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Going it alone: why artists are ditching major labels to go independent

Earlier this month, RAYE secured her first UK number one after a very public break with her label. Here, other artists explain why they decided to go it alone.

By Mark Sutherland

Raye (Picture: Callum Walker)

Raye’s recent Number One single was not like other Number One singles.

When the star hit the top of the charts with ‘Escapism (feat. 070 Shake)’ and the Official Charts Company presented her with the trophy to mark the occasion, she burst into tears.

“I’m an independent artist,” she sobbed. “This is proof that [you should] back yourself, no matter what.”

And backing herself is literally what Raye has done. Last year, she publicly called out her major label, Polydor, for refusing to release her debut album, despite signing her to a four-album deal back in 2014.

“I’m sick of being slept on and sick of being in pain about it,” she Tweeted. “This is not business to me, this is so personal.”

To their credit, Polydor – who had used similar long-game tactics to turn Mabel and Becky Hill into stars – released her from the deal. But while, once upon a time, that might have meant the end of Raye’s recording career, she decided to go it alone. Escapism was released via artist/label services company, Human Re-Sources, but has nonetheless become a monster hit. “Money can’t buy where we are right now and that is so exciting,” Raye told Rolling Stone UK earlier this month.

Because, while Raye must have felt pretty alone when she took to social media in the depths of her despair, she is far from on her own when it comes to building a successful career away from the confines of a traditional record deal.

“The video she put out was reminiscent of how I felt when we had a Number One with [2021 album] Suckapunch,” says Josh Franceschi of rockers You Me At Six, whose brilliant new album, Truth Decay, will be their third on their own Underdog label, via services company AWAL (Artists Without A Label). The band previously had stints on a small indie (Slam Dunk), a major (Virgin) and a big indie (BMG).

“There are so many gatekeepers that are still like, ‘If you want success in this industry, [you need] me and our board. And if you’re not in our circle, it ain’t happening for you’. It’s nice when you realise that, actually, if you’re resilient enough, you work hard enough and you’re lucky enough to have a fanbase that will be there with you, you’re only ever one song away from being at the top.”

And these days, everywhere you look, artists are making like B&Q and doing it themselves. DIY distributor TuneCore says its self-releasing artists have earned £2.48 billion since the platform launched in 2006. Central Cee nabbed two 2023 BRITs nominations while dropping tunes through his Live Yours label. Dave and Little Simz have become huge stars without signing a label deal. And even Sugababes put out most recent album The Lost Tapes independently.

“Everyone’s realising the shoddy deals that people are getting,” says Karl ‘Konan’ Wilson of Krept & Konan, whose ace new single, Dat Way, is the first release on their own Play Dirty label (now distributed by Virgin Music Label & Artist Services) since their debut album, after eight successful years on EMI. “Everybody’s realising we don’t need [labels] to validate us anymore, we’re going to get to the fans instantly without the middleman. For the labels, that must be scary, because no one wants to sign a major deal no more…”

In fact, labels still dominate chart success. All of last year’s Top 20 albums came out via traditional major or indie record companies; Dave’s We’re All Alone In This Together was the biggest-selling self-released album, at Number 25.

As far as much of the music industry is concerned, that indicates the label system works perfectly well while, at the same time, there are now plenty of other options for artists that don’t want to fit into its structures.

“In the current market, there is variety and choice in a way there hasn’t been ever before,” says Sophie Jones, chief strategy officer/interim CEO of the BPI, which represents 500 British record companies, including all three majors. “There’s a healthy ecosystem. Different things work for different artists at different stages of their career – it’s not one size fits all.”

Artists certainly have more options than in the pre-digital age, when record deals were the only way to release music and came with multiple strings attached (often involving signing over the rights to your recordings in perpetuity and accepting a royalty rate heavily weighted in favour of the label). But the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee’s recent inquiry into the economics of music streaming showed that fault lines still exist between those releasing the music and those making it. 

While streaming has returned the labels to growth after years of decline, many signed artists struggle to make a living from their records. And self-releasing is one way to take a much greater share of streaming revenues, while retaining the rights to your music and – perhaps most importantly – enjoying total creative control.

“All of the artists that I work with have built loyal fanbases over the years,” says Andy Musgrave, manager of self-releasing star AJ Tracey, amongst others. “They own their rights, consistently put authentic art into the world, are building a catalogue that they own – and they make good money off streaming.”

Musgrave – whose Supernature company also provides label services such as distribution to artists – prefers to talk about artist ‘autonomy’ rather than ‘independence’.

“It’s really about whether the artist is in control of their career and destiny,” he says. “That can be true within a major label deal or outside of it. Stormzy makes the major label system work for him. And Raye is a great example of the major label system <<not>> working for someone.”

Both You Me At Six and Krept & Konan agree that there were plenty of positives – and not just financial ones – about their stints with labels, although Josh Franceschi questions the “pressure” big companies can put on young artists to succeed. And post-streaming inquiry, changes are being made. Deal terms are improving slowly, while all three majors have agreed to pay streaming royalties on pre-2000 contracts, regardless of whether the artist has recouped the original advance. But, with the #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord campaigns calling for a more fundamental reset in how artists get paid, will such modifications be enough to keep labels relevant?

“Having a label can help you,” says Casyo ‘Krept’ Johnson. “There are good A&Rs out there that can help bring the best out of an artist. But a lot of people are realising it’s not impossible to do it yourself.”

Sophie Jones says labels’ contributions to success are “under-appreciated,” citing £494.8 million worth of record company investment in A&R, marketing and promotion in 2021; more than double 2016’s figure. That financial firepower, she says, is crucial in helping artists cut through in 2023’s ultra-competitive streaming landscape.

“Labels are core investors in the creation of new music and the development and nurturing of new talent,” she says. “That is absolutely vital to keep the whole music ecosystem moving.”

Indeed, the majors even have a hand in many ‘independent’ successes – Human Re-Sources and AWAL are ultimately owned by Sony Music, Virgin is part of Universal and Warner has a similar service, ADA. But as the trickle of self-releasing successes threatens to turn into a flood, many believe the labels’ traditional model is in danger of sinking – unless they become much more artist-friendly.

“The success that AJ and I have been fortunate enough to create tells a really important story,” says Andy Musgrave. “But stories like ours in isolation can be written off as a fluke. With every additional artist that manages to create success without these structures, [self-releasing] becomes more credible.”

“I completely understand the value that major labels offer to artists, but there are so many other models that work now,” adds Josh Franceschi. “It’s been a decade since we were last at a major, so I hope a lot has changed. But if that much had changed, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation…”

Raye, at least, seems to have found her happy place. But it remains to be seen if other artists still have more tears left to cry…