When Macklemore & Lewis say they do it all, it’s no joke. On their climb from virtual unknowns to six-time 2013 MTV Video Music Award nominees, the Seattle duo has blazed a trail like no other, without the help of a major label, or just about anyone else.
“Unlike a lot of other artists, they stay completely in control of all facets of what they’re presenting,” said manager Zach Quillen of their hands-on approach, which has yielded two #1 hits from their breakthrough, The Heist. “If you’re looking at pop, rock or hip-hop artists, there are few who are directing and editing their own music videos [and] scoring custom intros for their videos.”
The all-in approach extends to everything from their tour artwork to photo shoots, cover art and every other public image fans see of the pair. “They are perfectionists and they pay attention to every detail and do it all themselves.”
That determination to present a consistent aesthetic and not cede any control over their careers has helped Mack &Lewis rise from club darlings to festival superstars over the past year, making them the most-nominated independent artists in the 30-year history of the VMAs. (They’re also the first to score an MTV awards show trifecta, playing the VMAs, the Movie Awards and mtvU Woodies in the same calendar year.)
How did they do it? MTV News breaks down their formula:
The music, of course
“The music is, of course, immediate, but they make untraditional pop records,” said Quillen of record-breaking first single “Thrift Shop,” second #1 song “Can’t Hold Us” and same-sex equality anthem “Same Love.”
“Now that they’ve gone to #1 you can look at them and say they’re radio friendly, but if you look at what [those songs are] conceptually about, they’re pretty weird,” he said of the songs from soon-to-be platinum-selling album. “A song about second-hand clothes spending six weeks at #1? What they are doing is unique sonically and until them there wasn’t anything quite like it on radio.”
Quillen, who’s been working with the pair since 2008, said timing had a lot to do with it, too.
“People were ready for something different and Ben [Macklemore] pushes people while remaining relatable,” he said, pointing out that “Thrift Shop” is essentially an anti-materialism rant that has appealed to a mass consumer audience on its way to the recordbooks as the best-selling single of 2013 so far.
Before their breakthrough (and even before Mack hooked up with Lewis), fellow indie rapper Tech N9ne said he often toured the same circuit as Macklemore, sometimes sharing a bill. (In fact, he says, Macklemore was determined to be on his Something Else album alongside Wiz Khalifa, B.o.B. and Cee Lo, but the “Thrift Shop” rapper was on tour in Europe and couldn’t make it to the studio.)
“We’ve been touring and grinding for so many years as independent artists, but it doesn’t matter if you’re indie or not if your stuff is wack,” he said. “One major thing we always had is really beautiful product. Real sh– is always going to shine … and that’s why he’s shining.”
Keepin’ it real
Even before the rest of the world discovered them, Mack & Lewis were slowly building a fan base through constant touring. Then came the most crucial part: supporters started sharing the low-budget video for “Thrift Shop,” which was uploaded in August 2012 and has since been watched nearly 403 million times on YouTube. By comparison, Justin Bieber’s video for “Boyfriend,” uploaded in May of that same year, has 264 million views.
Another key piece of the puzzle is Macklemore’s stage persona. “Besides being energetic, he’s very honest and he doesn’t care about being cool or perceived in a certain way,” said Quillen. “He’s a bit fearless when it comes to being a performer. Today, with so much media coming at you at all times people are hungry for something authentic and real.”
N9ne has seen firsthand how that touring has paid off. Tech, who has run a similarly grassroots operation for 14 years through his Strange Music label, said Macklemore and Lewis have built their audience much like he did: with constant touring in less-visited cities like Eugene, Oregon, and Fort Collins, Colorado.
“If you want to be the hip-hop president, then you have to get out there and politic,” N9ne told MTV News. “How we politic in hip-hop is by getting out there and touring and selling merchandise.”
From the underground to the mainstream
After meeting with major labels and passing, Quillen and the boys agreed to hire the radio promotions department from major Warner Bros. Records to push “Thrift Shop” at radio — they were already using Warner’s distributions arm — a move that changed the game.
“Most indie acts never achieve this level because we came up with a unique deal that allows us to use just one branch [of Warner Bros.] without being tied down in any other way … It’s a unique and revolutionary way to do things.”
In addition to M&RL being the most-nominated indie VMA act ever — tying Justin Timberlake with six apiece this year — Billboard magazine associate director of charts/retail Keith Caulfield said that, at this point, the sales for “Thrift Shop” mark the first time an independently distributed song has been the best-seller of the year. “It’s highly unusual for an act to have this sort of success on this grand a level,” he said, noting that when The Heist shocked everyone when it debuted at #2 in October.
But Quillen wasn’t shocked at all. “It was always a question we’d talk about whether they wanted to go for radio and be in the lane they’re in now,” he said. “If they wanted to go for that I always believed that they’d be really successful.”
Once they started getting feedback on the self-released Heist, though, the whole team realized now was the time to really go for it.
The biggest difference between M&RL and independent label acts like Arcade Fire or Vampire Weekend is that those bands don’t get much cross-over or top 40 play. “They’re not ubiquitous on YouTube, they’re not being played on your mom’s Facebook wall,” Caulfield said. “Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are all over the place and that’s unusual.”
What’s even more impressive? The entire operation is basically four people: Macklemore and Lewis, Quillen and the band’s tour manager/Macklemore’s fiancée, Tricia Davis.
Ceiling can’t hold them
Quillen readily admits that no major label would have agreed to take two months to film the “Can’t Hold Us” video all around the globe . “But our lack of experience was our best experience,” he said. “It allowed us to use common sense and try things.”
He loves that the six VMA nominations have likely inspired collective head-scratching from the industry. “It’s incredible. It’s hard to even put into words,” he said of the VMA six pack. “I love that Ben and Ryan, really smart and well-intentioned people, have a really large platform. We want to impact the world in a positive way and we’ve managed to do that without playing ball the normal way. The VMA nominations and performance are another great example of that and an opportunity.”
Of all their accomplishments, Quillen said Macklemore performing “Same Love” at the VMAs is promising to be all-time high. “What an amazing opportunity to take a great song with a great message and give it that platform. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, being part of that song and history and getting it to the audience that the VMAs provides.”