In the weeks after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, major music companies said they were pulling out of Russia, with most signaling that a suspension of operations there meant they were also stopping the pipeline of new releases, both domestic and international.
But evidence reviewed and confirmed by Billboard shows that some labels have struggled to shut off the spigot – none more so than Warner Music Group, which has released or prematurely offered for pre-release at least 20 new songs and albums in Russia since its March 10 statement stating it was “suspending operations in Russia.”
The releases include tracks from international artists like Charli XCX, gayle, rock trio Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers, as well as a host of domestic Russian-language artists, who have landed in Russia on streaming platforms VK Music, Yandex Music, Apple Music and Spotify (which shut down on Friday). Most of the releases were still on Russian streaming services — with some also on Apple Music — as of March 25, according to a source that took screen shots in Russia from accounts there. Charli XCX’s album Crash was on Russian streamer VK Music as late as Tuesday morning, Billboard has confirmed.
“The global digital supply chain is more complex than people assume, and this is an unprecedented situation,” says a Warner Music source. “So, it’s taken a couple of weeks” to shut down the new-release pipeline.
Warner’s main competitors, Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group, have had far fewer releases slip through the cracks since announcing they were pulling out of Russia. The Sony single from Goldie, James Davidson and Subjective, “Breakout (featuring LaMeduza),” landed on VK Music and lingered there through at least March 25, even after the label specifically requested VK to recall the release, a person familiar with the situation says.
Billboard is not aware of any releases from Universal that slipped through to Russian DSPs more than two weeks after the label said on March 8 that it was pulling out of Russia.
Meanwhile, the French music company Believe, which is continuing to operate in Russia, has also released or distributed at least three new projects in the country, including Placebo’s album Never Let Me Go and INSTASAMKA’s single “Shake,” which was on Apple Music and VK in Russia as recently as March 25, and was No. 3 on Apple Music’s “Top 100: Russia” playlist as of Wednesday (March 30).
A Believe spokesperson confirmed to Billboard on Tuesday – sending screen shots — that the Placebo album was still available on three streaming services in the country – VK Music, Yandex Music and Apple Music. (Billboard also independently verified this.)
The problems music companies have experienced cutting off releases illustrate the challenges of tying off a supply chain to a major market during a first-in-a-generation European war where Western nations have imposed wide-ranging sanctions against Russia and where Western companies face mounting societal and government pressure to contribute to the economic pressure on Putin’s regime.
In the case of Warner, its stature as the largest international music label in Russia, with about 100 employees after acquiring two Russian imprints, has complicated the new-release shutdown, a Warner Music source says.
The Western music companies have also been stymied by the Russian DSPs themselves, which have not always acted expediently on their requests to manually remove releases, for reasons that are not entirely clear, say two sources familiar with the matter.
The labels have been especially wary of pressing too hard on VK because of its close ties to the government and former history of piracy. If the Western companies “throw [VK] under the bus, they are probably going to stop being responsive,” which could slow down the labels’ pullout from Russia, says one person familiar with the situation. (VK declined to comment.)
A spreadsheet provided by Warner Music at Billboard’s request confirms that the label has sent takedown requests for titles mistakenly made available on Russian streaming services since ceasing operations in the country March 10. A takedown notice for gayle’s a study of the human experience volume one was first issued March 28, meaning it was unintentionally live on Russian DSPs for 10 days. A takedown order for Charli XCX’s Crash was issued March 17, one day before the album’s international release, but appears not to have been acted on by a distributor partner. The album was live in Russia for 10 days before Warner issued a second takedown order yesterday (March 29) and Crash was finally removed from Russian streaming services.
Royal Blood’s “Honeybrains” was live for eight days, while Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Unlimited Love and Muse’s Will Of The People were mistakenly available for pre-order for a short period of time before takedown notices were issued.
A Warner source was keen to tell Billboard that international artists whose tracks slipped through the label’s new-release net were largely oblivious to the fact that their songs were live or available for pre-order on streaming services in Russia.
Some of the artists have come out publicly in support of war-torn Ukraine. Muse said this week that they will play a pair of shows in May to aid young victims and medical workers involved in Ukraine. Red Hot Chili Peppers have also expressed support for Ukraine on social media. (A manager for Muse did not respond to a request for comment. The Chili Peppers could not be reached for comment.)
Russia’s Music Industry Collapsing
As the world has watched companies across several industries, from banking to fast food, shutter operations in Russia, the major music labels have also moved to disengage with the Russian market, which IFPI says was the 13th-largest music market in 2021, generating $328 million in recorded music trade revenues. The suspension of operations was meant to include the cessation of new releases, both domestic and international, marketing, promotions, syncs and signings, three people familiar with the matter tell Billboard.
French company Believe, a distributor-label that went public last year, has pursued a more nuanced pull-out. After Billboard reported that the company’s top Russia executive was advising counterparties how to circumvent sanctions, the company said March 14 that it had stopped new hiring and investments in the country and had stopped releasing music from Russian artists signed under artist services agreements. But Believe confirmed that it was “continuing to fulfill its agreed-upon obligations to our people, our artists and labels, including its payment obligations to Russian labels.” (Billboard has sought to clarify whether Believe will continue to distribute international and domestic artists in Russia; the company has yet to respond.)
Five weeks after Russian forces began attacking Ukraine, Russia’s music industry is in disarray. Streaming platforms Deezer, TikTok and Spotify are no longer operating there, though Apple Music and YouTube still are. (Parent company Apple said on March 1 that it had stopped selling its products in Russia. A spokesperson for Apple Music did not respond to a request to clarify the status of the streaming service there.)
With Western credit card companies and other money-transferring services also suspending operations, revenue flows have all but dried up in the country, music industry sources tell Billboard. With no way to transfer funds to the accounts of the international labels, one label source says, royalties from tracks on DSPs in Russia are currently being held by the Russian Authors’ Society (RAO), the country’s main collecting society, which is officially “accredited” by the Russian government.
Russian streaming services also have ties to the Putin regime. VK Music is part of VK, one of Russia’s biggest technology companies, whose websites collectively have the largest audience in Russia and is majority owned by companies linked to state-run natural gas giant Gazprom, which the Biden administration put under sanctions after Putin invaded Russia. VK founder and former CEO Pavel Durov suggested in 2014 that his ouster was related to his refusal to hand over users’ details to Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Yandex Music, owned by Yandex, Russia’s biggest media company, is publicly traded on the NASDAQ, and was banned in Ukraine in 2017 after officials there accused the company of illegally collecting Ukrainian users’ data and giving it to Russian security agencies. A smaller streaming service, Zvuk, was bought in 2020 by Russian state bank Sberbank, which has also been sanctioned by the U.S. and Western allies.