After news broke on January 18th that R. Kelly’s longtime label, RCA, was dropping him, his spokesperson predicted that another label would snatch him up and his career would continue as always. “I can’t quite speak on the labels, and whether they’re indie or major, but the interest is there,” Don Russell, a longtime Kelly friend who is acting as an advisor and consultant, claims to Rolling Stone. “We’ve got a handful of files to deal with. Rob is an international star.”
The Chicago singer would appear to be toxic, after the #MuteRKelly movement, the recent Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly cataloging his history of reported child sexual abuse and former collaborators like Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper denouncing him. But some part of the music industry is usually willing to look beyond egregious behavior. Accused domestic abuser XXXTentacion’s posthumous album Skins hit No. 1 last month, Tekashi 6ix9ine had a recent hit single after he was arrested on charges of violent gang activity and Kelly himself saw a 116 percent jump after the Lifetime series. (Tekashi has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and the late XXXTentacion said he was innocent of the accusations.)
“It would be very surprising if some label did not sign him,” says Jim Caparro, a former chairman of Island Def Jam Records, who adds that he does not condone any of Kelly’s behavior. “He’s too big of a talent and there’s too much pressure to ignore the commercial aspects. He’s still R. Kelly, and there’s going to be interest and drawing power from that.”
For Allen Kovac, head of the hard-rock label Eleven Seven Music (home to bands like Mötley Crüe and Five Finger Death Punch), the issue with signing Kelly has more to do with business considerations. Despite Kelly’s recent streaming bump and heavily streamed older hits like “Ignition (Remix),” which has 370 million Spotify plays, Kelly hasn’t had a new hit in years. Kelly’s terrible recent press, lack of radio play and tour dates that consistently run into trouble make it difficult to market his music.
“It just looks like a guy at the downside of his career. He has a lot of issues, it’s probably expensive to make a record with the guy and his press outlets aren’t that huge,” Kovac says. “He’s an older artist whose traditional media shut off, now, because he’s not politically correct. So the only place you can go is streaming, where he hasn’t migrated his audience. He’s pretty stale at radio, and that would cost you a lot, so that’s a big risk.”
Reporter Jim DeRogatis published the first report about Kelly’s alleged sexual contact with underage girls in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, and the singer’s label continued to do business with him ever since — until two weeks ago, when Sony-owned RCA dropped him without comment. Sources in the music business say it’s unlikely that one of the other major labels, Warner or Universal, would pick him up. “There’s probably a home for him in the independent sector, but I don’t think there’s any major that wants to touch him,” says a source at a major record label.
Rolling Stone requested comment from 10 independent music companies, and most did not respond — including Empire, which distributes XXXTentacion. The label reps who commented were dubious of Kelly’s future as an indie star. “For us, the answer’s of course no,” says Michael Tolle, director of operations for Mello Music Group, an underground hip-hop label. “I imagine there’s someone out there who’s always trying to make money no matter how low they’re willing to stoop … the world is so full of talent, I don’t know why, as a label, anyone would overlook this kind of stuff and choose to work with somebody.”
Russell, Kelly’s advisor, says the singer’s future business model might be going it alone, using his own resources to record his music, then promoting it through social media. Russell suggests Kelly might start his own indie label and sign other artists. “It’s better to go direct to your fans. That’s what makes sense for an artist of his magnitude,” he says. “Labels don’t know how to facilitate everything he has to offer. I think his best work is ahead of him.”
It could work. “I mean, this is the music business. He’s not in the financial business, he’s not in the real-estate business, and he sure isn’t running for public office,” adds Ross Johnson, a crisis-communications expert. “The allegations, if 10 percent are true, I personally abhor the guy. But if history proves anything right, an indie label will try to pick him up. There’s certain parts of the country [where], if he did decide to tour, no way for the next 24 months. But other parts: ‘Look, I’m back in the news, man! I’m in the headlines, coming to your town!'”
For Kelly, the path forward may be through releasing his music independently, while working with a distributor like Empire or Universal-owned Caroline, which made a reported $6 million deal with XXXTentacion’s own label Bad Vibes Forever in late 2017, months before the rapper’s death. “There’s a different decision-making process when the label is putting its direct resources and energies behind an artist on their roster, versus Caroline basically making its pipe and networks available for a small fee,” says the major-label source. “Some people say it’s no different because ‘you’re making money off this despicable person’ — so does Apple, so does YouTube, so does Spotify.”
Another music-business source points out that accused domestic abuser Chris Brown recently signed a new deal with RCA. (Brown has pled guilty to one assault, in 2009, but he has maintained his innocence with regard to more recent allegations.) In Kelly’s case, the source adds: “Somebody [a label or distributor] could come out and say, ‘We’re kind of agnostic about that, we just focus on the art.’ I don’t think there’d be any shortage of people who smell a buck out there.”