For the first time in two decades, an indie artist is topping the Billboard charts. For the last three weeks, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s “Thrift Shop” has remained at the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100, beating the likes of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.
The only other unsigned artist to ever hit #1 was Lisa Loeb’s “Stay (I Missed You)” in 1994, when her friend Ethan Hawke gave the track to Ben Stiller to include on the Reality Bites soundtrack. She quickly signed to a major label, releasing her debut album the following year with Geffen Records.
Lisa Loeb switched to a label as soon as she could because, in 1994, it was the only way to finance a full album, nationwide tour, market an album, get radio/TV airplay, and get distribution to record stores.
That prized record deal didn’t work out the way she’d hoped. Four years before Lisa Loeb joined Geffen, the label was acquired by MCA, later renamed to Universal Music Group. She ended up on Interscope/A&M, one of Universal’s many subsidiaries, where she received less-than-stellar treatment.
“They became a really big label and I felt they weren’t focusing a lot on music,” Loeb said in 2003. “They had executives telling you one thing one day and then telling you something different the next. They couldn’t deliver on their promises.” A planned music video was rejected by the label because they disagreed with the concept.
In the end, she had to negotiate to buy the rights to her own master recordings from Interscope.
Lisa Loeb wanted her work to be heard and she wanted to make a living doing what she loved, so she sacrificed her creative and financial control to get there.
For hundreds of years, publishers across every industry — book publishers, record labels, film studios, videogame publishers — solved problems for artists in four major ways:
- Funding. The cost of creating a new work, paying the artist’s expenses during the creation process, often with an advance.
- Production. Design, manufacturing, and printing of the finished product.
- Marketing. Going on tour, making a video, promotion in various media outlets.
- Distribution. Getting the product into people’s hands.
And how does this play out now?
Digital distribution subverted the monopolies held by physical distribution, bypassing distribution deals with record stores entirely, allowing artists to sell directly to fans. Social media and online music services changed the way people discover music, making the payola systems of MTV and radio airplay feel quaint. Production costs dropped dramatically as computers became more powerful and audio editing software got dirt cheap, along with new services for printing on demand. And, finally, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms offset the financial risk to artists.
Most importantly, each new platform let artists find, communicate, and sell directly to their fans.
Music is hardly alone here. Videogames, film, comics, books, product design, hardware, software, board games, whatever. Hackers and makers across every form of art are finding their fan bases, interacting with them, and selling to them.
We’re at the beginning of an indiepocalypse — a global shift in how culture is made, from a traditional publisher model to independently produced and distributed works.
Artists that were royally screwed over in the past now have an alternative.
As high-profile artists keep popping up across every industry, other artists will inevitably follow. For every Louis CK or Amanda Palmer, there are 10,000 other artists ready to wake up and try something new. It will be the default state for new artists, and a rising trend among artists with existing fanbases.
Publishers will have to evolve just to stay alive. Labels, studios, and other publishers can provide huge value — they can take care of the bullshit that artists don’t want to do. And they can apply knowledge and existing relationships to help artists, rather than asking artists to learn everything from scratch.
Artists of all kinds want to focus on making art, but not if it means giving up a large financial stake in their work, exclusive rights to their work, or a loss of creative control.
It would take much more work, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis could do it all themselves. Why sign with a label, if it meant giving up so much?
If you have any doubt over whether Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will sign to a major label any time soon, check out the lyrics to “Jimmy Iovine,” a track off their debut album, named after the head of Interscope, Lisa Loeb’s former label. In the song, he sneaks into Jimmy Iovine’s office to try to get a record deal.
Finally see an office with a mounted sign, heaven sent
Big block silver letters, read it out loud: President (nice!)
This was my chance to grab that contract and turn and jet
Right then felt a cold hand grab on the back of my neck
He said, “We’ve been watching you, so glad you could make it
Your music gets so impressive in this whole brand you created
You’re one hell of a band, we here think you’re destined for greatness
And with that right song we all know that you’re next to be famous
Now I’m sorry, I’ve had a long day remind me, now what your name is?
That’s right, Macklemore, of course, today has been crazy
Anyway, you ready? We’ll give you a hundred thousand dollars
After your album comes out we’ll need back that money that you borrowed.”
“So it’s really like a loan?”
“A loan? Come on, no, we’re a team, 360 degrees, we will reach your goals!
We’ll get a third of the merch that you sell out on the road
Along with a third of the money you make when you’re out doing your shows
Manager gets 20%, booking agent gets 10%
So shit, after taxes you and Ryan have 7% to split
That’s not bad, I’ve seen a lot worse, No one will give you a better offer than us.”
I replied, “I appreciate the offer, thought that this is what I wanted
Rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked.”
It took two decades for a second unsigned artist to top the Billboard charts. I’m guessing it won’t be long before we see another.