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As Russian Music Industry Collapses, Refugee Artists Struggle to Keep Their Careers Afloat

Acts like Little Big have fled the country to restart their careers, even as some records labels continue to release music inside Russia.

On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Feb. 24, Russian pop-punk dance group Little Big posted the message “No war” on its social media. A few hours later, the act received an unsettling phone call from an anonymous person ordering the band to take it down. “We don’t know if it was a prankster or someone from the government,” says Little Big founder-singer Ilya Prusikin. “Right after those calls, we decided it was better to leave.”

Less than a week later, Prusikin and co-vocalist Sonya Tayurskaya made the 6,000-mile trek from their home in Moscow to Los Angeles, where they have been living ever since. “We love our country. We have our families there. My kid is there,” says Prusikin, who formed the four-piece band in St. Petersburg in 2013 and has released four studio albums. “But under the current conditions and the Kremlin government it was just impossible to stay.”

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The couple’s decision to flee Russia and go into self-imposed exile is a journey dozens of Russian artists have undertaken since President Vladimir Putin sent troops into battle and passed draconian laws threatening those criticizing the war with up to 15 years in prison. The past five months have also seen an exodus of global music companies from Russia, which have mostly abided by Western sanctions — though it hasn’t stopped some labels in Russia from continuing to release music.

In March, all three major record labels announced they were suspending operations in Russia. The same month, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer and TikTok all either closed their Russian offices or stopped trading in the increasingly isolated nation. With Western credit card companies and money-transferring services like PayPal also ceasing operations, the world’s 13th-largest music market has virtually collapsed.

Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group say they have continued to pay salaries to their Russian staff. But one source in the Russian music industry predicts they will soon stop, possibly as early as the fall, given the ongoing war and this source’s projection that the Russian streaming market will decrease by 30%-50% this year.

Until the war, Russia’s music industry had been growing rapidly. The country was the fastest-growing market among the top 20 both in 2019 and last year, when it generated $328 million in recorded-music revenue, a 58% jump over 2020, according to IFPI. WMG has bet biggest on its potential, buying two Russian independent labels — Gala Records Group in 2013 and Zhara Music last year (which Warner has since rebranded as Atlantic Records Russia) — and in 2020, Spotify began operating in Russia and 12 other countries in the region.

The Western pullout has left local acts like Little Big, who were distributed by Warner Music Russia before the war, cut off from their fans and effectively forced to restart their careers. The band had built a sizable following in its homeland and was picked to represent Russia at the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest before the event was canceled due to the pandemic. (The group’s other two members, Sergey Makarov and Anton Lissov, have remained in Russia due to family reasons).

Little Big’s best-known song, “Skibidi,” released by Warner Music Russia in 2018, has generated over 620 million YouTube views. In June, the group released “Generation Cancellation,” its first single since leaving Russia. The synth-punk style anti-war song is accompanied by a video that sees world leaders casually toying with soldiers on a chess board and a trouser-less TV news anchor ranting to slack-jawed viewers in front of the words “Fake News.”

Prusikin says it was important that the song’s video have an anti-war message, as YouTube and Apple Music are among the few music distribution channels still accessible in Russia. Little Big’s fans there can also consume their music on Russian streaming platforms VK Music, Zvuk and market leader Yandex Music — all of which have ties to the Putin regime — or through illegal pirate sites. The band says its music is still generating royalties from Russian streaming services, but it cannot access them due to Western banking sanctions. (Since its release, “Generation Cancellation” has had more than 8 million views on YouTube.)

To distribute “Generation Cancellation,” the group partnered with L.A.- based Create Music Group and French company Believe, a distributor that has pursued more of a partial exit from Russia than the major labels. In March, Believe stopped new hiring and investment in the country, but it continues to fulfill its “agreed-upon obligations to our people, our artists and labels,” including paying Russian labels. Unlike the majors, Believe is still releasing new music in Russia, from both local and international artists, including Placebo’s album Never Let Me Go, Instasamka’s single “Shake” and DJ Paul van Dyk’s single “But Not Tonight.” (In a statement to Billboard, the company says it continues to operate in Russia “in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.”)

As the Russian music industry falls into disarray, acts that are still based there are facing major hurdles to keep their careers afloat, and many have turned to local independents to put out new music. In March, rapper LOVV66 released his latest album, Internet Love, on CPLUS; he was signed to Sony Music Russia before the war. Egor Kreed, who previously released music on Warner Music Russia and remains listed among its artists on the label website, recently delivered a track on ONErpm.

A number of other Russian artists previously affiliated with major labels also appear to have self-released tracks on Yandex Music, including Lesha Svik (formerly Warner) and Daisy and Allj (both formerly Universal).

Local executives say it is common practice in Russia for labels to partner with artists for one-offs rather than multiple album deals, meaning it’s unlikely any artist label contracts have been broken. Even if they have, the collapse of Russia’s record industry effectively renders such agreements moot and unenforceable, one industry insider tells Billboard. The same issues are also preventing rights holders from pulling their already uploaded catalogs from Russian streaming services such as Yandex and VK, executives say.

Given the uncertainties, Little Big says that for now, it will stay away. “It’s a new country, a fresh start in a new market,” says Prusikin. “We hope that we will be able to return someday to a Russia where you can be who you are and not be scared of speaking out.”