Will Raye’s Brits Record Be Instrumental For Independent Music?

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Raye, born Rachel Keen, made history on 2nd March in London’s O2 Arena. It was the 2024 Brit Awards – a huge night for British music. The arena was packed with both music fans and A-list celebrities, eagerly waiting to see who would take home the coveted trophies. It’s the dream of any British artist to win just one of these awards. After all, they celebrate excellence in both British and international music; who wouldn’t want that kind of acclaim?

Never mind just one award, Raye took home six of the trophies. The top prizes of British Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Artist of the Year as well as Best New Artist, Best R&B Act and Songwriter of the Year were all awarded to the unsuspecting artist. In fact, the only nominations she lost were Best Pop Act (awarded to Dua Lipa) and Song of the Year (to her own song, ‘Escapism’). The incredible feat of six wins made Raye the most awarded artist in one night. It smashed the previous record of four trophies, jointly held by Blur, Adele and Harry Styles.

The journey to success was not an easy or direct one for Raye. Clara Amfo, the first radio DJ to play Raye live on air, put it nicely during the Brits ceremony: Raye shows “there is no such thing as an overnight success”. Her tumultuous path to stardom has been one of perseverance and graft.

Raye signed to the record label Polydor in 2014 with a deal promising four albums. Yet, seven years later, the singer hadn’t released even one album despite having “albums on albums of music sat in folders collecting dust” she revealed in a tweet on June 29th 2021. Instead, much of this music had to be given away to artists who were, at the time, more established. Raye’s songwriting credits are definitely an achievement in their own right. The likes of Beyoncé, Charli XCX, Rita Ora and Little Mix all have songs penned by the artist.

On top of being a booked songwriter, Raye was featured on the songs of established DJs producing hit after hit. In 2016, ‘You Don’t Know Me’ by Jax Jones was her first hit as a featured artist. The song peaked at #3 on the UK charts. Later, she was on tracks like ‘Secrets’ (with Regard) and ‘BED’ (with Joel Corry and David Guetta). These both peaked at #6 and #3 respectively in the UK. Her success was undeniable but still she was kept on the sidelines. Her series of tweets show that her label used her talent to churn out hits for other artists instead of allowing her to shine on her own. In her words, she was “sick of being slept on”.

Though their decisions aren’t necessarily just when Raye wanted her own journey, Polydor can be defended as a similar strategy was used on the likes of Becky Hill and Mabel. Feature on the work of other artists before releasing your own music. If it’s a proven formula for success, why change it? However, they did, to their credit, release Raye from her deal when she expressed unhappiness with the situation.

After Raye and Polydor parted ways, Raye became independent. This allowed her to finally put together the album she had waited so long for. She released the lead single of her debut album, ‘Escapism’, on October 12th 2022. It became the singer-songwriter’s first number one hit and is a 2x platinum certified single in the UK. Her debut album, My 21st Century Blues, was finally released through the artist distribution and services company Human Re-Sources. Upon its release in 2023, the album was met with acclaim from both critics and fans alike. The album reached #2 on the UK charts and is currently certified silver. This is the album that made Brits history.

Though Raye was able to show success independently, the majority successful albums tend to have the backing of major record labels. The two winners of British Album of the Year at the Brits before Raye were Harry’s House by Harry Styles and 30 by Adele. Both of these had the backing of Columbia Records. Yet, saying either of those would need to rely on a label is doubtful. For example, Harry Styles was able to garner his success on The X Factor. They are both incredibly respected and established in their own right. But, an up-coming artist who no one knows, like Raye all of those years ago, would need this backing.

The majority of aspiring artists would not be able to afford the heavy costs that come with producing an entire album. Investing in studio time, engineers, marketing, video content and everything else it takes to develop a body of work requires deep pockets. When a label signs someone, they see potential and are willing to invest in them. This allows an artist to create work with minimal cost to them and the label regains their costs by taking a portion of the money generated by the artist’s work.

Labels have a lot of influence over an artist. They can seem make-or-break for them, especially at the start of their careers. This power can lead to labels restricting the creative freedom of artists. For example, in 2022, Halsey exposed her record label for refusing to release a song which she wanted to put out. A musician’s music is their art and they should be able to release the art they want. The issue is they cannot. Labels often own the art by owning the master recordings which limits what an artist can do with their music. Taylor Swift was notoriously denied ownership of her masters, leading to her commencing the project of rerecording her entire back catalogue.

Could Raye’s achievement lead to a shift in the industry?

Upcoming artists also have more opportunities now to market themselves. Social platforms like TikTok are allowing artists to use virality to build audiences. Posting a video with your song is an easy way to get lots of people exposed to it and a label’s backing is not needed for this. PinkPantheress achieved viral status when she posted a snippet of her song ‘Just a Waste’. Following this, her songs ‘Break It Off’ and ‘Pain’ went equally viral in 2021. She did then sign to Parlophone Records but, evidently, she could have achieved a career without the label via TikTok.

Raye has proven that needing a record label is no longer necessary for a successful album release. Many established artists are choosing an independent route. Paramore recently announced their decision to become an independent group. There are many artists opting for this independent route, for example Ella Eyre has recently started to release music independently. Predatory contracts within the music industry are becoming exposed, they give minimal control to the artists. So, why would an artist want to be signed to them?

Raye’s candid lyricism exposes the current state of the music industry. On ‘Hard Out Here.’, she sings “All the white men CEO’s, fuck your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth”. It’s time to stand up to imbalances in the music industry, and Raye is undoubtedly a trailblazer for this. “There is no wrath like a woman scorned” she also sings on ‘Hard Out Here.’

It will be interesting to observe how the musical landscape changes because of these influences. Artists might choose an independent route and release music of their own accord thanks to easier access to audiences. Having witnessed the power of letting artists like RAYE make the music they want to make, hopefully labels will see the value in allowing artists to have creative freedom and let signed acts take their career in the direction they desire.

Though there are many artists who are paving the way for these changes, Raye is definitely an artist at the forefront of this change. Her outspoken social posts, honest lyricism and incredible achievements certainly pave the way for future generations of artists to take an independent route. We are potentially experiencing a revolution in the music industry. One which could shift power dynamics for the better.

Words by Connor Franks


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