It’s the success every musician dreams about - making it big on your own. But you know what? It’s no fairy tale. The career of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis has been a long, hard road - one that a lot of people would have turned away from a long time ago.
The duo brought home four Grammy’s in January and, although Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) is helping them with distribution, they’re still not signed to a major record label. So how did they get here?
Here are some key lessons to learn that helped Macklemore and Ryan Lewis find their success.
1. Say something with your music. Embrace your brand. Be different.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love,” a song with a more than an obvious nod towards the gay community, is not commonplace in hip hop. By pushing this issue and standing behind a controversial topic, the duo probably got a lot of haters. But you know what, they also got a lot of people behind them. They stood out. They were different. Know who you are, know what you believe in, and say something meaningful with your art. Of course, timing is important too.
“I wrote the song in April . Shortly after Obama came out in support of gay marriage. Then Frank Ocean came out. It seemed like time was of the essence. It was never about being the first rapper to publicly support the issue, but at the same time you don’t want the song’s power to become diluted because all of the sudden it’s a bandwagon issue. The fact that there [was] an election coming up in Washington [was] huge. I know that a large portion of my fan base is 18-25, many of whom have never voted. If the song can get people out to the polls to pass same-sex marriage in Washington, that is a very beautiful and exciting thing.” (Source)
In the same way, the smash hit “Thrift Shop” (500 million views and counting on YouTube) is definitely not what you’d expect from hip hop. There’s no gold teeth, big brand names, or flashy bling pointing towards an extravagant lifestyle. Macklemore isn’t trying to fit into the typical hip hop mold. The duo has stayed true to their own ideas and because of that, have stood out. So what do you have to say?
2. It will take time.
There’s no such thing as overnight success. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis met in 2006, released The VS EP in December 2009, and didn’t get crazy success until The Heist in 2012. Before there was a duo, Ben Haggerty released Open Your Eyes in 2000, The Language of My World in 2005, and The Unplanned Mixtape in September 2009. It was a long road. Do you think you would have continued to press onward? 8 years and still rolling.
Aside from albums, Macklemore and Lewis took years to build a local audience before expanding into a nationwide movement. The first national headlining tour was in 2011. Before that, Macklemore and Lewis focused locally playing at a Colorado College house party in 2010 and Seattle’s Paramount Theatre in 2010. The Agency Group’s Zach Quillen became the booking agent and began testing the duo’s reach by booking small gigs along the West Coast. The duo continued to grow, playing the Seattle Mariners opening day in 2011, and then moving on to festivals like Outside Lands, Sasquatch, and Lollapalooza later that year.
This train is still going. The duo is still operating independently with a relatively small team and being strategic about their plans. As we know so well, a huge hit doesn’t guarantee your future in the music industry.
“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.” (Source)
3. Keep moving forward.
Even if you feel like you’re further away from your dream than you’ve ever been, keep moving. After some local success with the 2006 EP The Language of my World Macklemore hit a low point, struggling with addiction.
“I was close to giving up. I was broke, unemployed, freshly out of rehab, and living in my parents’ basement. It was a “If this doesn’t work, I gotta get a real job” time in my life.” (Source)
You’re low point may look different. Maybe you feel like you’ll never break out of your home city or state. Maybe you just can’t seem to get to the point where you can quit your day job. The key is to keep moving. Take a small step forward, or even a few steps back. Keep yourself moving instead of lingering in that low point. Everything we perceive or appreciate in the world is based on motion. Stay in motion.
4. Find people who believe in you and build a team.
Having a team behind you is one of the best things you can do for your music. A “team” doesn’t have to be top industry veterans. More times than not, when we’re talking about indie artists, a team of top execs isn’t the best option. You want people who believe in you and your music, not someone looking to make big bucks fast.
Macklemore has shown us time and time again how valuable a team of “amateurs” can be. Ben Haggerty met Ryan Lewis, then 17 and a dedicated producer, guitarist, and photographer, in 2006. He wasn’t an industry veteran. He was another passionate creative out there with the same cause.
“Ryan is one of my best friends in this world. He’s my producer. He’s my business partner. And he’s probably one of my toughest critics, which is an imperative trait of a teammate… Ryan doesn’t make beats, he makes records. I needed that in a producer… I trust Ryan. I trust his ear and his eye. His creative aesthetic. I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for him. I spend more time with Ryan than anyone else in my life. We’re a team, and I’m extremely blessed because of it.” (Source)
There weren’t any household names on The Heist. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis drew on local talent. Ray Dalton, a Seattle singer-songwriter is featured on “Can’t Hold Us,” Wanz, another Seattle singer was featured on “Thrift Shop,” and Seattle singer-songwriter Mary Lambert is featured on “Same Love.” In addition to that, Macklemore’s finance, Tricia Davis, is their tour and merch manager.
5. Create an authentic connection.
When Macklemore stepped on the stage at the Grammy’s the first thing they talked about was “Wow, we’re on this stage… And we could never have been on this stage without our fans.” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis connect with their fans in a very humble and authentic way. You just have to take a quick trip over to their Twitter and Facebook pages to see just what I mean. The tone isn’t pitchy. It’s kind of funny how we almost have to relearn how to be human when it comes to social media in the music industry.
“For me, being transparent about every aspect of my life is what makes my music relatable and how I’m able to be an individual amongst the mass amounts of other artists.” (Source)
The slogan to remember is that things don’t make things happen - people do. If you want to find your own success in music you need to get people behind you - this means both fans and a team. Create a relationship - and that means two-ways. Give and receive.
Being a musician is a tough gig. You have to be incredibly gifted and ridiculously dedicated all at once. But that dedication can pay off! It’s been proven time and time again that independent musicians can be successful their own way, and you can continue that trend. The music business was built on that ethos.
What’s one artist you really admire for their approach to their career?
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You can contact me on Twitter @davekusek.