It’s 2016 but it’s the same old music business

Todd A

, Building Your Brand

If you think it’s been difficult to understand the intricacies of Kesha’s contract dispute with Sony and Dr. Luke, you are not wrong. But you might not even know the half of it. In February, when a New York judge refused Kesha’s injunction (basically saying that she wouldn’t be released from her contract), it was difficult to understand emotionally but probably the easiest part of the case to understand factually. The judge said to grant the injunction would undermine state laws regarding contracts. She emphasized that the contract was “typical for the industry.” It’s likely not possible to get a “full picture” of the issue at this point but to get as much of the picture as possible, you have to go back to 2005. Or probably, back to the beginning of the music business.

Romper’s timeline of the case is one of the best-written about all the issues surrounding Kesha’s request to be released from her contract with producer and label head, Dr. Luke. One of the most interesting tidbits is that though she signed with Luke in 2005, no movement on an album of her own took place until 2008. In the meantime, she worked with DAS Communications as a songwriter. DAS shopped a record deal for Kesha independently of Luke: “But at the 11th hour, there were simply too many questions about the outstanding Luke contracts.” Around that time, Kesha provided the hook for Flo Rida’s “Right Round” but wasn’t given credit on the American release and was reportedly denied royalties despite the massive success of the song.

In 2010, after Dr. Luke won the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award:

DAS Communications sued Kesha and Luke for $26 million, claiming Dr. Luke “induced, intimidated and convinced” Kesha to terminate her contract with DAS two years ago.

It is that lawsuit which has come back to haunt Kesha. In a deposition for it, she claimed Luke never sexually assaulted her.

After her second album was released, Kesha said publicly that her contributions to it were diminished by Luke: “On an artistic level, Kesha has contended that she wrote over 70 songs for the official Animal followup, Warriors, almost all of which were promptly scrapped by [Luke] Gottwald.” When Kesha entered rehab for an eating disorder, her mother claimed Luke had driven her to it.

In 2012, after her single “Die Young” was pulled from radio following the Sandy Hook massacre, Kesha tweeted that she was “FORCED TO” sing those lyrics. (That link leads to’s own timeline of Kesha’s allegations which is also super-informative.)

So while the nature of the contract may have made it impossible to grant Kesha’s injunction in New York state and while a statute of limitations may mute her rape allegation, it’s clear that the control and manipulation of Kesha by Dr. Luke dates back more than ten years.

Unfortunately unsurprising

The problem with the timelines and the contracts is that we can get lost in the details. We seek an explanation that makes sense of things. Either “the judge had to make that decision based on the terms of the contract,” or “Kesha’s lying,” or “the statute expired.” Something, anything to help us believe that Sony wouldn’t continue to work with a rapist despite the deafening public outcry.

The most depressing conclusion here is the larger story: it’s 2016 yet it is the same old music business.

To our utter shame as a culture, Kesha’s story isn’t all that unusual.

Last year, The Huffington Post published a thorough story about Jackie Fuchs’s — known as Jackie Fox, bassist for the Runaways — rape by manager Kim Fowley. On one hand, we may feel a relief to know that we aren’t in the same predatory business in which Fowley operated and exploited young women. But on the other hand, when you read the author’s description of the 70s music business thinking of Kesha’s situation…

To get ahead in the music business of the mid-’70s, to get your own Kiss Army and a chunk of that arena money, meant convincing a man you were worth it. If you wanted to get your band signed, a man had to approve the deal. If you wanted to cut a record, a man had to agree to produce it. Chances are, a man would decide whether to play your album’s first single on the radio and whether you got booked to play it live.

…are things really that different?

Maureen Herman, former bassist for Babes in Toyland, said much the same thing in a piece for Boing Boing: The Jackie Fox rape disclosure shows we still have a lot to learn. Herman’s piece is a disturbing look at the way “The Bystander Effect” ripples through a scene, then a community, and eventually into the world at large. (For a more disturbing yet compelling look at the Runaways’ career and the abuse they suffered, Cherie Currie’s autobiography, Neon Angel, is indispensable.)

In August, Pitchfork Senior Editor, Jessica Hopper asked Twitter: “Gals/other marginalized folks: what was your 1st brush (in music industry, journalism, scene) w/ idea that you didn’t ‘count’?” The response she received is overwhelming and disheartening.

In the wake of that conversation, Broadly’s Rachel Grace Almeida told her own story of industry harassment and spoke with others about their experiences.

In January, when members of Dirty Projectors and Best Coast made public allegations about an abusive publicist (leading to his somewhat strange downfall), it prompted another music industry insider to create the Tumblr, The Industry Ain’t Safe, where she shares anonymous stories of abuse and sexism in the industry.

Last year’s Straight Outta Compton caused a re-evaluation of misogyny and abuse left out of that story.

In 2013, Jessica Hopper conducted a fascinating interview with Jim DeRogatis who covered R. Kelly’s crimes for years as a beat reporter and music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. In addition to the crimes for which he was tried, Kelly, as producer, worked with 15-year-old singer Aaliyah, naming her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. Shortly afterwards, the 27-year-old Kelly married the 15-year-old Aaliyah.

In 2003, another music producer, Phil Spector, shot actress Lana Clarkson in the mouth, killing her. Spector, known for his temper and his omnipresent firearms, had been threatening musicians in his studio for decades. So widely known were Spector’s threats of violence that Johnny Ramone’s reaction to Clarkson’s death was typical:

After he shot that girl, I thought, “I’m surprised that he didn’t shoot someone every year.”

In a 2013 speech at BBC 6 Music’s John Peel Lecture, Charlotte Church (herself once a young girl in the business) delivered some statistics on the boys’ club of the music business that put all these stories in context:

Out of 295 acts and artists in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, 259 are entirely male, meaning that Tina Weymouth’s part in Talking Heads makes them one of the 36 female acts. The Association of Independent Music’s 2012 membership survey revealed that only 15 percent of label members are majority-owned by women. PRS claims that only 13 percent of writers registered are female.

The Music Producers Guild less than 4 percent.

In the light of these stories and statistics, how is possible not to believe Kesha’s statement, “All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared, or abused”?

The Hope

While in many ways it is the same old music business, what has been revealed over the past year is too much abuse to continue to deny. The music business is rampant with abuse against women and terrifyingly tolerant of it.

“Maybe a general awareness of these types of cases might help other young artists who have had experiences like this to step out and say something,” said lawyer Jordan Bromley quoted by the Telegraph in a long piece about industry abuse.

Like other abusive industries, the music business has relied to a degree on the silence of its victims and the industry’s own complexity and opacity (e.g. those contracts from which it is impossible to extricate oneself). The more we all shine a light on these practices and the more we choose not to work with those responsible for them, the quicker things can change.

And, while it’s a strange hope, there is hope that the disastrous way in which Sony has handled this crisis will cause major changes either in the corporate culture itself or through the refusal of young artists to deal with the companies that tolerate and exacerbate this abuse.

After all, Maggie Vail (of Kill Rock Stars) nailed it when she tweeted:

Hey @Sony if th eimage you’re going for is the label of rapists and abusers (Dr Luke, R Kelly, Chris Brown) I guess you’re doing it right?


Leave a Reply