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What’s it like for musicians whose labels won’t release their music?

Pop star Raye publicly called out Polydor for holding back her debut album, and she’s not the first to voice frustrations at detrimental deals, from Charli XCX to Tinashe and Fifth Harmony

“I’m done being a polite pop star,” Raye posted in a now-infamous tweet last week. In a series of statements, along with a heartbreaking photo of herself in tears, the singer-songwriter outlined ongoing issues with her label, Polydor, who she claims have held back her debut album from release. “For the last seven days I have woken up crying my eyes out, not wanting to get out of bed and feeling so alone,” she wrote. It was an upsetting insight into the inner workings of an industry that the average music fan doesn’t normally get to see, and one that certainly doesn’t mirror the upbeat, effervescent feel of her music.

Raye explained that since 2014 she has been on a four-album contract with the label, which is owned by Universal Music Group – meaning it’s been a whole seven years that she’s been unable to release a full-length record. It’s hard to think of many more accomplished British pop songwriters right now as Raye. She has written songs for Beyoncé, Charli XCX, and David Guetta. Her Discogs page is littered with credits. She received a BRIT Award nomination earlier this year. Her highest-streaming single has over 250 million plays on Spotify.

“I’ve done everything they asked me, I switched genres, I worked seven days a week, ask anyone in the music game, they know,” she pleaded, explaining how her debut album won’t be released until her latest single, “Call On Me”, achieves success. She claims to have “albums on albums of music sat in folders collecting dust,” which she is now giving away to other “A-list artists” as she awaits the green light from the label.

According to Pete Bott, a partner at media law firm Sound Advice LLP, this is “a very sad and frustrating example of an artist being unable to release their art due to the label being unwilling to make this happen”. “I’m very pro-artist and hate to see this happen,” he tells Dazed. This type of thing is more likely to happen at a major label, Bott explains, due to their “size, ideologies, and usual ways of doing business. It can happen at indies too, though. Generally, it’s caused by the change of individuals at the labels who have responsibility for the project or simply a breakdown in relations between artist, manager, and label”.

Following the news, and an outpouring of support for Raye, a Polydor spokesperson told NME: “We were saddened to read Raye’s tweets last night and have reached out to her management team to discuss and offer our full support.” But sadly, Raye’s experience is not isolated – Tinashe, Azealia Banks, Fifth Harmony, JoJo, Normani, and Dawn Richard are all artists who have either endured unfriendly contracts or resorted to alternative releasing methods to avoid these pitfalls. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that all these artists are women, and largely non-white, either.

Speaking to Hot Press earlier this year, Raye said that she’d met a lot of female producers who “have stopped making music because they felt either totally dismissed or harassed, and it’s really awful. It’s a constant struggle for women, even in 2021. We’re doing a lot of incredible things in front of the camera. Women are levelled up as equals in the media, making it seem like all of these amazing changes are happening, but behind the scenes, it’s still so tough”. In a show of support for Raye, MNEK said he was ”very very tired of this industry clipping the wings of talented people of colour and driving them to lose confidence in what got them here in the first place”.

Shura is another musician who took to Twitter to talk about her experiences of being signed, saying: “I get my masters back from Universal in the next ten years. My indie label will continue to own my record after I'm dead. It’s not as simple as major versus indie.” “At least Polydor never made me pay for my own PR,” she added with a cry-laughing emoji.

Bott believes that “this kind of thing is common in the industry and it has only been made worse by COVID. Artists are generally signed by individuals at labels who are fans of the artist and have a shared vision with the artist as to how the project will roll out. If those key individuals leave the label, change position, or lose enthusiasm for the project, then the artist may find themselves slipping down the priority list”.

He thinks the situation with Raye may be a bit more complicated, though. “It probably involves artistic differences, budgets, and timing of releases. I’m definitely not one to side with a major label on this issue, but for balance, I think it’s worth remembering that she has had many releases over the last few years including successful, high-profile collaborations, and solo releases (including a nine-track EP in November last year). I certainly think, though, that her posts have highlighted a serious issue which is very worthy of discussion.”

In an interview with BBC Newsbeat, Raye said: ”Knowing what I know now, I would not have put pen to paper on a full album record deal.” So what advice does Bott have for artists who are about to sign a contract? “Where to start!” he says, emphasising the importance of having “good management and other representation to help guide them into the right deals and then make sure the artist remains a priority with the label”. He also stresses that an artist’s lawyer should negotiate the ‘release commitment’ clauses carefully, as these “ensure that the label has an obligation to release music within a certain time of delivery and back it up with proper marketing campaigns”.

He continues: “You also have to look carefully at clauses concerning the recording process and approvals (such as studio, producer, songs to be recorded, etc.) as well as relevant budgets. If things still break down, then it’s so important to deal with it quickly and pragmatically as no artist should be in a position where the relationship with their label is frustrating their art and damaging their mental health.”

“No artist should be in a position where the relationship with their label is frustrating their art and damaging their mental health” – Pete Bott, media lawyer

There’s no doubt that this situation has affected Raye mentally, and possibly has been for quite some time. “I’m sick of being slept on and I’m sick of being in pain about it, this is not business to me – this is personal,” she said. A few days later, Raye announced that she would be leaving social media: “I just don’t have the strength to promote this record right now. I am leaving for a while, and I’m leaving my phone behind.”

Along with Rina Sawayama and MNEK, Charli XCX tweeted in support of Raye, advising her to “make the entire thing, artwork/font/music/everything. Tell them to pay everyone and scream at them until they release it. If you played nice, then get mean, because you have hits and you’re a great artist and they work for you, not the other way around”.

After putting the label on blast, Raye took to Instagram to preview tracks from her would-be album to fans, treating them to tracks including “Fantastic” and “Buss It Down”, and a petition has newly been launched to see the release of the record. Clearly grateful for the support from fans, Raye wrote: “I’m really glad I spoke out today… you have made me feel heard.” Regardless of what happens, taking control of the narrative around her art is hopefully the first step towards getting what Raye deserves.