Late last year, RAYE scored a colossal comeback story by hitting No.1 on the UK singles chart with Escapism feat. 070 Shake. It was her first chart-topper, eight years into a career that’s seen her hit the Top 40 nine times.
The story (and it is quite a story) continued at the start of 2023 with her debut album, My 21st Century Blues, reaching No. 2 (Shania Twain’s Queen Of Me kept it off the summit by an extremely tight margin) – and receiving pretty much universal critical acclaim.
The album was a source of contention with her former record label, Polydor, from which RAYE split in 2021 after she claimed on social media they had refused to let her release one (despite being signed to a four-album deal since 2014).
In later conversations, she also said she felt confined at the label, pushed into releasing one genre of music (dance) when her ambitions were more eclectic.
Since then, RAYE has taken complete control of her career and is releasing music independently via distributor Human Re Sources. As the head of the company, J. Erving, tells MBW, she’s her own A&R and takes the lead on every aspect of her output.
He says: “She’s directing her videos, she’s editing her videos, she’s overseeing all of the creative associated with her live shows. And for us, it wasn’t, ‘Go and give us a song that sounds like this’; we wanted a song that sounds like a RAYE song. The biggest and most important thing we could do is get out of her way and support her.”
RAYE is the latest in a string of independent acts to have broken through the noise with the help of Human Re Sources. She follows in the footsteps of US R&B singers and songwriters Brent Faiyaz and Pink Sweats, and production duo, Sonder.
New signings under development at the company include R&B artist and New York native Kelz, British rapper Lancey Foux, and Lekan from Ohio — who has “one of the most amazing voices I’ve ever heard,” says Erving.
Based in the US, Human Re Sources was founded by Erving in 2017. He brings a storied history to the table, having managed acts including Floetry, Rodney Jerkins, Nelly and Kelis alongside Troy Carter. He founded his own company after Carter shut down his management firm, Atom Factory, and Erving had to figure out what to do next.
A few years later, Carter and Erving were back in business when Carter formed his own artist services company, Q&A, which merged with HRS.
In 2020, Sony Music acquired Human Re Sources and it became part of The Orchard. At the same time, Erving was offered a dual senior role as EVP, Creative Development for Sony and EVP at The Orchard. Today, Human Re Sources has 12 team members, with feet on the ground in various markets thanks to The Orchard.
Here, we chat to Erving about RAYE, his ambitions, the biggest lessons learned across his career and much more besides.
Escapism was a slow burner, having been released three months prior to it reaching No.1 in the UK. What did it take to get it to the top of the chart and achieve the success it’s had in other markets?
Certainly a big part of it was the foundation that RAYE (pictured) had built over the years, her generally having real currency in the marketplace and people rooting for her.
We got a spark on TikTok, that was super helpful. But I think it all boils down to the music, this amazing songwriter and the body of work that she’s created.
“We got a spark on TikTok, that was super helpful. But I think it all boils down to the music, this amazing songwriter and the body of work that she’s created.”
For us, it was just about figuring out how to be the best distribution partner we can be and support her vision and what she set out to do initially.
RAYE is the captain of the ship. I can’t take credit for being in the studio with her and making these songs, she makes the records herself. Getting out of her way was the best thing that we could possibly do.
I read that sped-up remixed versions of the track helped get it to No.1…
I’d be lying if I said it was a strategy. Discovery is happening in all sorts of ways with young folks and I think it’s about taking swings and being in a position to put great music out there.
The cool thing about this song as it pertains to TikTok is it was the lyric that cut through with young people. There wasn’t some gimmicky dance, it was people connecting with RAYE’s lyrics that took it there.
In 2021, RAYE had a public split with her former label Polydor, who she said hadn’t allowed her to release her debut album, despite being in a four-album deal for seven years. Do you have an opinion on that situation?
The only opinion I have is how I work. I can’t emphasise enough that the biggest and most important thing we could do is get out of her way and support her. She’s really clear about her vision, she’s really clear about what she wants to accomplish. She’s super crystal clear about the type of music that she wants to make.
I can’t speak to how other folks work. For us, we just wanted to support her and her vision because the music that she had was outstanding. Her work ethic is second to none. She puts the hours in, she spends time with people, she spends time on her craft.
She’s directing her videos, she’s editing her videos, she’s overseeing all of the creative associated with her live shows. She’s in it. And for us, it wasn’t, ‘Go and give us a song that sounds like this,’ we wanted a song that sounds like a RAYE song.
What are your ambitions in the UK market specifically?
We want to be recognised as a global company and a company that can break artists from all around the world. When Lancey Foux (pictured) was first presented to me, I was like an old music industry guy, ‘They’ve been trying to crack this code for UK rap working globally forever and it hasn’t happened.’
I shut it down and that went against everything that I say I stand for. I hadn’t listened to the music, I hadn’t met the artist, I wasn’t supporting the young executives at the company who were passionate about this artist.
So I had to revisit it. And when I met him, when I heard the music, I’m like, ‘This works anywhere. This guy is a superstar, super smart, and the kind of person that I want to be in business with.’ Where he’s from shouldn’t determine whether we want to be in business or not. By having boots on the ground with The Orchard, who were super-helpful in terms of breaking RAYE, we can look at ourselves as having a global footprint and being able to sign and break artists from all around the world.
Is one of your goals to upstream artists into the wider Sony Music ecosystem?
We want to meet artists where they want to be met. RAYE is very adamantly independent. We’re not a record label for her — we’re her distribution partner and we want to continue to be that for her. RAYE is the record label and she’s an independent artist.
You’ve got an extensive history in music spanning management and A&R. What are the biggest lessons from your history that inform the work you do today?
As a manager, you have to wear a lot of hats and it’s not a nine-to-five job. I try to build a DNA inside our company where we don’t close our computers at six o’clock. We’re in it with our partners, we’re shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
I want the folks on my team to be at TV shows, appearances, in the studio, to show up for our partners in a very real way. We are a very small team, so we have to be like a Swiss Army knife, wear a lot of hats and dig in wherever there’s holes or gaps.
We’re also not a volume-based distribution company; we’re only taking on things that we genuinely care about and love.
Human Re Sources was ACQUIRED by Sony in 2020 — what impact has that had on what you do?
I was an outside guy for 20 years, so being on the inside, seeing how things work and having the support of The Orchard has been amazing. Being able to service things globally, having radio in-house, and a sales and marketing team, puts us in a position to be able to scale our business.
What are your ambitions for the company generally?
To continue to break superstars and move culture. The artists we’ve worked with have all moved culture in a very real way. They are probably all a little bit left of centre and we were able to pull them to the middle and have ‘mainstream’ success.
Pink Sweats (pictured) is a kid from Philly who wears all pink clothes. The first Platinum single we had with him, Honesty, was an acoustic song, very non-traditional and it wasn’t what was happening at radio or like the other records that were streaming heavily at the time. But his voice and the stickiness of what he did cut through.
Brent Faiyaz was about putting one foot in front of the other to create a slow and credible build. It’s not microwave food, it’s soul food, it takes a little bit longer to cook, but ultimately the payoff is big.
We’re not a research company, we work based on our gut and how we feel about artists. We don’t have the benefit of waiting around for analytics — we have to be on stuff early. If we’re waiting on analytics, we’re competing with all of the frontline labels and that’s not the business that we’re in.
How do you see the distribution and label services market evolving in future?
With artists like RAYE leading the charge of independence, I think you’re going to see a lot more artists who are keen to stay independent and have a distribution partner that offers services.
I see other distributors having success and how they’re building their businesses out, like Venice and UnitedMasters. It’s working and it speaks to where the space is going. I think it’s going to continue to build and flourish alongside what the folks at the frontline labels are doing.
The major and independent music markets seem closer than ever, given the amount of acquisitions that have happened in recent years. What impact do you see that having on artists and the industry at large?
I think there’s room for everyone. The frontline labels are going to continue to grow and continue to do what they do. There’s no stopping or changing that. I think that’s still a very necessary part of the game that I don’t think is going to diminish in any way.
The independent sector is going to continue to build and, like where our company is at, be able to meet artists where they want to be met. Every artist has very different needs and wants and when you can meet them wherever they want to be met, that puts us in a position to sign, develop and ultimately break more artists.
How would you define A&R in 2023? And has that definition changed in your career?
I think it’s changed for some people. I think the benefit of research has been very helpful for a lot of record companies and for some level of risk mitigation, in terms of signing things that are already working, streaming and selling tickets.
But we’re having to find stuff really early. And when you’re finding stuff early, it’s not necessarily in a Tiffany’s box. You might need to shape it up, put sessions together, bring in collaborators, bring in other producers, other songwriters and do work on the creative as well, like videos, photo shoots and creating content that’s super sticky.
All of those things are wildly important. But then you find artists like RAYE, who is A&Ring herself. She was in a Tiffany’s box, with a bow and everything when we got together. There are different levels to which you’re going to engage with artists and different things that they’re going to need in terms of support from an A&R perspective.
What would you change about the music industry and why?
What we’re trying to change internally is continuing to build more executives of colour and advocating for women in a real way.
Sony and The Orchard walk the walk, with my team being here, the other folks that they’re supporting by bringing in, as well as the women and executives of colour. That’s been really impressive to see and it feels good to be at a company that’s doing it, rather than just talking about it.
This article originally appeared in the latest (Q1 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
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