Mac Miller: The Billboard Cover Story
At one in the afternoon, kids were already lining up around the block in Denver's trendy Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Nine-and-a-half hours later, Mac Miller is about to take the stage at the AEG Live-operated Ogden Theatre.
The official Denver landmark has a capacity of 1,700, and for 20 minutes, the sellout crowd, most in Miller T-shirts -- one of them says OY VEY HOLY COW OH MY GOD WOW -- has been creating various chants, each demanding the rapper’s presence. The stage is dressed to resemble Pittsburgh’s Blue Slide Park -- complete with park bench, lamp posts and a DJ station disguised as an ice cream cart -- since the name of the recreation area also doubles as the title for Miller’s upcoming album.
Miller and his Most Dope crew are standing in a huddle offstage, arms around each other’s shoulders. Miller leads a prayer that thanks God and asks that they “perform to the best of our abilities tonight.”
The PA system blares to life. DJ Clockwork, who enters first, begins spinning Miller’s song “Donald Trump.” But shrieks drown out the tune’s intro as teenagers in the front row whip out iPhones, ready to record the entire 90-minute set. Miller recites a few sporadic lines with the recording before exploding onto the stage with all the energy of his 19 years -- crew at his heels.
The audience loses its collective mind.
Miller then conducts an orchestra: not onstage, but off. Tearing through mixtape hits like 2010’s “Nikes on My Feet” and 2011’s “Knock Knock” he keeps the crowd’s arms up and bouncing to Clockwork’s rhythms as he zigzags the stage, pausing to collapse dramatically, out of breath. He jokes with the crowd, then thanks them for being the only reason for his success. He signs four Blue Slide Park caps and chucks them into the audience.
Just when all that energy plateaus, Clockwork pulls the plug on the music. Many in the crowd take the opportunity to check the phone photos they’ve snapped. Miller turns his back to them and picks up a white- and gold-plated Gretsch guitar. With as much ease as he leapt back and forth across the stage rapping, he launches into the intro to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” then transitions quickly into a rendition of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.” It’s difficult to discern whether the fans are more excited to experience “Frick Park Market” (Miller’s latest single, which already has 10 million-plus YouTube views) or his next cover, Oasis’ “Wonderwall.”
“I want to be, like, Beatles big, when it’s all said and done,” Miller said earlier that day. “I want to change what’s on the radio.”
Who the hell is this kid?
Born Malcolm McCormick in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood in 1992, Miller and his older brother were raised in a Jewish household by a photographer mother. He attended Catholic grade school -- to ensure, he says, a good education and the chance to play football and lacrosse -- even if that meant, as he marvels now, being forced by teachers to show his classmates how to have a Passover seder.
“I was never really a school-oriented person,” says Miller, who later attended Taylor Allderdice High School, the alma mater of labelmate Wiz Khalifa. Instead, he and his friends, many of whom were older and attended different high schools, listened to a lot of old-school hip-hop. Acts like the Sugar Hill Gang, A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys all inspired the model for much of Miller’s material today. He pays homage with songs like Blue Slide Park single “Party on 5th Ave,” which samples DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.”
Meanwhile, in 2003, when Miller was 11, another Allderdice High alumnus and former executive assistant (from 2000 to 2003) to Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Benjy Grinberg, was getting his new label, Rostrum Records, off the ground in Pittsburgh. He was a one-man operation until 2005, when he hired fellow Pittsburgh native and Allderdice alumnus Arthur Pitt as director of public relations. Today, Pitt is VP of the label.
Five years later, Miller played his first show, at a Pittsburgh bar called Moondog’s, at age 16.
Because they were so young, “my homies couldn’t even get in to see me,” he says with a laugh. “The shows we used to do, you basically perform for other rappers and their friends . . . I think I’ve performed for two people before. Like, literally, two people.”
But among Miller's listeners back then were Grinberg and Pitt. Miller befriended them and he hustled relentlessly, with people like Pittsburgh producers E. Dan and Big Jerm, who were working with Khalifa. In 2009, a year after his first show, the buzz that Miller and then-manager Quentin "Q" Cuff (who freelanced for local hip-hop magazine Jenesis and knew how to connect the right dots) had been building in the Pittsburgh area sparked Grinberg and Pitt's serious attention. Combine those DIY efforts with a handful of pending courtships from other labels, not to mention Miller's imminent plans to drop his breakout set, "K.I.D.S.," and, Pitt says, the rapper forced Grinberg and Pitt's hands.
"People started talking about him [early last year], which caught our attention," he recalls. "'K.I.D.S.' was [Miller's] best work so far, and he really wanted to work with us."
Miller still has pretty much zero radio rotation. He's occasionally heard on local mixshows, on stations like WUSL (Power 99) Philadelphia and WQHT (Hot 97) and WWPR (Power 105.1) New York, and played by SiriusXM DJs like Static Selektah, DJ Green Lantern and Tony Touch. He's released the EP On and On and Beyond, which has sold 54,000 copies since its March 29 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. There have been singles with impressive sales -- among them "Donald Trump" (404,000), "Knock Knock" (316,000) and "Frick Park Market" (150,000) -- on the label in the past year, as well as free mixtapes like his "Best Day Ever" (released in the spring) and "K.I.D.S.," which promptly came out after his signing to Rostrum last summer.
For Blue Slide Park, out Nov. 8, there isn't a major co-distribution deal in place, as Rostrum has done in the past, most notably in 2005 for Khalifa, who signed deals with Warner Bros. and Atlantic Records in 2007 and 2009, respectively. But Miller boasts a whopping 176 million views on his YouTube channel, where polished, energetic videos for tracks like "Donald Trump" draw attention even from the Donald himself, who recorded a 40-second video response of his own, calling Miller "the next Eminem.”
Social media is a solid force for Miller. A million-plus Twitter followers and 1.4 million Facebook fans read his personal updates. His social media activity notched him a brief spot on Billboard’s Uncharted chart -- which assesses online activity for artists who have never ranked on a major Billboard chart -- before he breezed into a debut at No. 36 on the Rap Digital Songs ranking for “Knock Knock,” where he remained for 18 weeks. For the past year, Miller has played to consistently sold-out venues of increasing size -- from a 300-capacity show at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, Calif., in January to a forthcoming 3,000-capacity gig at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in December -- all over the United States and Europe. MTV live-streamed his performance at the Chicago House of Blues on Oct. 12. According to MTV, it was one of the network’s top webcasts.
As Billboard previously reported, the rollout for Blue Slide Park reflects the online engagement that has made Miller (alongside kindred artists like Big K.R.I.T. and Tyler, the Creator) a force to be reckoned with: Based on the number of preorders the record gets, fans have been able to unlock a handful of increasingly valuable rewards. At 25,000, Miller dropped the title track early (on Oct. 13); at 50,000, Rostrum will make a $50,000 donation to the Make-a-Wish Foundation; and at 100,000, the record will drop ahead of schedule. The preorder figure currently stands at 33,000. The record will be released through digital retailers -- primarily iTunes, for which Blue Slide Park’s fan-brokered release model is a first -- in partnership with independent distributors Fontana (physical sales) and INgrooves (digital distribution, including the early release if fans meet the 100,000 target ahead of schedule).
Grinberg stresses that the emphasis is on “independent.” Though Rostrum itself has brokered deals with majors, with Miller, it wants to go the distance solo.
Which isn’t to say the majors haven’t tried. Though the label declined to name specific offers, both Pitt and Grinberg say they’ve all come knocking. “We’ve learned a lot about the ins and outs of the majors and how different things operate [through working with Khalifa],” Grinberg says. “We try to apply those lessons to everything we do . . . I’m not on some sort of revolutionary [anti-major] kick. I just know there are better ways of doing things.”
In June, rumors erupted when Atlantic Records VP of rap promotions Sam Crespo accidentally sent an email blast from his Atlantic account (instead of his personal address) to DJs, bloggers and journalists touting one of Miller’s biggest hits, “Donald Trump.” Though Crespo told XXL magazine that he plugged the rapper “because many of [them] were asking [me] for it and also to turn [them] on to good and innovative hip-hop,” the move, combined with Grinberg’s past with Reid and Khalifa’s Rostrum/Atlantic dual deal, seemed evidence to the Twitterverse and the blogosphere that Rostrum must have made a deal with the major.
“If people aren’t talking, as cliché as it sounds, you’re in trouble,” Pitt says. “People challenge us and say, ‘There’s no way you’re doing this on your own.’ They think the only way this happens is if you have a [major-label] deal . . . If you really do your research on what we’ve done over the past three or four years, you’d figure it out that we really are doing this on our own. Rostrum gives a lot of power to its artists and Mac wants to see how far he can take it.”
Meanwhile, the 68-date Blue Slide Park tour, which kicked off Sept. 22, has sold out 24 of its 25 1,900-capacity-average shows. Miller's last tour, a three-leg international stint, experienced similar sales, though the venues averaged capacities of 600, then 800, and then 900 on each leg. Blue Slide Park's kickoff show, at New York's Irving Plaza, sold out in three hours. Thirty of the remaining 43 dates have sold out in advance. By Agency Group booking agent Peter Schwartz's calculations, Miller is on track to sell out all but two of the tour dates -- if Schwartz's estimates are correct, he'll have sold 99% of the tour's tickets (an increase from the last tour, which averaged about 96% across its three legs). Running at about $22 apiece, that's more than 110,000 sold. Most ticket holders, as was clear in Denver last month, are in their teens or early 20s.
"Knowing your demo is a key ingredient in successfully booking someone," says Schwartz, who books acts like Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T. and B.o.B. "We know [Miller's] demo is under 21, so we don't put him in 21-plus-type venues where his fans can't go. This whole young crowd is really coming out in force to shows lately. It's exciting."
It is something. Fourteen-year-old girls wait in line to scream -- some even sob -- as Miller hops between the Ogden and his tour bus parked across the street that afternoon. Miller/Most Dope T-shirts and hats fly off the tables at shows. There are few acts who can boast the fervor of Justin Bieber's "Beliebers" -- and Miller fans, who have yet to hear a fully produced album, are definitely in the running.
"We're building a story because they're all sold out," Schwartz says. "If we were doing 70% sales, it wouldn't be as big a story . . . [$22] is a great price point for these [young] fans. We could probably could make tickets $35, and they might still sell, but maybe not. It's [been] important to stay focused on the plan and know that the next-size [venue] will come, and not rush it." Schwartz says plans call for bumping up the average venue size to a 5,000 capacity for Miller's spring tour.
To offset the $200,000 out-of-pocket cost (according to Miller) of his two buses, the team recently negotiated a $75,000 branding deal with Mountain Dew. It includes a Mountain Dew Green Label Sound-released single by Miller and a stage setup with the crew's performance water bottled in Mountain Dew containers and a bright-green logo-emblazoned fixed-gear bicycle.
"When we look for artists to partner with, we look for people who embody that do-it-yourself ethos in their work. Mac is a perfect fit," says Hudson Sullivan, brand manager for Mountain Dew at PepsiCo. "Mac is known for his tight connection to his fans, which is something that is also really important to Mountain Dew. As we see it, working with an independent artist like Mac is a win for everyone -- the artists get support for their work that they might not find from a traditional label. Fans get to experience great shows and original tracks, and Mountain Dew gets to be a part of it."
It all fits in well with the way things have been going for Miller. "Fans are smart these days," Grinberg says. "They know exactly what's going on, and they can tell when they're being marketed to. Authenticity is what the fans are grasping onto. They can tell [Mac] is genuine, that he's just being himself."
"People try to categorize me," Miller says. "I love the fact that I'm in some of my favorite magazines . . . But, in all reality, your opinion doesn't mean any more than anybody else's."
"It's important that new artists don't worry about critics because we could be on the road together for the next 10 years off of these three CDs," Cuff says, adding, "I don't see this slowing down. These kids are invested . . . and when you have that kind of relationship with your fans, who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks?"
Miller eschews labels like "frat rapper" that have been circulated online. And he dismisses criticisms that his music is bubble-gum pop. "I'll never pretend I have an inspiring story like certain people," he says. "There are people here to tell inspiring stories, people like Kendrick Lamar or Big K.R.I.T. who have deep messages about things that... I can't say. It's not my place to say... I just make music that's hip-hop. I'm not here to be a teenybopper sensation. I make music because I love making music. So whoever wants to love it, that's who I want as my fans."
The boisterous teenagers outside the bus weren't, after all, a one-time thing. Their presence, the unfazed members of Miller's team say, is par for the course. They also happen to be the reason the course exists in the first place.
"Kids -- they're so much more excited and willing to spend their money," Miller says. "A 25-year-old dude is not going to be sitting at his computer, waiting for Mac Miller tickets to go on sale. These kids are lining up at 10 a.m. for a 9 p.m. show."
Miller doesn't have a problem placing his fate in the hands of those teenagers -- they want his blend of practicality and swagger. "It's really up to my fans, which is why I love them, no matter who they are," he says, adding, "I bet Benjy I'd sell a hundred thou' my first week. If we [do], he has to shave his famous beard."
And if he doesn't? "Oh, I don't have to do anything. He can't get mad at me if I don't sell that many."