Last Friday, a New York judge denied Kesha – full name, Kesha Rose Sebert – her request for an injunction that would suspend her recording contract with Sony during an ongoing sexual abuse lawsuit she filed in October 2014 against the company and her producer Dr. Luke. In that lawsuit, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter accused the producer of drugging, raping and verbally and emotionally abusing her, among other allegations. Kesha and her lawyer Mark Geragos have argued that her career would be effectively over if she is unable to record without Sony and Dr. Luke’s involvement; judge Shirley Kornreich’s verdict was that “irreparable harm” would not be caused, and that – in a much-maligned quote – her “instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing.”
Though this isn’t anywhere near the end of the lawsuit – this sort of injunction is difficult to obtain for anybody, the actual trials haven’t begun yet, and Kesha’s next scheduled court date isn’t until May 16th – Kornreich’s verdict is a significant defeat in a suit with few victories so far for Kesha. Though a defamation countersuit by Dr. Luke, whose real name is Lukasz Gottwald, was dismissed earlier this year, Luke filed a similar lawsuit in Tennessee that remains, and the Friday decision means that Kesha is still bound by her Kemosabe contract, a six-album deal with four albums left.
As the legal drama continues to unfold, here are some other questions we still have – about the performer’s career, the music industry and how the legal system treats them both.
What happens if Kesha is forced to remain with Sony?
Sony has said – a statement instrumental to Kornreich’s verdict – that they would be willing to let Kesha record with producers other than Dr. Luke. Like most producers of his stature, Dr. Luke has several proteges and surrogates (including Benny Blanco, Cirkut and Ammo) who could stand in for him, and an affidavit cited by Businessweek states that Kemosabe and Kasz Money Inc. would “mutually determine the producer of Kesha’s recordings,” leaving Gottwald indirectly involved at most.
Kesha’s other claim – that Sony would fail to promote a record not produced by Gottwald – is hard to verify in advance, and likely rests on what one believes about human nature, particularly when it bumps up against commercial concerns. There’s certainly a long history of artists accusing labels of such tactics.
Does Dr. Luke have a future with Sony?
Five years ago Dr. Luke signed a five-year contract with Sony, launching his imprint Kemosabe Records and mandating that Luke produce exclusively for Sony artists (although loopholes have allowed him to produce for others, such as Katy Perry). At the time, Sony Music CEO Doug Morris praised Gottwald as his “new Jimmy [Iovine],” a comparison he repeated for John Seabrook’s 2013 profile of the producer.
Obviously, the state of this union looks a lot different in 2016 than it did in 2011, and not just because of the lawsuit. Kemosabe, despite Luke’s efforts, has failed to be an Iovine-esque success. Billboard sources claim it’s burned through about $20 million and “has [Miley] Cyrus [via “Wrecking Ball,” etc.] to thank for being in the black.” Cyrus has not worked with Dr. Luke in some time (but she did express support for Kesha via Instagram by sharing a photo of Fiona Apple with a pro-Kesha sign). Otherwise, Kemosabe’s biggest artist by far is Kesha. Given the financial context, doubling down on Luke’s career would not only affect the singer’ s future but would make a definite statement.
Could Sony just drop Kesha outright?
There’s a great deal of pressure upon Sony to – as the hashtag goes – #FreeKesha, pressure it’s hard to imagine won’t follow the company to any future Kesha releases. Though the pop star’s contract is with Luke’s firm Kasz Money Inc., rather than Sony itself, meaning Sony cannot directly drop her, the wave of bad PR makes an eventual settlement both likely and possible. Multi-album contracts generally allow labels to renegotiate with, and potentially release, artists after they deliver each album.
What happens next likely depends on whether Kesha’s picked up. Her existing fanbase, bolstered by the wave of goodwill toward her, and her proven history of hits make her an attractive prospect for other major labels, though it’s also plausible the controversy – and the comparative underperformance of Warrior, extenuating circumstances aside – might make them leery. (Though not unprecedented – to name one recent example of countless, Adam Lambert was picked up by Warner Bros. almost immediately after splitting with RCA, despite few radio hits.)
What if Kesha isn’t picked up?
Without a major label, prospects are grim. Kesha’s non-Top 40 ventures so far have been, befitting her Nashville history, more folk and country, genres that are less commercially successful than the synthpop more typical of “indie pop” (which is often on majors anyway) and, in the case of country, not entirely free from Gottwald’s involvement. (Gottwald announced a joint publishing venture with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Music – a powerful force in the industry – in 2013.) An instructive example: former Luke collaborator Bonnie McKee, whose career after being dropped is replete with Luke-alike pop songs and a cult fanbase but, so far, not with smash hits.
What’s up with that other lawsuit?
In 2010, both Kesha and Dr. Luke were defendants in a lawsuit brought by Kesha’s former manager, DAS Communications, which is central to Gottwald’s case. This suit took place after Kesha’s alleged abuse, and according to DAS filings, Kesha as early as 2005 said Luke “engaged in certain unethical and unlawful actions against her.” Recently unsealed depositions in the case – part of which Dr. Luke tweeted Monday – find Kesha stating that Gottwald “never made sexual advances” toward her. Kesha has claimed she was coerced to deny her rape, and it’s worth noting that the time frame matches what’s in Geragos’ filing. Nevertheless, it’s probable that a lot will come out of this former suit in the next months, and it’s virtually guaranteed that it will get even uglier.
What will happen to the other artists on Kemosabe?
The Kesha case has generated a lot of public outcry, and public outcry tends to land on the most visible names, whether or not they have power. Dr. Luke’s other artists and songwriters have, understandably, been near-silent about the case. Their contracts are almost certainly no cushier than Kesha’s – if anything, they are likely more restrictive – and almost certainly contain a non-defamation clause, the likes of which are being very publicly enforced. And informally, speaking out against Dr. Luke would likely be career suicide.
If Kemosabe’s future does end up being precarious, that obviously isn’t good news for the label’s roster. Some of them are used to this sort of thing; before signing to Kemosabe, Rock City released several mixtapes titled some variation on Put the F*ckin’ Album Out, which their former label never did. Others, like Elliphant and Zara Larsson, are part of joint ventures (with Mad Decent and Epic/TEN, respectively). But Gottwald’s more direct protegees – Becky G, Sophia Black and Chloe Angelides, among others – may have a more difficult time of it. (The elephant in the room here is that these are all young women.)
Will the lawsuit dissuade, for whatever reason, artists and labels working with Dr. Luke?
In the past year, Dr. Luke has mostly produced Kemosabe artists, as promised in the Sony deal, and as a result is virtually absent from the charts. This, of course, could change once his contract expires. But while abuse, let alone abuse allegations, has seldom ended artists’ careers – Sony, in particular, launched a label with Cee-Lo Green, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to drugging a woman’s drink, and R. Kelly is still on RCA – it’s possible some may want to distance themselves, whether due to Luke’s behavior, his reputation or simply the controversy involved.
A few artists appear to have decisively burned bridges with Luke. Kelly Clarkson, whose “Since U Been Gone” helped launch his career, had about as strong words for Luke as are possible with so many lawyers hovering. Others have spoken out in support of Kesha, including Lady Gaga and Jack Antonoff – or lent support in other ways, such as Taylor Swift, who donated $250,000 to the singer. That said, as a producer and publisher, Dr. Luke has huge involvement in a lot of areas – in addition to the Big Machine deal, Prescription Songs has joint ventures with Mad Decent and Ester Dean – and it seems unlikely that these will go anywhere.
What about Katy Perry?
A notable absence among the names listed in support of Kesha is Katy Perry. This is almost certainly because nearly all of her hits were produced by Dr. Luke – enough that, when he signed the Sony deal, the biggest question among many insiders was whether he’d still be able to work with her. Though in the past few years Perry’s started a record label as a Capitol imprint and done various extramusical ventures, her last album, Prism, was produced largely by Dr. Luke. This would neither be the first, nor the second time, Perry’s switched primary producers in her career – and most of Perry’s tenure with Dr. Luke happened when he still worked regularly with Max Martin, whom it’s entirely plausible she could gravitate toward instead.
Can Kesha release music anyway?
With this lawsuit, Kesha has joined, however reluctantly, a long history of artists trying to elide their contracts. Notorious examples from the past few decades include compilation albums, live albums and other side ventures ranging from marginalia to outright crap that nevertheless counted toward multi-album deals. That said, many of these contractual loopholes have since been closed, and Kesha’s back catalog and tour history is relatively scant.
Some have asked whether Kesha could just leak her material or release a mixtape, as countless artists trapped in label hell have done. It’s possible Kesha doesn’t want her existing material out there. Even before this lawsuit, Kesha fought the single “Die Young,” saying she was “forced” to record the track, and Warrior contains little trace of the rock album Kesha wanted to record. While nothing’s stopping her, per se, from violating her contract (except the cost of the damages she’d need to pay), to do so during an ongoing lawsuit with the other side accusing her of being mercenary is probably unwise. That said, last December she played a relatively hushed Nashville show as “Yeast Infection,” covering “Blow” and “Timber” among other tracks, so she hasn’t been completely out of the public eye as a musician.
What precedent will this legal case set?
There’s no shortage of accusations, both formal and informal, of sexual assault in the music history, but no recording artist has ever voided a contract because of a sexual-abuse lawsuit. (A recent example: the Backstreet Boys’ and ‘N Sync’s mostly successful suits against impresario Lou Pearlman were financial in nature, despite widespread allegations of Pearlman’s sexual harassment.) This is arguably the biggest question of all: The case will undoubtedly have huge repercussions for those in the music industry, particularly those experiencing abuse, and echoes legal precedents viewing corporations as people.