After building a base on the back of a steady touring schedule and heavy online engagement, independent hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis deliver debut.
Seattle rapper Macklemore has finally arrived. After releasing his debut EP, "Open Your Eyes", in 2000 (as Professor Macklemore) and his first solo full-length, "The Language of My World", in 2005, and then taking a hiatus to battle his addiction to drugs and alcohol, Macklemore and producer Ryan Lewis have built a buzzy movement without major-label backing. On Oct. 9, the pair will release its independent debut LP, "The Heist", with distribution by the self-operated Alternative Distribution Alliance. Lead single "Thrift Shop" peaked at No. 5 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop Digital Songs chart. It moves 25-23 on the tally this week with 112,000 singles sold to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan, ahead of the album release.
Macklemore and Lewis met through Myspace roughly five years ago and released the joint debut "The VS." EP in late 2009. The duo took its time building an audience by expanding regional popularity into a nationwide movement, staging sold-out tours across the United States and marketing tracks through social media.
"We are perfectly fine putting it out ourselves," says Macklemore, born Ben Haggerty, who operates his indie company Macklemore LLC. "We are a small business that's becoming a medium-sized business. With that, there is a learning curve and there are times when you feel like you don't quite have the manpower to operate the business to the best of your ability. But we're growing and we're adapting to the best of our abilities."
The Agency Group's Zach Quillen played a key role in pushing Macklemore and Lewis beyond Washington state lines. After witnessing the group's home-court prowess as an opening act at Seattle's Paramount Theatre in 2010, Quillen soon became its booking agent and, later, manager, testing the duo's reach by scheduling small shows along the West Coast. The gigs quickly reached capacity, signaling the artists' room for growth.
"I'll never put them in a venue that they can't sell out," says Quillen, who also encouraged Macklemore and Lewis to grow their online audience by filming more music videos for songs. The self-directed clip for "Thrift Shop" clocked more than 4 million YouTube views in less than a month. "Macklemore and Ryan are extremely creative across a lot of different mediums. It's not just music they focus on."
Without a publishing or record deal, Macklemore and Lewis spent a few years recording "The Heist" on their own, employing the same DIY approach applied to their merchandise, tour posters and website. The group also inked a licensing deal to use the track "Can't Hold Us" for an international Miller Genuine Draft campaign.
"It's a lot of good ingredients coming together," says Agency Group VP Peter Schwartz, who now books the duo with agent Joshua Dick. "[Macklemore] is not as known yet as others that are taking the same route and are doing well, and he's doing even better. There are a larger amount of variables contributing to that, but he's putting out quality music and videos and has a great connection to his fans."
With a small team that handles everything from marketing to graphic design, Macklemore and Lewis aren't averse to one day linking with a major, so long as they keep all revenue from touring and merchandise. They just completed an almost entirely sold-out European tour and will swing back to the States this fall to play nearly 50 shows, including a headlining gig at Seattle's WAMU Theater that already reached its 7,500-person capacity. They also plan to release an EP in 2013 following another tour. The wheels are moving fast, but with years in the game, Macklemore can keep up.
"It feels like I put a lot of years into this," he says. "It hasn't felt like it's come overnight, but it's moving faster than it ever has right now."