"I'm Done Being a Polite Pop Star": Raye, Olivia O'Brien, Julia Michaels, and More Pull Back The Curtain on a Rocky Music Industry Road
"Hey my dears, so for the last 7 days I have woken up crying my eyes out, not wanting to get out of bed and feeling so alone... I wanted to talk about it today," Raye began a series of tweets that opened a floodgate on June 29th, 2021. In the thread that followed, the British singer-songwriter and electronic artist began to explain the situation she found herself stuck in with her label.
Having been signed to Polydor Records (a subset of UMG) since 2014, Raye shared that she's collected folder after folder of songs and eventually had to give them away to other artists because her label wouldn't deem her "good enough" to release an album. After explaining that the label has yet to release the funding necessary to actually finish these songs and create an album she added, "I have waited 7 years for this day, and I am still waiting".
As the thread continued, she revealed that she signed a 4 album deal with the company originally, and now the chance to make her debut album was dependent on how well her latest single "Call on Me" performed. Even after switching genres and putting in constant work to her music, they still didn't see the value in her as an artist, she outlined, but they still keep her confined in this 7 year old deal.
Playing nice and conforming to the rules of the game didn't seem to be working, so Raye decided to speak to her 52,700 Twitter followers to try to incite a change.
"I'm done being a polite pop star," she stated. And this seems to be a sentiment swelling around the music industry as more artists come forward revealing the failings, toxicity, and road blocks put in their way by their labels. Like Raye, all of these artists just want to share their art with the world and be properly supported in that. While there is a landmine of potential consequences for speaking out, more artists are finding their voices and realizing the power of their platform of dedicated fans to drive change.
Olivia O'Brien became the next pop star to drop the curtain between the music industry and her audience of confused fans. Olivia recently released the first half of her album Episodes, which was intended to be a two part album dropped in quick succession. Though Olivia made a couple VEVO live performances of her new songs and spoke to a handful of podcasts like The Zach Sang Show and Chicks in the Office, her album largely disappeared from the conversation a week or so after its release. It hasn't garnered nearly the attention of her pre-pandemic sleeper hit "Josslyn". The lack of buzz around the first half of Episodes and no release date for the second installment lead fans to start asking questions.
Olivia has always been an outspoken artists, and she'd previously hinted at frustrations with her label in the past as they pushed the 50th remix of "Josslyn" while delaying (and later cancelling) the rest of her micro mixtape series she'd started dropping not long before the pandemic ended her touring and Coachella plans. Even with this new album, she's vented about how strange it is to sit on songs for years and years, unable to release them when they still feel relevant to her life.
Still, Olivia's candid announcement to fans to TikTok felt surprisingly honest and like it could possibly land her in hot water. Olivia responded to a fan comment about a week ago that read "bae where's part 2 of the album". She told fans that all the songs for part 2 are done, everything is mixed, mastered, and finished, and she's anxious to release it as planned this summer. She went on to reveal that her label (Island Records) is in a "transitional period", and until they sort out the situation with the label heads she's left to promote and market her own records. This is interesting as Variety mentions that many of Islands functions are farmed out to other UMG umbrella labels like Republic. "As an artist signed to a major label, I rely on them for all of that, so it's just kind of a shitty situation right now for me because I don't have that tool and that help and that support," she shared. Olivia did preface these statements by saying that this isn't anyone's fault. But the lack of continual support for artists is telling. She even added that if she'd known before, she probably wouldn't have release the first half of her album. She closed the video with, "I hope you guys can bear with me."
This insight from Olivia, as many music industry analysts on TikTok have pointed out, is enlightening when it comes to other Island artists as well. Nick Jonas released an album into relative silence similar to Shawn Mendes, and Sabrina Carpenter hasn't followed up her most successful single yet, "Skin". Fans of these artists have likely wondered about all of these instances, but the usual closed door policy of the music industry has likely left them in the dark.
Though Olivia risked frustrating some at the label with her honesty, she keeps up the trend of Gen-Z artists' strength lying in their use of the internet and connection with fans. Artists are more accessible than ever, and fans crave transparency from their faves. While it might be frustrating to wait for more music, especially music that was promised around a certain time, fans are generally super understanding when they're offered a peak behind the curtain.
The internet has increased access to artists, and it's also increased fan awareness of how the industry functions, where artists are placing on charts, and the necessary marketing efforts involved to get there. Fandoms often mass critique artists' management or labels when they feel like their favorite artist isn't getting the attention or marketing dollars they deserve. And fans aren't afraid to ask about situations that don't strike them as quite right.
On a similar thread, Julia Michaels picked up the transparency torch yesterday while chatting with fans on Twitter. Julia is a huge name in the pop music industry, originally getting her start as a force in pop songwriting with hits like "Good for You" for Selena Gomez, "Close" with Nick Jonas and Tove Lo, "Dive" with Ed Sheeran, and "Sorry" for Justin Bieber. While she still spends much of her time songwriting for others (she recently scored a writing credit on Conan Gray's new song "People Watching"), she also has a career as an artist in her own right with other 20 million monthly Spotify listeners after taking off with her runaway hit "Issues" in 2017.
Julia recently released her debut album after dropping a series of EPs in the last couple years. Not In Chronological Order released on April 30th without much buzz and became her lowest charting project yet, despite being primed with many potential Billboard pop hits. In the ensuing months, the album has all but faded from the public conscience, and even as tour schedules fill the map, there still isn't a plan for Julia hitting the road to promote it yet. The dedicated Gems had plenty of questions, and yesterday, July 24th, Julia offered answers to her 246,500 Twitter followers.
A fan tweeted at her asking, "why NICO dont [sic] have the promo that deserves?". At first, Julia replied with a half joke, "Pick a song and blow it the fuck up for me," adding a string of thumbs up and crying emojis to the end. She went on to explain further, quote-tweeting the original question. Julia said that she'd been told if the album doesn't have a "streaming story" (which I would assume means a combination of high presaves, a highly streamed single, and traction on Spotify playlists) or a TikTok trend, then the label doesn't see any value in further promoting the album. She added her album has been referred to as "basically obsolete", and she doesn't see a way to change that since, "I have the personality of a swordfish". Even when discussing labels not doing their jobs, Julia always carries around her trademark self-depicting humor.
This frustration is likely even more acute for an artist like Julia who have a much higher number of monthly streams than her follower counts on social media would lead you to believe. Additionally, many artists, like Olivia noted specifically, see the value of being signed to a major label in not having to beg people on TikTok to like your song.
The music industry continues displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of how TikTok works and the ways it is actually useful. It warrants another essay in itself, but the root of the issue is that TikTok actively rejects trends that are fed to them. TikTok trends happen organically, and the more you try to force them, the harder the app seems to push back. Take Julia's case. She has a song that's starting to blow up on TikTok right now, but it's simply not the right one. Instead of a song from NICO, people are loving her collab from her EP Inner Monologue called "What a Time" with Niall Horan. The song is a couple years old at this point, and organically connected with an audience recently that felt inspired to make content around the song. A similar example is Conan Gray's song "Heather" which became a sleeper hit months after its release when people used the sound to share sad stories about being the second choice. The song wasn't even a single when it caught on. It was just relatable.
Using TikTok as a metric for releasing promo efforts just creates a constant losing cycle, especially for newer artists who just signed. While TikTok is great for bringing visibility to artists just starting out and unsigned, when it becomes a benchmark for artists on labels, it's only a detriment. Even if their sound does blow up, few TikTok users will remember more than the 15 seconds of the song, let alone form a bond with the artist that will last for years.
Julia continued sharing about this reality for artists and how labels are really only interested in sure bets. In response to a highly relatable fan who replied "IM SORRY WHAT? IM SO MAD RIGHT NOW," Julia went on to explain how her situation isn't unique. "Unfortunately this is the case 4 many artists on a lot of major labels. If you don’t already have over 25M followers on social media platforms or have a super outspoken personality to drive it.. your basically in artistry limbo," she wrote.
Nowadays, it takes a large platform to get signed in the first place and an even larger platform to receive support, largely defeating many of the past benefits to signing to a major label. While some artists thrive on social media (see Lil Nas X), other artists find it detrimental to their actual creative process and their ability to make music. Social media and fan connection is important, but it should never take precedent over the music, and as Julia and Raye points out, mosts artists just want to release music that their fans love.
Of course, this news led many fans to suggest she change labels and get away from Republic. Julia continued to educate her fans on one of the more sinister feeling aspects of record deals. "I'd have to be dropped from my label or fulfill a lifetime of album commitments. It's not that simple hahahaha," she wrote back. While she keeps her tone casual, she points to a very real issue.
Recording contracts are always structured in the favor of the label, and many artists agree to compromising terms for what they see as a chance at their dreams. Most record deals involve signing for a certain number of albums or songs or even for a specific time period along with additional options to further extend the period of the deal if the label chooses. This allows the label to take on very little risk and have a high possibility for reward. They might sign an artist for a single album, a year, or in Raye's case four albums (but as we saw with Raye, these contracted albums' releases are highly dependent on choices made within the label). Then, when you've fulfilled the terms of the deal, the label will often have the option to order more albums or drop the artist from their contract. When there are options in the contract, the artist doesn't get much say in continuing with the label, even if they feel it isn't a good fit.
One easy example to illustrate that is Taylor Swift. She signed a deal with Big Machine when she was 15 and released her debut album at 16. Taylor wasn't free to renegotiate her contract or seek a different record label until her seventh album, Reputation, released when she was 27. And Taylor is a highly unique case seeing that she released 7 albums at a relatively quick pace and only became more relevant with each album. For most artists, as Julia said, this number of options could be an artistic "lifetime", and when there's little support, it's hard to find the motivation to continue working on music.
Julia is signed to Republic Records, and her tweets answered many questions that had been swirling around my head about some odd choices and lack of promotion for other artists on Republic. But Sasha Sloan chimed in to prove just how widespread the issue is. "I feel you," Sasha replied with a tearful emoji at the end. While all 3 examples in the story thus far come from artists signed to labels under the UMG umbrella, Sasha is an RCA artist, a label under Sony Music Group. It is extremely disheartening to see just how widespread of an issue the pressure for social media performance is becoming.
So where does everyone go from here? As with most major problems, there isn't a clear solution. The issue is far too widespread for individual fixes to create much impact.
For Raye, her fans rallied around her, and they pushed her single up to number 20 on the UK iTunes chart by the next day. This wasn't enough to resolve the nearly decade long issue, but the attention and support her tweets got did create an opening for her to be released from her contract. She became an independent artist on July 19th, releasing a flattering statement about Polydor with her announcement they were parting ways. Though this is a huge win for Raye, the road as an independent artist is also a difficult one as everything has to be self-funded and self-supported. Still, freedom will definitely help morale.
For the Island Records artists, including Olivia, their situations will hopefully improve when the transition is completed sometime this winter or so. Her situation, though, shows that even in a good position at a major label, your records can go unpromoted, and a lack of communication can doom art that could've otherwise had a fighting chance for major artists and emerging ones alike. And as Olivia emphasized in her TikTok video, she wasn't going to release an album that had to be solely driven and supported by TikTok, because that isn't a fair chance.
And artists like Julia and Sasha, lyrical geniuses with small but devoted followings and a tentative relationship with the internet, everything remains up in the air. These aren't TikTok artists, and it would be a detriment to them to push in that direction. They both have careers as songwriters outside of being artists, and their personas aren't larger than life and made for easy packaging. Luckily, they do have small but mighty fanbases, and when the Gems found out that Julia needed help, they immediately began organizing to choose a song to try to create a breakthrough. Fans will work their asses off for their favorite artists if they're asked. They just need a call to action.
A later (now deleted) tweet from Julia praising her boyfriend JP Saxe's label Arista for their promotion of their inescapable duet, "If The World Was Ending", proves that your label experience can heavily rest in the luck of where you happen to sign.
Finally, for young artists now rising up through the ranks, major labels aren't the only option for getting their music heard in a major way. Artists like Finneas and Lauv have utilized the distribution service AWAL to scale to pop star levels while retaining full control of their artistic journeys. Yes, this is a path that also requires a command of social media to continue thriving, but that social media sweat equity isn't in the name of earning support that was already promised.
It's heartening to see these artists beginning to bravely speak out, even to simply just inform fans of where the music stands. Open conversations are incredibly important, and awareness is one of the first steps towards making change in an industry very stuck in its ways. Even seeing the number of other artists supporting and replying to Julia's tweets show just how many people in the industry are read to start discussing this change. Each artist discussed today repeatedly emphasized how they just want to create art that will resonate with fans.
Julia closed yesterday's sharing session with, "You guys are the only reason I make music. Y’all have stood by me through so many fucking obstacles in my life. You drive me and push me and make me believe I can do this, even so. I Fucking adore all of you so much." And that's what music is all about.
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