music, I think it's so important now," the rapper explained. "It's so easy to share a YouTube link versus sharing a whole link for an album or whatever. It's—it's just fast it's easy and it's the way fans really resonate with the material quickly."
Success gave Macklemore and Lewis in a better bargaining position, so they could take away far more than the standard $1.25 for every $12.99 album sold. There's still a piper to pay, but at least they have some change left in their pockets.
Incidentally, here's that Funny or Die video. Beware of falling f-bombs.