Macklemore and his producer partner Ryan Lewis call their own shots. During the past year, the Seattle-based hip-hop duo independently skyrocketed to fame on the strength of rigorous touring, social-media savvy and word-of-mouth marketing, all without major-label aid. Upon releasing their debut, "The Heist," in October, the album entered the Billboard 200 at No. 2 with 78,000 copies sold and has moved 213,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Following a sold-out 50-date tour through December, the duo is now applying its independent ethos to radio to build lead single "Thrift Shop," a horn-festooned anthem celebrating fashionable frugality, to unexpected heights. The self-directed video for the track hit YouTube on Aug. 29 and has since racked up almost 42 million views. Backed by radio-promotion muscle from Alternative Distribution Alliance and Warner Bros., the song sits at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Now in its ninth week, it bullets at No. 17 on Alternative, No. 18 on Rhythmic and No. 27 on Mainstream Top 40, which helped propel the unlikely hit to 1.1 million downloads.
Macklemore (born Ben Haggerty) initially met with ADA, an independent distribution arm of Warner Bros., last summer after associates at respected indie labels Sub Pop and Rhymesayers tipped the company to his momentum. Both parties agreed to a one-album deal for the company to handle distribution of The Heist on physical and digital platforms. For Macklemore and Lewis, who run their self-titled limited liability company, keeping complete control over their properties and maintaining artistic integrity were key benefits in partnering with ADA.
"They really let us mold our own deal and they're very open to different ideas and ways of working together," says Macklemore, who first met Lewis through Myspace roughly five years ago. "This is the first time that we'd gone with a distribution company and brought in anybody else. They've turned into family, and you hope that when you open the doors and embrace the idea of working with new people that they turn into individuals who are friends."
Days after the video for "Thrift Shop" debuted, alternative radio organically began picking up the track, with WBRU Providence, R.I., serving as the first Alternative chart reporter to give it a spin on Sept. 2. After the clip clocked more than 4 million YouTube views in less than a month and the album's impressive Billboard 200 debut, Macklemore agreed to a one-off deal with ADA for at least three months to service the song in the alternative market. ADA sent the song to key tastemakers, and the response was so overwhelming that it expanded its servicing across stations within the format-an unusual approach for the company, according to ADA president David Orleans.
"While that hasn't been our history, it's our present and future," Orleans says, noting that typical single campaigns span between 10 and 12 weeks ahead of an album's street date. "We didn't do the deal because we thought we had a radio hit; we thought we had an album, a touring band, a band that was synced up with a huge social network, and that in itself was interesting enough for us to be very enthusiastic about the project. Then we got into it and were like, 'Holy shit! Maybe we've got a radio record.'"
As the song gained traction at alternative, pop and rhythmic formats independently turned to "Thrift Shop" without heeding to a campaign. Roughly one month ago, Macklemore and his manager, Zach Quillen (formerly of the Agency Group), saw an opening to amplify the track's success and connected with Warner Bros. to sign a similar one-off deal to service the other two formats.
Macklemore explains that their groundwork afforded them leverage in negotiating with Warner. Playing to sold-out venues across the country, he has built his success both offline and on, touting 267,000 Twitter followers, 476,000 Facebook likes and 169,000 YouTube subscribers. "Warner had never done this," Macklemore says. "That's the interesting thing about where the music industry is right now: You have major labels that are willing to take unconventional approaches because the old model is crumbling in front of us. They're open to it."
Quillen echoes Macklemore, advising upstart artists to avoid signing to majors and instead hire them for their services and reap the benefits. "Our business is set up exactly how it was when we released the album, but we have access to a great radio department at a major label that we essentially pay for out of our own pocket," says Quillen, who previously booked Macklemore's tours but became manager shortly after. "It's obvious that we've built a certain amount of leverage in these negotiations, in that we own our own business, masters, publishing and merch company. Everything that we've done, we've retained ownership over. We've got a lot here that's appealing to companies like Warner, and I think they're talking long term."
For some stations, adding the song to rotation went from taking a chance to meeting demand. Rhythmic KEZE Spokane, Wash., PD Zachary "Mayhem" Wellsandt played "Thrift Shop" on Oct. 16 after noticing Macklemore's online presence and his sold-out show at the local Knitting Factory. Now, the station leads in spins with 638 plays through Dec. 27-a reactionary response to listeners dialing in.
"I rarely get feedback on records from listeners, just because I think it's a different time and age and activity, but whenever those phone lines were open, people were calling for it. It was bananas," says Mayhem, whose station reaches 65,000 tune-ins. "It was already buzzing, and then once we started playing it, it was [an] immediate reaction."
Mainstream top 40 KEGY San Diego PD Chris Patyk says that "Thrift Shop" still has room to grow. "It's going to be on people's playlists for a long time," he says. KEGY, which gave the track 483 spins through Dec. 27, has an audience of 500,000. "It's hard to capture lightning in a bottle like that-I don't even think we're at the peak yet."
Macklemore agrees. He plans to let the success of "Thrift Shop" ride out, but since he doesn't have any concrete plans to follow with another single, he's instead aiming to bank on touring through the year to expand his presence. He and Lewis have a college trek from March through May and have already sold out Denver's 9,450-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre for Feb. 1, one of their biggest solo shows to date. Following a wider U.S. tour and gigs in Australia and New Zealand, where "Thrift Shop" has been No. 1 for six weeks, the two will either release an EP by year's end or a full-length LP in early 2014. Additional music videos are on the way, as are collaborations with other artists, but Macklemore hopes that his success serves more as a lesson on how to make the industry work for you.
"It all comes down to leverage," he says. "We didn't have it six months ago but [we] have it now. But for other artists, you've got to want to still have creative control in order for a deal like this to be intriguing to you. It's figuring out how to maintain your connection to your core fan base that has ridden with you from the jump and remembering them as you continue to grow. I'm looking forward to that in 2013."