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Raye against the machine

The last time I saw Raye play was in the ballroom at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane. This was mid-May, and the singer was accepting the prize for Best Contemporary Song at the Ivor Novello Awards. She sat alone at a grand piano to perform “Escapism”, the song a judging panel made up of her songwriting peers had described as “daring, brave and empowering” and which she played, then, with a kind of languorous fury. Afterwards, the room took to its feet and cheered.

At this year’s Brit Awards, Raye won again. Six times. She racked up the titles for best album, best song, best artist and best new artist. She beat previous tallies by Adele, Harry Styles and Blur, became the first winner of the new R‘n’B category and the first woman to win songwriter of the year. To put her victory in greater context, Raye achieved these six wins without major record label support, releasing her debut album My 21st Century Blues independently. “The artist I was three years ago would not believe I’m in control,” she said in one of her many acceptance speeches. “I’m my own boss.”

The music industry is strewn with tales of artist maltreatment (regular readers may recall that only last month we discussed the case of Rebecca Ferguson and the parliamentary report into racism and misogyny). But even by the industry’s own standards, Raye’s backstory is shocking. She is 26 now, young still even by pop’s measure, but already she has spent close to a decade trapped in a riddle set by her record label, Polydor: a four-album deal in which she was never actually allowed to release an album.

Only when the singer vented on social media did anything change. It was the summer of 2021, and Raye was some way into promoting her latest single, “Call On Me”, when she decided to inform her considerable Twitter following of the “music sat in folders collecting dust”, the songs she had written that were passed to other artists to record, and the fact that she was “done being a polite popstar”.

The following month, Raye was freed from her contract. Eighteen months later she put out “Escapism”, a track her former label deemed uncommercial, but that now bloomed on TikTok. The song duly went to number one and achieved multi-platinum sales across the UK, Europe and the US. As the music business reporter Eamonn Forde tweeted in the wake of Raye’s Brits triumph: “Fucking LOLLE at Polydor’s label meeting on Monday morning.”

Raye achieved six Brit awards without major record label support

It seems remarkable that so many record labels continue to get things so wrong; that they have failed to take the creative temperature; that, perversely, they have been so tone deaf. When Raye won her Ivor Novello award last year, she used her acceptance speech wisely: “It would be an insult to suggest that you go to work for free,” she told an audience largely made up of music executives. “And it’s an insult that you think songwriters should do the same.” Accepting one of her Brits, she did the same: “I think we need to have a conversation,” she said. “I want to normalise giving songwriters master royalty points… it just means that if the song wins big, then the writers get to win big too.”

It’s hard to unravel the intricacies of record and publishing deals, and harder still for many to conjure much sympathy for artists whose lives seem so much more glamorous than our own. But the truth about where the money goes in the music world is dispiriting. Raye, who has written for Beyoncé, John Legend, and Charli XCX, among others, was referencing the industry “points” scheme, in which writers of big hits often see very little percentage recompense when a song does well. Instead, the rewards are spread out, with the lion’s share taken by the record label. Perhaps the starkest way to explain this is via the findings of a 2018 study by CitiBank, which showed that of all the money generated by music the previous year – some $43 billion, just 12 per cent went to artists.

My 21st Century Blues was about many things – addiction, body dysmorphia, sexual assault and the rage Raye felt towards the industry that restrained her. More than anything its recurrent theme seemed to be insecurity: a dark anxiety flickering beneath its songs, from “Hard Out Here” to “Black Mascara”, “Flip a Switch” to “Five Star Hotels”. Escapism had it in abundance, telling the tale of a spurned woman self-medicating with drink and sex and drugs. In its TikTok-conquering incarnation the track was sped up to jittering pace, the singer’s vocal high and half-strangled, in want of air.

Ostensibly it was a story of romantic rejection, but it wasn’t hard to think that the “heartbroke bitch” of its lyrics might just as easily be Raye, reeling from another record company brush-off and trying to numb the hurt. That what we might praise for being daring and brave and empowering is actually a workaday tale of simple economics and the value we place on the art that sustains us.

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book “Sad Songs” is out now

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April 2024, Arts & Culture, Music

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