Megan Buerger Wall Steet Journal 1/28/14
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won four Grammys Sunday night, including the coveted award for best rap album for 2012’s “The Heist.” Released independently through Macklemore’s own label, Macklemore LLC, the feel-good hip hop album has sold more than 1.2 million copies to date.
During his acceptance speech for best new artist, Macklemore, whose real name is Ben Haggerty, touted the project’s independence: “We made this album without a record label,” he said, “we made it independently and we appreciate all the support.”
That’s true. But a big factor in the album’s popularity was the corporate promotional muscle behind it. Shortly after “The Heist” was released, Haggerty and Lewis hired an independent arm of Warner Music Group, the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which helps independent acts get their stuff played on the radio.
“You can have a successful career without radio,” said Benjy Grinberg, who founded Rostrum Records and once managed indie artist Mac Miller. “But can you sell 5 million singles on one song? I doubt it. Radio can take you to that next level, and the majors push singles to radio better than anyone.”
Radio can be a tough nut to crack for independent artists, which is why some hire distribution companies to help with promotion. Because of the ADA’s ties to Warner Music Group, it can provide independent artists the marketing muscle of a major label without the baggage of a record deal.
For “The Heist,” the ADA helped Messrs. Haggerty and Lewis expand into markets beyond the Seattle area without forcing them to relinquish their rights or artistic control. Because the pair legally own all of their music, they don’t have to split a percentage of their revenues with a record label or music publisher, and they get to decide how to license or loan their material. Although the ADA has had similar past relationships with independent labels, it’s very rare for them to team up with a single artist on a single album for a limited period of time.
Mr. Haggerty addressed the arrangement in a letter on his website posted in October, one year after “The Heist’s” release. “It was everything that we had always wanted: maintaining our independence with access to radio and thus the masses.”
The ADA declined to discuss financial details, but Zach Quillen, the manager for Messrs. Haggerty and Lewis, said they paid the alliance a flat monthly fee to help promote the album. He also engaged the pop radio promotion department of Warner Music Group about a similar arrangement. Although label executives initially resisted the idea of loaning marketing services to artists who weren’t signed, ultimately a similar contract was created, he said.
“I give Warner and the ADA credit for having the open-mindedness to try something like this,” said Tom Silverman, CEO of Tommy Boy records and co-founder of New Music Seminar, an annual conference that debates the future of the music industry. “But it’s also like they won the lottery, you know? This was a jackpot.”
Mr. Silverman cautioned that this approach won’t work for just any independent artist. “The ball has to be in the air and headed to the basket for a label to go for something like this, otherwise it’s too expensive and risky,” he said. “It has to be the right artist, the right time, the right record.”
It helped that the duo had been picking up steam in the Pacific Northwest long before “The Heist” was completed. Mr. Haggerty began releasing music in 2000 and joined forces with Mr. Lewis in in 2006. When the album was released in October of 2012, it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and sold 78,000 copies its first week.
Mike Jbara, who is president of the ADA worldwide, emphasized that although the alliance helped market the album, it had no part in making it.
“It is entirely accurate for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis to take responsibility for the musical work,” he said. “We took that story and helped tell it to the major market. I don’t think those things are in conflict.”