Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Story of Macklemore - Or how a guy from Seattle with no label & no budget made it to #1

Ben Haggerty was just a white kid from Seattle.

In 1990, at the age of 6, he was introduced to rap by way of Digital Underground.  (I can relate. The Humpty Dance is darn catchy). Ten years later he was a teenager who decided he wanted to give the rap game a serious go.  In junior high he had picked up the nickname Professor Macklemore, so it was an easy leap to use it as his nom de rhyme. His entry into the music business was not unlike most. He had limited financial resources, no real connections in the industry, and a dream. "If only I could get signed to a major label....then I'll have made it", thought Macklemore...along with pretty much every other unsigned artist.

Macklemore (he dropped the Professor along the way) made a number of independently produced and distributed releases. He played shows ranging from house parties to arts festivals like Seattle's Bumbershoot, and along the way picked up a collaborator in Ryan Lewis, a guy five years his junior who had a lifelong interest in photography and graphic design, and more recently in audio production and DJ'ing. The two started working together and touring together.

As musicians without a label to help them with promotion and marketing they took to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread the word themselves.  They had become particularly popular in their home state of Washington, where, by the fall of 2010, they were able to attract a crowd of 4,000 to an outdoor multi-performer show at Washington State University's (WSU, or wah-zoo as it's known to locals) annual CougFest, so named for the school's mascot (not its middle aged sassy women).

Macklemore at WSU's CougFest 2010

It had now been ten years since Macklemore began his serious commitment to a career in music. Between 2009 and 2012 Macklemore and Lewis packed in as much touring as they could, and at the same time worked on what would become the full length album "The Heist". The album was set for release on iTunes and Macklemore's own web site macklemore.com on October 9, 2012. Distribution would be handled by Alternative Distribution Alliance.

About ten days prior to the official release the whole album was made available for free streaming on NPR's website. Within hours of the album's official release it had soared to #1 on the iTunes chart. The album went on to sell 78,000 copies in its first week, making it second only to the enormously popular middle of the road folk rockers Mumford & Sons. Eventually Mumford & the boys would get bumped off by Macklemore & Lewis, marking the first time an unsigned artist went to the #1 slot since  Lisa Loeb's "Stay", from the soundtrack of the 1994 movie "Reality Bites", made the flight to slacker power ballad supremacy,

At YouTube, the video for "Thrift Shop", an ode to cruising the aisles at Goodwill, had been uploaded on August 29, 2012. Within six weeks it had amassed 8.3 million views.  (Ed. Note: My favourite rhyme in the song is: "Mocassins, someone else been walkin' in").  As a single "Thrift Shop" went to #1 in approximately a dozen countries and went on to sell over 3 million copies. Other songs on the album had themes of same sex marriage, music industry corruption, and homophobia. Ellen DeGeneres invited the duo of Macklemore & Lewis to perform on her TV show at the end of October 2012,  The video for "Thrift Shop" then hit 30 million views on YouTube.  Macklemore's Twitter following had grown to 100,000.  By the end of 2012 "Thrift Shop" had been viewed almost 50 million times on YouTube and the guy from Seattle that had previously thought his life would have only worked out with a major label deal realized how mistaken he'd been.

Macklemore & Lewis' Thrift Shop is now in the 100 million plus view zone on YouTube

But it wasn't over yet. Far from it. 2013 saw even more exponential growth for Macklemore.  In mid January he was invited back to the Ellen show and by the end of the month "Thrift Shop" was up to 70 million views on YouTube.  Now, a month later, that number is 126 million.

Here are the Youtube stats for Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" showing the growth of views from the date of posting, on August 29, 2012 to the date of this blog post, February 26th, 2013.

And here are the YouTube stats for "Thrift Shop" for the period of January 26th - February 26th, 2013:

 So, to recap, 5 months to 70 million views, and over 57 million views this past month (February 2013) alone. In the meantime Macklemore & Lewis were booked to appear on Saturday Night Live on March 2, 2013. Where would things go next? Could this go Gangnam?  Is it catchy enough? Is it universal enough? Is it spoofable?  Is the fan base big enough?  Consider Exhibits A, B, and C:

Exhibit A:

One of several pages of "Thrift Shop" parody videos on YouTube:

Exhibit B:

Facebook fan pages for Macklemore as of end of February 2013

Exhibit C:

Macklemore Social Media ScoreCard

YouTube (views of Thrift Shop)

End of 10/2012
~30 M views
~320,000 fans
End of 12/2012
End of 1/2013
End of 2/2013
~790,000 fans

In future posts I'll use the case of Macklemore as a jumping off point for a consideration of success in the entertainment industry without (technically, at least) being a part of it.

Quick update:

Click here to see Macklemore's '1 year later' blog post from October 11, 2013, in which he chronicles the unlikely events that took him from the status of an unknown to a global star in a 12-month period.

Click here for the April 2013 edition of Overthinking It: Musical Talmud - Justin Timberlake's Suit and Tie vs Macklemore's Thrift Shop.

Click here for some 'Macklecore' mashups on Soundcloud.

Click here for my blog post on the similarities between Macklemore & 'mommy porn' blockbuster book 50 Shades of Grey.

End Part One.

Part Two: Can Macklemore Go Gangnam here.

Part Three: SNL bump for Macklemore? here.

Part Four: Macklemore and the new speed of viral here.

Part Five: Macklemore and the business of Indie Part 1 here.

Part Six: Macklemore and the business of Indie Part 2 here.

Part Seven: Macklemore just made how much? here.


  1. Leora, Fantastic post. Thank you! Grant

  2. thanks! your mention of macklemore inspired me to do some more digging & chronicling.
    more to come.

  3. So I get off the plane here in Seattle last night. And a voice from on high (aka the public address system) welcomes me to the city. It's Macklemore. The guy is everywhere. Thanks again for a great post.

  4. This was such a fantastic read :) I'm also an unsigned artist trying my best to make it in a world where it's hard (but increasingly interesting) without labels, so I'm grateful for such an in-depth set of articles. x

    1. nerimon...so glad you enjoyed the read. i'm putting together some additional posts on the post-label/post-industrial landscape and hope you'll check those out too. best, leora.