By Shannon Carlin
Twenty years ago, Lisa Loeb became the first independent artist to take the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with her song “Stay (I Missed You)” featured on the soundtrack to 1994’s Reality Bites. It would be another 19 years before another indie act would top that same chart — a little rapper from Seattle named Macklemore with a song called “Thrift Shop.” But when Radio.com caught up with Loeb recently she was quick to question this idea of independence, explaining that even though she wasn’t signed to a label back then, everything she accomplished was done with a little help from the right people.
“Doing it completely by yourself is just impossible,” she said over the phone. “I mean, I made the music I wanted to make…But my song ‘Stay’ was on a soundtrack on a major label. We had the support of the radio department, who were really into the song.”
Loeb says that radio promotion was probably the sole reason her song became such a hit. In 1994, artists were still selling cassette tapes at the merch table and without the luxury of the internet had to rely on extensive touring to get their name out there. If you were lucky, you’d get the backing of a label who could throw a little money your way and help you get your feet off the ground by getting your song on radio stations across the country. It was an approach that worked faster (and cheaper) for struggling artists than relying on word of mouth. Though, Loeb does have a fan named Ethan Hawke to thank for getting her song out there to begin with. He was the one who gave Reality Bites director, Ben Stiller a copy of the song.
When Loeb was first starting out —she was just 26 when “Stay” went to No. 1— she scoured New York City for affordable studios where she could record her music. She was spending months on the road so she could sell a few CDs each night and hopefully build up an audience. But even though she’s now an artist who’s recorded nine studio albums for numerous different labels on a budget that is a good bit bigger than what it was back then, she still considers herself to be an independent artist. Mainly because as Loeb changed, so did the definition of “indie.” Now it’s not really about what label you’re signed to, but how original your sound is. “I stick to my guns and know what I want my music to sound like,” she said. “I’m pretty opinionated about all that.”