Can Record Labels Really Hold Artists Hostage?

Can Record Labels Really Hold Artists Hostage?

by Katherine Rodgers

"Call On Me" by Raye is a breezy, infectious pop number; the kind of summer jam you can imagine filling up dancefloors, or slotting into a movie scene where two characters breeze down a highway in a convertible. In its music video, the South London popstar smiles brightly for the camera, shimmying her way through a complicated, highly GIF-able dance number, while singing pleasantly platitudinous lyrics.

But behind "Call On Me"s carefree pop vim lies a very different story. Just a few days after releasing the single, Raye posted a widely-circulated series of tweets, in which she outlined the major struggles she'd been going through with her label, Polydor. In the thread, Raye revealed that she has been on a four-record record deal since 2014 but hasn't been able to release a single album; that she has hundreds of songs "collecting dust" in folders; that she has "switched genres and worked seven days a week" in an attempt to appease her label, but has now resorted to "giving away her songs" to A-list artists. "I'm done with being a perfect pop star," Raye pleaded, alongside a heartbreaking photo of herself in tears. "I want to make my album now."

Raye's confession inspired waves of support from other artists, many of whom seemed to be able to sympathize with her plight. Singer-songwriter MNEK tweeted: "v v tired of this industry clipping the wings of talented people of color and driving them to LOSE CONFIDENCE in what got them here in the first place. it's not cool, and something needs to give." In solidarity, Shura tweeted: "I'm so over this being even remotely legal to do to artists." Shura also noted that exploitative practices aren't exclusively a major label problem: "I've signed to a major label. I've signed to an indie. 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… Indie labels are just as capable of sucking big time."

Raye's tweets exposed a whole system of record label bureaucracy that listeners rarely get access to. She refers to "awaiting confirmation that she's good enough to make an album," that the label needs to "release money for fees for producers, mixes, masters and marketing support," and that she wakes up "frantically checking streaming numbers and stats." Apparently, she's been told that if "Call On Me" does well enough, she'll finally be allowed to make her album. To an outside observer, Raye's situation doesn't make a great deal of sense. Why would the record label bother paying to hold an artist hostage?

I asked Jonathan Larr, entertainment attorney at Icarus Law and a former artist manager, to shed some light. He said that Raye's situation isn't something he's seen before: "It defies common sense. Why would a label hold onto an artist that wasn't doing well enough for them to release an album? One way that I can tell that this isn't common is that this situation isn't mentioned in standard major label deal language. Major label contracts can be read as a history of all the ways a label has been screwed by artists in the past, and the contract is their way of making sure this doesn't happen again. The fact that they don't typically mention this situation says that it doesn't happen very often."

Every record deal has a release clause. "That is, if the album is delivered and isn't released within a certain period of time, then the deal can be terminated," Larr explained. The issue here, of course, is that Raye's label wouldn't even release the funds to allow her to begin recording her album. Which meant she was stuck in purgatory.

I asked Larr about Raye's tweets about streaming numbers, which Raye has cited as the reason for the delay to her debut album. What kind of metrics is Raye being held accountable to? Will these have been written into her contract? "I've never seen metrics built into a contract, and I'd be surprised if they would ever be, because it locks the label into specific numbers," he said. "The label will want the freedom to change their mind about how many streams/views are sufficient during the course of a deal." Imagine being locked into a record deal, where your ability to record an album hinges on success metrics which haven't been defined, and are potentially subject to continuous change? It sounds truly nightmarish.

So what recourse do artists have, if they find themselves in this situation? "One solution is a buy-out. The artist can buy out the contract for 115% or so of their advance, and end the contract whenever they want." This is obviously an expensive course of action, and one that may not have been available to Raye. Raye has a four-album deal (meaning her advance was probably pretty significant), and over the course of her seven years at Polydor, she has probably accrued debt to her label through making music videos and studio time. But crucially, Raye hasn't been allowed to make her own album or headline her own live tour, meaning that her opportunities to actually make revenue for her label (and pay off any debts) have probably been quite limited.

The other solution might just be going public. After her tweets went viral, Polydor announced that they have released Raye from her record deal, citing "different artistic goals" as the reason behind the split. While we don't know the exact mechanism which allowed Raye to finally leave her record deal, it's telling that after seven years, revealing her struggles on social media (and the resultant flurry of negative press for Polydor) seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back.

Over recent years, the general public have become increasingly cognisant of the poor treatment artists can receive at the hands of their labels. The groundswell of support around the Free Britney movement, and the recent parliamentary streaming inquiry in the UK (which revealed — amongst other things — that record label splits are more often to blame for an artist's paltry streaming revenue than the streaming services themselves) has contributed to a growing sense of outrage and concern, especially (as MNEK suggested) this poor treatment seems disproportionally imposed on female artists and people of color.

And with a growing number of artists achieving stratospheric success outside of a traditional record label deal — like Chance The Rapper, who managed to snag a Grammy Award without signing to a label, or Frank Ocean, who finessed his way out of his contract with Def Jam Records before going on to sell over a million copies of his 2017 album Blonde — perhaps the days of label dominance are numbered.

Photo via Getty