Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mac Miller: Indie Music's Savior? From

How does an indie artist turn into the number one selling album? The only other time this has happened was with the debut of Snoop Dogg on Death Row Records back in the early nineties. This is the power of social media and the death of the major labels and their bad bank loans to bands. Forget the 360 deals and corporate big wigs who have never toured in a cargo van, think on hard work and success that is earned and not given away. Forget shows such as X Factor, American Idol or the Voice. That system works for "pop stars", as I can equate them to a can of soda. On that initial burst from the can opening or bottle cap dropping away it tastes good, but goes flat more a few sips in. All that processed sugar and more chemicals with huge names meant to instill flavor do nothing but leave a sour taste in your mouth, same as most contestants on those shows.

We understand why that system exists and can applaud its purpose in a business discussion, but here is what it lacks, soul. Yep, something as simple as real soul. Having character, depth and a true value in relating to other folks while weaving stories to get them enthused and buying your music. Mac Miller has done this in spades as he went out and won over the masses the old fashioned way. Mac brought the message to them and believed in himself. We are not huge fans of rap by any means, but we can appreciate hard work and dedication to your craft. Hopefully Mac won't get corrupted by hip-hop's reliance on self indulgence and can keep his eye on the real prize, a long career in the music business.

Mac Miller from

At first glance, Mac Miller would appear unlikely to have a secret interest in art conservation. The 19-year-old rapper slouches into the Forbes Galleries sporting a pair of camouflage pants, a backwards baseball cap and what seems to be a week’s worth of facial hair. Upon noticing the Salvador Dali painting on the wall by the door, though, he suddenly snaps into curator mode.

“This is an original Salvador Dali painting? Who uses this room? Wait, so they just have a Salvador Dali painting here, and no one is ever in here?” He pulls out his iPhone to snap a picture. “If I had a Salvador Dali painting, I would cuddle it to sleep.”

Almost as unexpected as Miller’s interest in fine art is his rapid rise—and accompanying role as a possible savior of independent music. In November, the Pittsburgh-born rhymester released his debut album Blue Slide Park through indie label Rostrum Records; it sold 144,000 copies in its opening week and became the first indie album to top the charts since 1995. The success earned him a spot in the music section of FORBES’ first-ever 30 Under 30 list.

Miller went from mixtape maven to national sensation without the help of a major record label or a big radio hit. Instead, he’s relied largely on social media to build his following, releasing a new song for every 100,000 Twitter followers (he now has 1.4 million). His quirky, low-budget YouTube videos have clocked over 200 million views. One, titled “Donald Trump,” even elicited a video response from the billionaire real estate developer himself. His secret: opening the spigot.

“I flood the internet with what I feel is quality content,” says Miller, settled into a cushy red chair opposite the Dali. “I’m just looking for creative ways to get all that content out there. And just being reachable. Not necessarily sitting there and responding every tweet or every fan, but being a symbol of someone who doesn’t think that [he’s] anymore more special than anyone else.”

Adds Rostrum Records founder Benjy Grinberg: “He’s relentless … If he’s not doing a show, he’s in the studio writing music. If he’s not in the studio, it’s because he’s doing an interview or coming up with merch ideas.”

The buzz is there, and the money is starting to roll in. Miller played over 200 shows in 2011, grossing an average of $40,000 per night. He expects to play almost as many shows in 2012, and his nightly rate is now approaching $150,000. Miller also rakes in tens of thousands per night in merchandise sales, thanks largely to the wealthy suburban high school and college students who are the primary consumers of his music.

And unlike Pittsburgh pal Wiz Khalifa, who signed a multiple rights deal with Atlantic Records that calls for him to hand over a slice of all revenues to the company, Miller is still fully independent. He doesn’t enjoy some of the perks that often come with a major label deal—like the ability to tap into a broader publicity network and get favored status from radio stations—but he’s already connected, directly through Twitter, to his massive fan base.

“With Mac, we’ve proven that we—and other independent artists—can sell records by ourselves,” says Grinberg. “It just depends on how far we want to take it alone. We haven’t seen the ceiling yet.

Miller’s rise is all the more amazing when one puts his age into context. Born in 1992, he hadn’t yet started first grade when Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were gunned down. At age six, he taught himself piano, drums and guitar (Miller hasn’t given up the latter, regularly reeling off rock hits like Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” between rap songs; at a recent New York show, he flipped the guitar onto his back and played an impressive solo).

He started putting out mixtapes as a teenager, first as part of a group called Ill Spoken, then by himself. He released The Jukebox and The High Life in 2009, earning him a modicum of buzz on the Pittsburgh rap scene and throughout the internet. Miller soon caught Grinberg’s ear and signed with Rostrum the following year; his big break followed with the debut of the mixtape K.I.D.S. (Kickin Incredibly Dope Shit).
“I had been putting out mixtapes before that, and I had generated a little fan base, but K.I.D.S. was when I felt I did something that people really decided to take notice of who I was,” says Miller. “I feel like that gave me a platform to build and reach a bigger fan base for people to care.”

Miller built off that success with Blue Slide Park, an album that chronicles and almost glorifies suburban ennui. This is not the youthful rebellion music of the Baby Boomers; rather, Miller describes a world of endless adolescent possibility–albeit mostly concerning controlled substances and consenting females–a sort of figurative playground echoing the real one mentioned in the title.

And that’s precisely what makes Miller’s music so appealing to many middle class high school and college aged students. They grew up on hip-hop, but the music’s content didn’t always mirror their experience. In Miller, however, there’s a bit more with which to identify.

“The reason Miller’s mass of fans follow him is not because of his music, at least not completely,” wrote Pitchfork’s Jordan Sargent. “It’s because he looks just like them, because they can see themselves up on the stage behind him, if not next to him.”

Detractors dismiss Miller’s work as “frat rap,” pointing out that Miller’s subject matter rarely ventures beyond telling tales of teenage debauchery. The young rapper, they contend, spends too much time chronicling his herbal indulgences. Miller’s defense, as explained to audiences at his shows, is that he’s simply being honest: “I just so happen to smoke a lot of weed!”

That same what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude pervades Miller’s videos, which he makes with the help of pal and director Ian Wolfson. Far from glitz and glamor of a traditional hip-hop video, his tend to find glory in the mundane–take the video for “Frick Park Market,” which starts out in the aforementioned deli with Miller placing an order for a turkey sandwich.

“I always thought I’d look corny in the type of rap video in the club with girls and all that type of stuff,” says Miller. “I just didn’t think I could really pull that off. We always think it’s more fun and better just to go outside the box and to use our videos to show cool concepts.”

It seems unlikely that he’d be given the same creative freedom if he signed with a major (think of the feathers that might have been ruffled on a record company’s legal team by the idea of releasing a song called “Donald Trump”). There’s no reason Miller can’t keep making videos on his own—many of his earlier cuts cost less than $1,000 to put together.

Even  the newer ones are cheap. “Party on 5th Ave,” a generalized celebration that involves motorized scooters and wigs, clocked in below $10,000, about one-tenth the cost of a typical big-budget video. It’s unclear whether a major would be able to give him a platform bigger than the one he’s already created for himself using little more than a computer, a video camera and his brain.

For his part, Miller says he’s not philosophically opposed to the idea of being involved with a major record label, and realizes that there are advantages.

“We’ve done something that’s historical independently,” says Miller, who’s already been contacted by multiple major labels. “If I reach a point where there’s things I can’t do—we haven’t reached that point yet—but if I ever reach a point where there’s something I can’t do and I need some help from a major, who knows.”

It doesn’t seem Miller will need that kind of help anytime soon, though. He’s already a teenage millionaire, and given his ambitious touring plans, he could earn $10 million in 2012.
A few more years like that, and Miller shouldn’t have any trouble affording a Salvador Dali painting of his very own.