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Mac Miller hits No. 1 without help from radio or a major label

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How did Mac Miller do it?

It seems improbable, but the party-all-the-time Jewish rapper from Pittsburgh found himself at the top of the Billboard 200 on Nov. 16, without a radio hit, and more important, without a major-label machine there to take the credit. Miller, 19, sold 144,000 copies of his debut album, "Blue Slide Park," making him the first independent artist to claim the top spot since 1995.

He's not a protege of a superstar, nor have any of "Blue Slide Park's" songs charted. He's not hawking the latest cell phone. He doesn't have a famous girlfriend. Even his skills on the mic are passable at best. Yet here he is, a teenager working with hometown friends, producers and Pittsburgh's independent record label Rostrum Records, all while forcing the music industry to take notice. In two years, he can celebrate by legally buying a beer.

Miller, who plays the Fillmore in Silver Spring Thursday, will likely be scrutinized for years to come, not just for his music but also for his business model. He's living proof that in the Internet age, success can come directly to the artist, no major-label push or hot radio single required. When I brought up Miller to Vernon Kelson, 92Q's program director, he said he's "not 100% familiar with him."

Baltimore's Top 40 station, Z104.3, showcased Miller as a new artist to watch on its website but he's yet to break into its rotation.

"Because he's an independent artist, it's harder for [his representatives] to pry their way into mainstream radio stations," says Mick Lee, Z104.3's program director.

So really, how did he do it? It's a complicated example of the stars aligning for a goofy-go-lucky kid, but here's a breakdown of Mac Miller's success in five easy steps.

Party hard

During a time when LMFAO can string together hit after hit, all from a CD titled "Sorry for Party Rocking," it's obvious pop music is the preferred route to escape life's problems — an economy digging itself out of a recession, high unemployment and the more typical wrinkles life throws one's way. This isn't a new concept, but turn the radio on and you'll be bludgeoned with four-on-the-floor thumps begging for dancing and the typically vacuous lyrics telling listeners to "just have a good time."

This attitude permeates "Blue Slide Park." Miller recently broke down the album, track-by-track, for Billboard and offered straightforward reasoning for many of the cuts: "It's a crazy, hyped party song" ("Up All Night"), "I love that song because it embodies the concept of the album which is just fun and full of energy" ("Frick Park Market") and "that song feels so good to perform" ("Smile Back").

The more time you spend with Miller's music, the more you realize he's the fun-loving, carefree party-starter determined to hold everyone's ankles during keg stands. If you've met a college freshman more concerned with beer and weed than exams and papers, then you've met Mac Miller. He puts it best on "Up All Night": "Life's so good, please enjoy it / End of every night when your head's in the toilet / Yeah we party hard, give a f--- about employment."

Establish Internet presence

Miller's success becomes clearer when you look closely at his Internet stats: Twitter followers? 1,251,280 as of Monday. Facebook "Likes"? 1,556,829. YouTube channel views? More than 176 million. (Watch the video for "Donald Trump" below. Warning: Some of the language is not safe for work.)

He reminds fans of their talkative buddy from class, often tweeting about Steelers wins, mall trips and movies he's watching (Miller watched "Full Metal Jacket" for the first time last Thursday). His persona is Everydude, and whether you think it's immature or genius, it seems genuine, a characteristic that will always draw fans.

Miller has particularly utilized YouTube since he became serious about rapping. Early on, he teamed with Rex Arrow Films, a like-minded production company that has followed his every step — from 2009's mixtape "The High Life" until now. They've produced high-quality videos for Miller's mixtape tracks and day-in-the-life style short films. The Mac Miller aesthetic — pothead, prankster, perpetually hung over and loving it — has been cultivated through the Rex Arrow team's HD lens.

Score a viral hit

Before "Blue Slide Park," there was "Donald Trump." The single from Miller's 2011 mixtape "Best Day Ever" was the rapper's first entry into the Billboard Hot 100. It peaked at No. 80 in June, thanks to a house-party video, a knocking beat, an earworm hook and, yes, even a seal of approval from the Donald himself.

"This kid in the new Eminem," says Trump in the "From the Desk of Donald Trump" YouTube clip.

Eminem? Not quite. In just about every hip-hop category — lyrics, flow, creativity, substance — Slim Shady outshines the new kid. But to grab the attention of Trump through a mixtape single shows Miller is no slouch either. "Take over the world when I'm on my Donald Trump s--- / Look at all this money, ain't that some s---," he raps.

Tour, tour, tour

Ask any artist where the money comes from in 2011 and the answer is the road. Despite "Blue Slide Park's" second week sales dropping 83 percent, the fourth largest fall from No. 1 in 20 years according to The New York Times, Miller will likely have no problems paying his bills.

Miller has spent the past two years touring relentlessly. He began as the opening act on his friend Wiz Khalifa's "Waken Baken" tour in 2010. The warm receptions and Miller's rising profile led to his first headlining trek, the "Incredibly Dope Tour." He frequented the Baltimore area, supporting Khalifa at Pier Six Pavilion and Merriweather Post Pavilion this past summer.

I watched Miller's set at Rams Head Live last December from the balcony. It was Wiz's show but the audience erupted once Miller hit the stage. A small woman, at least 20 years older than crowd's average age, introduced herself as Mac's mother, Mrs. McCormick. Standing next to her other son, a recent Penn State graduate, Mac's mother seemed surprised at the hold her son had on the crowd. "He's the next big thing," I told her as a stranger next to me nodded in agreement. "Really?" she asked. She had no idea then, but probably understands now.

After "Blue Slide Park's" success, Miller could have chosen to open up for a radio-tested pop act or a hip-hop superstar, but he's decided to bet on his own headlining tour once again. It appears to be paying off: Thursday's Fillmore Silver Spring show is sold out.

Learn from others

Remember Asher Roth? He's the white rapper who signed to SRC/Universal Motown and released the disappointing flop "Asleep in the Bread Aisle." His innocuous hit, "I Love College," is now a punchline in the songs-to-forget canon.

There are plenty of parallels to draw between Roth and Miller — both MCs love a good time, can rap well enough and appeal to the university set. But Miller is the shrewder businessman, taking the unconventional path to stardom.

Both artists were subjects to major-label bidding wars, but Miller was informed by Roth's mistakes. He watched Roth find initial success with a gimmicky single only to watch the label give up after the hype died down. Wisely, Miller stuck to his plan of selling himself as a normal teen, making low-stakes songs about partying that had just enough edge to never appear corny to suburbs.

Ironically, it's now Roth watching Miller.

The week "Blue Slide Park" debuted at No. 1, the first relevant Asher Roth news emerged in a long time: Je had signed to Def Jam Records for a chance at a do-over. It's a classic case of a major label attempting to strike while the iron is white hot.

wesley@bthesite.com
twitter.com/louder_now

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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