The Real Story Of How Macklemore Got 'Thrift Shop' To No. 1

Feb 8, 2013
Originally published on February 8, 2013 6:09 pm

The No. 1 song in the country right now is "Thrift Shop" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, a rap group out of Seattle. Their claim to fame: They got the song to the top of the chart by themselves, without being signed by a major label.

They've bragged about this success in a video spoof and on Twitter.

But the story they've been telling — the story that's been widely reported — is not entirely true.

The truth is that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hired a company to help them get their music into stores. That company, Alternative Distribution Alliance, is an arm of Warner Music Group, one of the most major of the major labels.

Still, the rise of "Thrift Shop" is something new. It's an indication of a power shift away from the major labels to the artist themselves. Clearly, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis accomplished a lot on their own.

The rap group spent their early years hustling and playing small clubs like a lot of acts. But they also used technology to build a devoted following on Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.

They eventually got to the point where their touring was so successful that they could have been signed by a major label.

Instead, they went a different route. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took the money they'd made from touring and made their own album — a process that digital technology has made much cheaper.

To get their album to the top of the charts though, they needed help.

"You really cannot get a radio hit at this point without major label backing," says Gary Trust from Billboard.

Even in today's world of iTunes and YouTube, you still need the radio to become a superstar, Trust says. So Macklemore and Ryan Lewis hired Warner Music Group to get the band more radio play. That helped propel "Thrift Shop" to No. 1.

Yes, artists can do a lot on their own today. But to get to the top of the charts, they still have to work with a major label.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And right now, this is the number one song in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

MACKLEMORE AND RYAN LEWIS: (Rapping) Imma take your grandpa's style. Imma take your grandpa's style. No, for real, ask your grandpa, can I have his hand-me-downs? Velour jumpsuit...

CORNISH: It's called "Thrift Shop" by a rapper who calls himself Macklemore and his producer Ryan Lewis. The buzz about the group is that they made it to the top all by themselves, independently, without being signed by a major label. This almost never happens. But as NPR's Zoe Chace from our Planet Money team reports, this isn't quite the rags-to-riches tale it appears to be, though it does say a lot about the way the music industry is changing.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis love the story that they are too cool for the record deal. They made this video spoof where they imagine a sweaty record exec trying to sign them.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We want to change your life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You sign with a major label, and I am prepared to offer you a pair of shoes and a can of beans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's a standard major label record contract, the same one Chubby Checker had. Rest in peace.

CHACE: Also, after their album came out, Macklemore sent out the following tweet: 78,000 sold independently. I could have never dreamed this. Thank you all, #sharkfacegang. The problem is to say that these records were sold independently, it is not entirely true because Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, they hired a company to help them, a company called ADA, Alternative Distribution Alliance, which sounds like a small independent outfit, but it's really not.

PAUL PORTER: Well, they are also an arm of Warner Music Group, Warner Brothers Record, so that's where things get a little spicy.

CHACE: This is Paul Porter, former radio programmer, covers commercial music on his site raprehab.com. ADA is owned by Warner Music Group about as far from independent as you can get. But Macklemore and Lewis' rise to stardom is an indication of something new of a power shift away from the major labels and to the artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TOWN")

LEWIS: (Rapping) First memories of Seattle Hip-Hop, I remember the Sit 'N Spin, listening to Rap Attack, listening to Nasty Nes...

CORNISH: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis spent their early years hustling, playing clubs in Seattle, building a local following in a way you couldn't do just 10 years ago: Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube. They eventually brought in enough money to make their first hire: a booking agent, Zach Quillen. He focused on small venues that didn't cost too much to get to.

ZACH QUILLEN: Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, like where could we get nearby, economically, and are these markets connected enough to Seattle that the word had to potentially spread.

CHACE: And they sold out shows, and this is the point where, in the old way of doing things, a label would have probably entered the picture. They would have signed this hot, young act and, together, put out a full-length album. And the label would take home a big percentage of sales. Paul Porter, former radio programmer, he remembers how it was.

PORTER: You know, back in the day, an album or CD might have sold for 12.99. An artist's percentage of that could be something like a $1.25.

CHACE: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, they went a different route: took the money they made from touring and made their own album, which is cheaper to do than it used to be, meaning they get to keep a lot more of the money, and they don't have to pay back an advance from the record company. Next, they had to get the record heard. This is where we get to that distribution deal with that company, ADA. Macklemore and Lewis needed ADA to get the record in stores, but with their own album and their own following, they had more negotiating power to get a better deal than they would have in the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

LEWIS: (Rapping) What, what, what, what, what.

CHACE: So that's how things are different. You can get pretty big on your own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

LEWIS: (Rapping) Oh.

CHACE: But to get huge, says Gary Trust from Billboard, you still need the thing you've always needed. You need the radio.

GARY TRUST: You know, radio still has such huge reach. Over 90 percent of people still use radio.

CHACE: Including a group essential for becoming a superstar: seventh graders.

HOLLY HERTER: I can't sleep without music on, so I have it in my room constantly.

CHACE: Holly Herter is 13 and from right outside Seattle where Macklemore is from. But to reach her required more than tweets and sold-out shows. It took the radio.

HERTER: I was listening to 107.7, and they do these recommendations. So I heard: If you like the Beastie Boys, then you'd like Macklemore, and they play "Thrift Shop," and I just - I liked it.

CHACE: And when it comes to getting on the radio, Billboard's Gary Trust says there is only one route.

TRUST: You really can't get a hit at this point on radio without major label backing it.

CHACE: And that's what Macklemore and Lewis did. To carry them across the finish line, get to top 40 radio, get the number one song in the country, they went old school. They tapped Warner Music Group, not some quasi-independent subsidiary but the real deal. Warner gets them on the radio in exchange for a cut of the profits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

LEWIS: (Rapping) They had a broken keyboard, I bought a broken keyboard. I bought a ski blanket, then I bought a knee board.

CHACE: So what to make of the rise of Macklemore and Lewis? They did do a lot of it on their own, independently, sacrificing less than they've had to in the past. But the lesson of Macklemore and Lewis is that to clear the last hurdle, get to the top of the charts, you still have to pay the majors.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

LEWIS: (Rapping) I'm gonna pop some tags, only got $20 in my pocket.

CHACE: Zoe Chace, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRIFT SHOP")

LEWIS: (Rapping) I, I, I'm hunting, looking for a come-up. This is (unintelligible) awesome. I'm gonna pop... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.