Rise Up: The Steady Ascent of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
On October 9th, 2012 Macklemore released his debut studio album The Heist. Flanked by producer Ryan Lewis, the Seattle-based rapper threw the music industry off by debuting at #1 on iTunes and #2 on the Billboard 200. Having been in the game for over ten years, Macklemore may be just dipping his toes into the mainstream, but this was a plan in place for years. The build has been slow, but smart. “I really didn’t realize there was something going on until we booked a headline show in Seattle at a 1200 capacity venue and it sold out within a couple of hours,” manager Zach Quillen explains. “That was when I realized, ‘Okay there might be something impressive happening.’”
The growth traveled the necessary channels from local to regional, national, and international. “I think we’ve been very careful to pick the right sized venues,” says Peter Schwartz of The Agency Group. Schwartz books shows for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, along with acts like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. “The venues would vary based on what real estate was available in each city. We don’t put them in a one-size-fits-everything. We try to establish their value in a place before going too large,” he says. “We used the hype and the chatter from [Seattle] as the pitch for the other regions. They’ve never supported much either. They’ve been on the headlining path the whole time.” Leaning on an already existing fan base, Macklemore’s opted to use more traditional means of promotion that defy the current standard music business model. “I think that a big part of what we’ve done is make a conscious choice to do quality over quantity and that is the opposite of what most other rap artists are doing today,” Quillen explains. “Instead of flooding the market with mixtapes, not gonna put out all this stuff, but when we do release something it’s going to be timed really well, it’s going to be really good, and it’s gonna be unique and stand out from what everyone else is doing.” Music videos, tour merchandise, stellar shows, and the obvious good music were all gigantic factors that contributed to the big event now known as The Heist. Life+Times spoke with the man himself, Macklemore, to get his take on the slow burn of his newfound success. It took a while for him to get here, but now that he’s arrived, he doesn’t plan on leaving.
Life+Times: What do you think was the moment where you realized things were moving in an upward direction?
Macklemore: I think that there are always multiple levels of realizing that things are gonna change. I remember first being broke in my parents’ house, getting out of rehab and doing my first shows when I got out – watching the merch table and fans starting to buy merch. I realized I was making more money at my merch table than I was at my 9-5 job at a hat store. That was definitely a moment for me. I was like, ‘Maybe this is actually going to catch on and be something that I can live off of,’ which has always been the dream. It’s never been, ‘Let me be a crazy superstar.’ It was always, ‘I want to make art and support myself off of my art.’ That was definitely one moment, but there are multiple levels of success. The XXL Freshman cover was definitely an indicator that things were on the right track, along with selling out every tour that we’ve done over the last two years. They’re all different. The venues get bigger; the fan base gets stronger. It just kind of evolves.
L+T: You’re selling albums in an environment where people aren’t buying them. What do you think it is about the music you’re putting out that makes people want to buy them?
Macklemore: I think first and foremost that people have a personal connection with the music that we make. They are a part of it, and they feel that they’re a part of it. When you have that connection with the fan base, they want to support it. That’s one way that they become part of our movement in a way. It’s a relationship. It’s not something that people hop on for one second and hop off. I think when you connect with the music that Ryan and I make, it’s something that happens on a deeper level.
L+T: How would you describe your audience? What do you see when you’re standing on the stage?
Macklemore: I think that it’s almost two different questions. As far as the people coming to the shows, it’s almost a different answer than who is a fan. It’s tough to break down, but I would say that our audience ranges. We have a really wide variety of the age demographic at our shows, and that’s been increasing over the years, even more so now. You have your folks that heard about us through NPR when we streamed our album and are in their late 40s, early 50s-60s. We have a great contingency of high school kids, late high school and college age demographic. A lot of those people are trying to figure out who they are. Those are very formative years as a person, soul-searching and figuring out your purpose on this Earth. I think we skip a little bit over the late-20s and early-30s. They’re definitely still there – I think that they’re more for certain songs – but I think a lot of them may think they have it all figured out, and they’re not trying to hear somebody talk about their experiences.
L+T: Many rap artists see the proverbial next level as landing on traditional Hip-Hop sites and blogs. However, you’re streaming your album on NPR and it worked out brilliantly. Were you always this open-minded about decisions in your career?
Macklemore: You know, it’s something where I feel like you need to have both. I’ve never been like, ‘Oh I don’t need the hip-hop community.’ That is my community. That is what I’ve grown up with, those are my peers. That’s what I care about, probably the most. More than I should. Even though NPR might get my music to a whole new demographic that’s actually going to translate into coming out to our shows and buying our music. I still personally put a lot of weight on hip-hop sites. But at the same time, readers of hip-hop sites might not have an open mind and be like, ‘Oh I’m gonna go to this guy’s show.’ I think it takes a longer time to infiltrate the hip-hop community. You see so much saturation of new artists on blogs. I think it takes like 10-15 times of something getting posted for people to check it out. It takes longer, but that cosign means more to me personally.
L+T: You made a really bold move speaking in favor of same-sex marriage on “Same Love.” Did you have any reservations in doing that being a Hip-Hop artist?
Macklemore: Yeah, absolutely. That takes it back to the hip-hop community, which throughout history has been somewhat homophobic. Even thinking about the features I had on my album in terms of rap features, I’m like, ‘Is ScHoolboy Q gonna be cool with being on an album with a song that talks about same-sex marriage? Are people going to want to collaborate in the future? Is this gonna pigeonhole me? Am I going to be alienated from the community for speaking on this issue?’ I mean, the first bar of that song is, ‘When I was in the third grade, I thought that I was gay.’ So it was definitely on my mind. I felt vulnerable putting out a song like that with those types of bars. But, it’s the truth. It’s something that you put on the scale, and you measure it and see if it’s worth potentially losing some collaborative opportunities in the future or being judged or viewed as being different or whatever vs. what you actually stand up for and believe in. I went with my gut. It’s a bigger issue to talk about same-sex marriage and equality for all human beings than to be perceived as cool or fit into the niche of the close-minded people that make hip-hop music. At the end of the day, if they’re gonna judge me for that, then I don’t need to be on records with them.
L+T: So true. It all worked out though…
Macklemore: It did. From what I saw, there wasn’t a lot of backlash.
L+T: It was perfect timing too in 2012.
Macklemore: Yeah, when I wrote the song – we didn’t do SXSW this year – so we focused in the studio, and the thing that came out of that week was that song. Shortly after that, like a week after I wrote it, Barack Obama came out in support [of same-sex marriage] and then JAY Z came out in support of Barack Obama. And then everyone’s getting interviewed. You had T.I. on [Power 105’s] The Breakfast Club talking about same-sex marriage. Then Frank Ocean came out, and it was like, ‘Okay, we should probably put this song out.’ My intention was never to be like, ‘I want to be the first person to rap about this.’ It was more that I wanted this song to reach as many people as possible and have as much power as it possibly can. If it’s a bandwagon issue or perceived as a bandwagon issue, then it’s going to lose some validity. So we put it out shortly thereafter. I remember I was reading the blogs while in Europe when I found out that Frank Ocean had come out. I was like, ‘We should probably have a conversation about getting this song out in the next couple of weeks.’
L+T: Do you feel like having such a strong connection to the business aspect of your career has allowed you to win as well?
Macklemore: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know any other way really. I’m very hands-on; Ryan is very hands-on. We do everything in-house. Ryan is doing graphics, cutting the videos, we’re both directing the videos, we’re both figuring out what our merch is going to look like. It’s been DIY ever since I first started at like 15-16 years old in graphic arts class, trying to figure out how to design an album cover at 17-18. You know, I think that it takes away from music. I think that if Ryan and I both were outsourcing everything and had a great team of people that could execute our vision, we could spend that many more hours in a day just focusing on the music. I’d probably be a better rapper. At the end of it, nobody has been able to execute our vision the way we see it in our own heads. When we try to outsource it, it just doesn’t come back right. Until we find that perfect team to make the images in our head reality – which I don’t even think exists – then we’re just going to continue to make it ourselves.
L+T: Do you really think you could allow yourself to give up that part of your career though, knowing that your gut reactions have brought you this success?
Macklemore: I don’t think so. The business-side of it…I can’t turn that part of my brain off. There’s no marketing team behind us. The marketing team is me and Ryan, my girlfriend, and my manager. That is our team. I study the game. I study how people have branded themselves, how they conduct themselves in interviews and the clothes that they wear. The little accessories they have on, the way it translates into their personalities and the music they’re making. All that stuff really does matter in terms of public perception once you get outside of the music. How you connect with the fan base is directly influenced by all of that, outside of just the music. For me it’s like a case study that’s never going to stop. Even if it’s not for me, I’d love at some point to do that for other artists. People have some great music, but no idea how to dress themselves or how to get their music heard or how to actually tangibly reach the masses or get onto a blog. All of that sort of stuff. It’s a science that’s always evolving and always changing, but I love to pay attention to it.
L+T: For 2013 are you making modifications to your plan, or is it, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’
Macklemore: I think the plan is forming. We’re trying to figure out what the next video is, go into writing more music. I would love to keep the momentum, but first and foremost I need, like, a little bit of a break in 2013. I need to just chill out. The reason why people put out, like, shitty second albums is because they have a buzz and feel like they have to keep going. They don’t give themselves time to live a little bit and have a life and experience things outside of touring or the studio. There’s a big world out there beyond just the music, and that’s what influences my music – living in that world and being aware, and having new experiences.