Ben Haggerty has a complicated relationship with radio. The 33-year-old rapper, better known as Macklemore, credits the traditional radio distribution model for helping him reach worldwide fame with producer Ryan Lewis. But he’s also a poster child of sorts for independent music, having never signed to a major label, and made an album last year that partly symbolized rebellion against the industry.
Macklemore touched on this topic in addition to many others — his loyalty to Seattle; his battle with drug addiction; his handling of success — during an afternoon keynote on Friday at the inaugural Upstream Music Fest + Summit, the brainchild of billionaire music fan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen taking place in Seattle this weekend.
The Seattle native, who still lives in Capitol Hill just a few miles away from where he grew up, detailed his unprecedented rise that turned an unemployed, drug-addicted 25-year-old into a worldwide star who has performed around the world at sold-out shows and won four Grammy Awards.
Macklemore, donning an old-school green Seattle Seahawks jacket, recounted the backstory of how his hit song Thrift Shop, which topped Billboard charts in 2013, made it on the radio. He inked a unique agreement with distribution company ADA and later ADA-parent Warner Bros. to get the song on the radio while allowing him to remain an independent artist without an official record deal.
“I was in Madison, Wisconsin, and I’ll never forget that phone call,” Macklemore explained on Friday. “My manager told me that Warner wanted to work this song to radio. He told me if it worked, it would change my life. That power is what took us from an underground rap group to Thrift Shop being the No. 1 song in the world.”
But while radio thrust Thrift Shop into the mainstream, it was actually online tools and social media that helped Macklemore catch the attention of industry execs.
“It was a viral song on YouTube before it was ever played on any radio,” he said of Thrift Shop, which has racked up more than 1 billion views on YouTube. “It was right around the time when radio started to pay attention to YouTube.”
Macklemore said that with traditional radio, “it’s completely a system.” He immediately followed that up with a comment on the state of today’s music industry.
“Well, now with streaming, everything is changing,” he said. “It’s already changed since I started this sentence.”
He also referred to 2012 as a time “when people bought music more.”
That experience with the radio industry and the rapidly-changing music world makes the ethos behind Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ second studio album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, even more interesting. The duo had just finished a two-year world tour and there were huge expectations after the first album’s success.
So did they get in the studio and purposefully make more radio hits like Thrift Shop? Certainly not.
“There was a lot of fear in the beginning,” Macklemore admitted on Friday. “But one way we combatted that fear was to make really unconventional songs. We were like, whatever is the norm of what radio is, fuck it. Let’s make what we want to make. I’ve got 36 bars of what I want to say, I’m not going to cut it down to 12. I’m saying what I want.”
“Part of that was just rebellion against the industry,” he continued. “Part of it was naively thinking that we were so successful before that radio would probably play this, too.”
The reception to This Unruly Mess I’ve Made wasn’t so hot, at least based on record sales and critical reviews. But after reading the hot takes and seeing the sales, Macklemore said it all actually helped lift some weight off his shoulders and “freed” him. It also taught him to let go of outside public perception “that we get so caught up in.” He said “the world is going to compartmentalize you and put you where they want.”
“You get further and further away from those core things once you start climbing that ladder,” he noted. “Why tap into the negative energy? It will eat you alive. I don’t care how successful you are; it’s evident who are the ones getting eaten up. I was eaten up by it for awhile. … If I get caught up in the outside with what people are talking about, I can’t do my job to my greatest capability. I can’t be spiritually fit if I’m worried about how someone else is judging the art that I make. This is a process of self liberation; this is a process of how do I get freed through a piece of paper, and how do I enjoy this process.”
Macklemore is working on a new album, so it will be interesting to see the creative direction he takes given the reception to his previous work and what he’s learned. But whatever happens, he said he’ll always be loyal to his hometown. He called the Seattle community a “fabric of what made me who I am, and I’m sticking to it.”
“We had support in Seattle on an incredible level before the rest of the country knew we existed,” Macklemore explained. “That is something I really attribute to us being able to make an impact in the music industry. We sold out three shows at Showbox and booking agents in New York City heard about that. They got wind of that and wondered what was going on in Seattle. To have that support first here, and on that grassroots direct-to-fan relationship we had built with our fans, that is what enabled us to even get noticed in the first place.
“I feel really blessed and grateful that we were able to build that foundation here and then take it out into the world, versus the other way around.”