The Major “Exposure” Of Macklemore And The Myth Of The Indie Artist [Updated]

The-heistMacklemore and Ryan Lewis, along with Team Macklemore & Lewis by extension, have recently come under attack by writers at media outlets with solid brands such as NPR and Rap Radar because, though they claimed the status of indie artists as they topped the charts with their collaborative effort, they were also being distributed and promoted by a major label-owned entity. Sadly, this attack is simply a reminder of the final collapse of "indie" as a meaningful term.

Since tone is not always as clear as we'd like on the web, please read the following as a heavy dose of sarcasm, tinged with a hint of dismay, finely marbled with disgust and smothered with the self-righteous anger of one who is sickened by the stench of delusional purist stances.

Yeah, that's how it is.

The Collapse of "Indie" as a Meaningful Term

The more I hear the term "indie," the more I realize that it's usefulness as a communicative term has been exhausted. Nobody defines it adequately and when you ask them what they mean they either duck the question or provide variations on a purist stance that, if followed to the letter, would remove large swaths of artists and labels from the lists of those who can claim indie status.

In fact, the intensely ideological use of the term reminds me of the kind of strictures on thought and behavior that I usually associate with commie fringe groups and separatist lesbians. And I say that as someone who knows a lot about how such purists think having learned much from various face-to-face encounters in the 80s, close study of their underground publications on newsprint and periodic observation of their actions in the street back before the World Wide Web even had a name.

Now that I've established my "clueless old fogie" cred, let's discuss the link bait that drew you in to this bit of content that will consume, on average, no more than a minute of your life, dear reader.

The Indie Origin Tale of Macklemore (and some other guys)

Sometime last year a pair of hip hop musicians, or whatever you want to label them given that the term "hip hop" also tends to be policed in a ridiculously purist manner, released an album with a lead single that did really well. In fact, the duo of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, known as Macklemore in the music press cause we seem to have difficulty labeling things correctly, did so well that their album, "The Heist," debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard 200 and their single, "Thrift Shop," quickly ran riot on various singles charts.

A wide variety of music writers and fans got all excited about this indie victory and embraced Macklemore, if not Ryan Lewis, with gushing headlines that I'm sure you all recall. This victory against "the man" was taken as a sign that finally indie artists could make it on their own without the taint of association with the evil major labels.

Of course, no one pointed to their obvious use of digital tools provided by much larger corporate entities such as Apple and Facebook as anything other than, um, whatever it is they mean by indie since that goes without saying cause we know it when we see it.

The Big White Lie of Indie Success Exposed

Yet such a charade could not last. In recent weeks, due most likely to the news that Macklemore's deal (actually a deal involving whatever business entity Macklemore & associates have formed) with the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which is owned by the walking dead wearing suits at Warner Music Group, had been so successful that they were doing it again on an international scale. But because none of the critics reveal what inspired their stories, we can't say for sure how they figured it out after the fact.

For my part, I found out about this pseudo-controversy via the always worth reading Solveig Whittle.

Rap Rehab's Paul Porter, in a piece titled "Macklemore’s Indie Rise Is A Simple White Lie" (race link baiting, anyone?), turned to a dictionary definition of indie that actually doesn't support his case to expose Macklemore and those other people as frauds. They aren't indie artists, or Macklemore isn't, they or he are "part of the big machine."

[Note: Please see my update at end of piece clarifying Porter's overall stance with which I agree.]

Over at NPR, which used to have fairly high standards for their coverage, Zoe Chace follows up Porter's piece without mentioning Porter [actually she mentions Porter in the audio] and reveals that stories such as this one at Time.com are "not entirely true." Given that this story seems to mostly celebrate Macklemore's refusal to sign with a major label it's unclear why she's beefing with Time.

Yet she does reveal that Macklemore combined smart use of such indie/corporate tools as Twitter and YouTube, each of which is more highly valued than any major label, along with touring to build a brand and put out an album that still required a service associated with a major label to break into terrestrial radio and top the charts.

This Isn't Breaking News

I could say more but my cheezy sarcasm is wearing thin. None of this is breaking news. Billboard's coverage back in October made it quite clear that they worked with ADA to break through in such articles as:

Alternative Distribution Alliance Scores New Clients, Exec

Macklemore & Reps Talk 'The Heist' Debut & DIY Marketing Plan

In fact, the second article reminds us that not only did Macklemore build with Ryan Lewis but that others were involved including The Agency Group and their current manager Zach Quillen.

Oh, no, the lie is revealed to be deeper than we realized.

No Musical Success is An Army of One (Or Two)

If you thought Macklemore and Lewis were a couple of hipsters posting up on Tumblr and slinging CD-R's out of their backpacks in front of Goodwill in between tour stops reached via public transit, then you're living in a fantasy world. But what's worse is that most of the people making noise know better.

They know there's barely such a thing as an independent solo artist achieving mainstream success on their own because it's really difficult to book a real tour or get on the radio or receive mainstream press without a team. It's nearly impossible to do any of those things without professional support.

And they also know that the fairy tale of total independence is just that. Media coverage doesn't reveal the funding from family members, the sweat of publicists, the hard work all the unnamed people do because that's not a sellable story. You can't write link bait headlines off that.

At the end of the day, it takes a village to get paid.

If Macklemore's Expelled from Indie Heaven So Are Some Other Icons

But say we take these claims at face value. Let's say that no one who uses major label services can claim indie status.

In that case, looking only at ADA's clients, we have to jettison the following labels from our magical indie kingdom, some of which might not qualify anyway depending on your unspoken definition:

"Alligator, Beggar's Music Group, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Domino, Epitaph, Matador, Merge, Nettwerk, Real World, Rykodisc, Saddle Creek, Secretly Canadian, Side One Dummy, Sub Pop, Taseis, Touch & Go and Smithsonian Folkways."

But don't stop there. You're also going to have to ditch a bunch more labels before you're done.

Of course, Macklemore and Lewis aren't a label and ADA doesn't list individual artists but they do feature a few on their home page like XL Recordings' The xx and Dualtone Music Groups' The Lumineers.

Well, fuck me. I've got some rewrites to do. Those beacons of indie success turn out to be phonies whose claims to indie status are nothing but more of the man's big white lies.

I Pledge to Give Up All Usage of "Indie" Except When Quoting Others

But wait, I have a better plan. I'm going to refuse the purist stance of indie and no longer use the word in any of my writing about the music industry unless I'm quoting a source.

So just as I rejected the purist nonsense of political fringe groups back in the 80s and just as I rejected the purist nonsense of anti-poststructuralists in the 90s and just as I rejected the purist nonsense of hip hop heads in the 'oughts, I'm going to reject the purist nonsense of those who still fly the term "indie" as if it was a flag of freedom.

[Update 1: I still reject those who would steer artists towards a purist stance that undermines their ability to make the deal that's best for them but I've decided to go ahead and use "indie" when it seems appropriate or useful. I may or may not clarify my definition at the time in keeping with now widespread practices.]

But that doesn't mean there's not yet time to set me straight in the comments sections where free speech is safely corraled and unlikely to be read by the majority of this post's readers. Just as most of this post won't be read by them either.

Or You Could Read an Inspiring Interview with Wanz

If you'd rather focus on something positive, check out this truly awesome interview with Wanz (via my man Manny Faces of Birthplace Magazine), the singer in Thrift Shop who's almost as old as I am. I won't lie. I actually teared up at a couple of points.

But if he's lying too, please don't tell me. I've already lost Santa Claus and Macklemore. And my hypertensive heart just can't take no more.

Update 2: Paul Porter from Rap Rehab touched base to point out that his key points were about the fact that many artists who embrace the term indie think they can really break into terrestrial commercial radio and similar difficult to enter spaces all on their own. But the reality is there are still gatekeepers that need to get paid and you're not going to enter that world simply on the merits of your music.

Also, in using his headline to my own ends, I probably gave the false impression that he's something other than a man who I consider a much needed voice and a positive force in hip hop.

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (Twitter/App.net) also blogs at All World Dance: Videos and maintains Music Biz Blogs. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. Love the passion, Clyde. I always thought Indie was an aesthetic that transcended label/corporation affiliation. Being on an independent label never made anyone “Indie.” Indie has always been about a certain sound and look. Most truly independent artists have never been considered Indie because they weren’t cool enough to merit the gloss or be covered by the outlets that like Indie music.
    I’m surprised anyone thinks the term Indie means independent.

  2. There are still a number of indie’s out there (looking at mirror) and we are still making some noise in the biz Just checkout Dawn Richard storming both iTunes and Soundscan charts. BTW I can tell you that the battles we and other indie distributors face to get our releases on US Stores shelves and various record events is staggering and shows you the power of indie branding since the majors want to own it too.

  3. yeh… definitely interesting post, thanks for shedding light. “indie” is more of a genre/style these days, which makes it totally subjective and prey to the realm of emotion and not hard facts. however, i do think a lot of people confuse the business term “indie” with “DIY”, and to me, the line between the two is very clear.

  4. I think it began with a specific industry definition related to indie labels but that definition was developed in relationship to certain kinds of “alternative” rock and became more about an attitude or perspective or ideology.
    And then “indie” acts like Nirvana started getting signed by major labels and becoming pop stars and that’s when the whole thing fell apart due to the inherent contradictions.
    Listening to interviews with Kurt Cobain where he tries to wriggle out of rock star status and maintain his indie cred is a good example of how damaging such ideological stances can be. It’s even worse when artists start to make business deals based on ideologies that they don’t even recognize as such.
    On that note, I miss Kurt! I appreciated his attitude, loved his music but he wasn’t the most rigorous thinker and didn’t need to be to make a big contribution.

  5. At least people try to clarify what they mean by DIY.
    You might disagree with my take but I’m one of those people trying to find different ways to talk about DIY as Decide It Yourself rather than Do It (All) Yourself.
    But at least I say what I mean and I’m sure you could sum up your take on DIY in a sentence or two. Whereas use of the term indie just seems to lead to an inarticulate thicket of confusion.

  6. IMHO an indie artists/label is one that is not on a major. Now that said since there’s been so much consolidation on the distribution side as to who’s back by whom something that only those in the deal often know. As far as DIY. I have to ask how many people really do it by themselves~ let alone in this industry?

  7. I run the Music Managers Forum in the UK and work with our sister organisation The Featured Artist Coalition (www.thefac.org). In the 80’s in the UK indie was defined by distribution i.e. non-major. The indies wanted this so they could have a sales chart and get profile – because they found it difficult to play in the Top 40 which was generally, but not always, the domain of the majors. But PWL with Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley were indie distributed to they qualified for the indie chart. Big problem . That debate has never been resolved satisfactorily so we end up with genre charts where indie means….well what does it mean? And that’s what the article is about.
    In many ways it is a waste of time discussing.
    In 2013 artists have businesses. They need finance and physical distribution and marketing. Finance is tough but non-major alternate financing is becoming available. That means that artists can plug into major label system (as all the majors have set up) but what’s wrong with that? Artists can keep hold of their copyrights and the smart ones do deals where they retain control and use the systems provided. Yes to be truly independent an artist needs a whole army of people especially on a worldwide basis and it is a MASSIVE amount of work which is why some artists who have tried it ( Nine Inch Nails, Placebo etc) go back and plug into the system BUT ON THEIR TERMS. They still have large amounts of people working with them but some get their paycheck from a major and some from non-major.
    In the end the test is whether artists make decisions based on what THEY want rather than some exec screaming for an artist to finish an album because their bonus depends on hitting a sales target rather than what is good for the artist career.
    Artist businesses are the future. Who supplies the track to Top 40 radio is irrelevant.
    Jon Webster

  8. A big YES to that. Thank you!
    If I did a Part 2, that’s exactly where I’d go.
    This tirade of mine took up as much space as I could devote to one post but you helped complete the argument.
    Getting obsessed by indie cred gets in the way of making the best deal possible for the artist and for the music. Depending on where one is in one’s career, that best deal may take unexpected forms and can bring one into or take one out of the label system whether indie or major.
    My use of the term ideology and its relationship to political and academic subcultures was my way of laying the groundwork for this argument.
    Just as I’ve seen many social change movements fail because they refused to get their hands dirty with what they considered the evils of marketing, inappropriate ideologies can lead musicians to fail outright or leave them struggling to explain why they haven’t “sold out” by making a deal with a major label or related entity.
    Thanks again, Mr. Webster!

  9. Excellent post. Back in the day… we would flip through MMR to find an “indie band” to book at the local union hall. As you’ve pointed out, the term has a whole new meaning today.
    And when Skrillex invited about 20 people to the stage while accepting yet another Grammy this weekend – that proved right their that it takes a lot of people to reach mainstream success. Sure, not everyone is trying to hit the mainstream or trying to get on Clear Channel controlled radio – but for whatever reason, there seems to be this myth out there that you can really become the “Next Big Thing” via a YouTube and Facebook account, or whatever. Maybe this myth is being perpetuated by writers looking for a nice story or by people trying to hock music biz books.
    To get to my not so thought out point, the question I have is – Does it matter? Can we just cut the charade and recognize that no matter how much we hear that the Majors are hemorrhaging money, that they still run a majority of the show. And so what?

  10. First, let me say I love your avatar image.
    That out of way, I think the important lesson we should learn is that it’s now possible to access those services and do what needs to be done to build a world class act or label without having to sign over all your rights and without having to be acquired or live life as a sharecropper with an imprint.
    That’s a big shift. And part of that came about because of what was called the indie rock movement and part of that came about because of rappers wanting to not just get a percentage but own a percentage.
    And though maybe you can’t get to the top with just free or low cost social media tools and free or low cost web/mobile music tools and your tight little crew of DIY soldiers, but you can use such tools and approaches to build a foundation on which to attract competent professionals to your side.
    And for some artists who want to keep things a bit simpler, who don’t want the whole package, the ability to build an audience and control things is so much easier now even if it’s not easy.
    Honestly, just getting a professional manager who’s also competent and willing to work for that percentage is a huge accomplishment.
    To be able to do it with such control and leadership rather than as a pawn to be primed for the majors is even bigger.
    And to be able to build a fanbase and a team and a foundation aka a real business that allows you to negotiate proper distribution deals with major label-owned entities or with disruptive competitors is no small thing.
    That’s a major historical shift in the industry.
    That’s the answer when people look at what’s happened and say “so what?”

  11. GREAT ARTICLE! problem is this is not the first time an artist wants to get the “aniti” label movement support by waving that “indie” flag, I like that analogy. remember Drake? he was affiliated with a major and claimed to be indie….
    well from a person who filed a suit against Major Radio for only play music from artists affiliate with Major Labels I can brake it down for all of you readers…
    In Order To Be “indie” which means INDEPENDENT you must not have “ANY” affiliation with a Major, directly indirectly or through a third or fourth party company Period. Oh and by the way this includes distribution as well.
    The other lie that has captured our attention is another supposed internet “indie” lie…research PSY, yea that’s right “Gangnam Style”. 10 years ago he first released music…
    TRU Entertainment
    TRULY Independent Records
    you want an actually “indie” artist someone that is independent check out kevinsandbloom.com
    and as always….
    stay true, too be true!

  12. This post misses the entire point of being ‘indie.’
    Yes, Macklemore had mainstream distribution — but when it comes to creating the music, he answers to no one but himself. He doesn’t have major label overseers crafting his sound, or Warner A&R’s telling him to write songs about XYZ and getting Bruno Mars to sing the hook, etc. (not to mention the absurd notion that utilizing Facebook and iTunes makes one “corporate”)
    So, in that sense, Macklemore and any other artist not signed to major labels but later picked up by major distribution IS genuinely indie.
    In my head, the term “indie” refers to the artistic side, not the business.

  13. Alternative Distribution Alliance is owned by a major label. But Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had to pay a fee to the company for them to distribute it world wide. After it is distributed ADA is finished. They don’t take cuts or percentages like major labels. So the whole “valid” argument that they are not indie is ignorant. There’s no contract saying the ADA owns them and is entitled to a percentage. All it says is, we will distribute you music for so many dollars a unit. That’s not major label, ADA didn’t once put out a commercial for Macklemore or post adds on the internet.

  14. The author seems to miss the point. There’s nothing “indie” or grassroots about contracting with a subsidiary of Warner Music in order to promote an artist by paying radio DJ’s to mention that artist’s name over and over to see if the branding catches on in a POP environment.
    Regardless, when one “does the math” by looking at so called “urban” stations and “underground” Hip Hop outlets, before Macklemore’s pop success most consumers of Hip Hop were not impressed enough to play his music let alone share it until it goes viral. And there’s no indication that his popularity has changed that fact.
    This is why the only way Macklemore could breech the gap of mediocrity among his peers whom had larger fan bases in more cities in the underground Hip Hop scene, was to PAY for exposure to a less critical white middle class audience.

  15. Macklemore rhymes is old its not whats really happening right now However, he has power and a lot to say sometimes his flow reminds me of Eminem and 2pac, he diffidently can spit flow traps and speed bumps, and bubble words, but can he make it pass the fifth year a lot of rappers do not that’s whats important to his fans rather than is he a Inde artist or not. Yapmouth/dead Rock Star Records Artist on the east coast I think are more independent then Macklemore and Ryan Lewis however, why should anyone care?

  16. One of the most misinformed articles I’ve read in a long time. The fact that ADA is owned by Warner Bros has almost nothing to do with the fact that they are independent. If you had correct resources, you would know that this was a contractual distribution agreement, and that there were no rights obtained by the label, aka making them completely independent. They hired their own staff and built their own team under the wing of the two. They formed a limited liability corporation under their own name, and it couldn’t be more obvious that they are not tied down. Jesus what a pathetic attempt to rip through the fabric of something incredible.

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