the scary power of record labels
Pop quiz #1: What song was the first to go No. 1 in the current decade? The answer is “TiK ToK, ” Kesha’s debut single (not counting her chorus for Flo Rida’s “Right Round, ” for which she isn’t even credited) that made her glitter-soaked style a household name in 2010. Following it were platinum debut album “Animal” and EP “Cannibal, ” garnering her six more top 10 hits and solidifying her niche in the realm of pop music. She had her haters, sure, who wrote off feel-good pop music as trash, but she also garnered a fanbase that identified with her self-empowerment themes and hedonistic love for partying.
“Die Young,” the lead single off her sophomore LP “Warrior,” was released in 2012 and peaked at #2. Its success, however, was truncated with the tragic Newtown school massacre, in which twenty elementary schoolchildren were shot. Radios quickly stopped playing the problematically titled song, and her era’s momentum skidded to a halt. The next single “C’Mon” became her first to not peak in the top 10, and she wouldn’t see it again until “Timber,” her collaboration with Pitbull that netted her another #1.
This relative lack of success isn’t too troubling; all artists have their peaks and dips. What made fans start to worry about Kesha began with a tweet she made after she learned about “Die Young”’s radio ban. In it, she said she understood why it would not longer be played and that she was okay with it. She then added, in all caps, that she had been forced to record the song and that she had never wanted to record it in the first place. The tweet was quickly deleted.
Fans were justifiably perturbed, and soon more hints of Kesha’s lack of creative freedom came to surface. On random nights of her tour, she would sing a song named “Machine Gun Love” that her label had rejected from her album because it sounded too rock and roll. She later released a low-quality music video for “Warrior” album track “Dirty Love” on New Year’s Eve of 2013; her label refused to give her the funds to shoot another video, and so she made one herself. She is the video’s sole director and performer, and while it wasn’t much, it was evidence that Kesha wanted to do more than what her label desired. Her fans even circulated a petition to give her more creative freedom long before her lack of personal freedom was made public.
On October 14, 2014, Kesha filed a lawsuit against her producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. In it, she claimed he “sexually, physically, and verbally abused [her] for a decade in order to make her feel completely worthless.” There are plenty of disturbing anecdotes, not the least of which is this:
“Specifically, after he drugged and raped Ms. [Kesha] Sebert, Dr. Luke took her down to the beach alone to ‘have a talk’ with her. He threatened that if she ever mentioned the rape to anyone, he would shut her career down, take away all her publishing and recording rights, and otherwise destroy not only her life but her entire family’s lives as well. He also threatened her and her family’s physical safety. Ms. Sebert wholly believed that Dr. Luke had the power and money to carry out his threats; she therefore never dared talk about, let alone report, what Dr. Luke had done to her.”
This February, Kesha’s lawsuit (or in legalese, her motion for a preliminary injunction) was denied. Her goal was not to put Dr. Luke in jail, but to get out of her contract with him and his label Kemosabe, an imprint of Sony. She’s been promised that she will not have to record with Dr. Luke in the future, but if she wants to salvage the remnants of her music career, then according to this ruling she still has to release under his label. “There has been no showing of irreparable harm. She’s being given opportunity to record,” claimed the same judge who explained, in disturbingly capitalist fashion, that her “instinct was to do the commercially reasonable thing.” Maybe in a different context this would be an acceptable quip, but it’s disgusting to say this to someone whose commercial success allegedly came with the price of her safety and freedom.
Pop quiz #2: Whose single “Too Little Too Late” dominated the airwaves in 2006? The answer is JoJo, and there’s a good reason you haven’t heard much from her since. JoJo’s second album was released in that same year, and through what I can only understand to be an enormous degree of label incompetence, JoJo was never able to release a third. She recorded songs – two mixtapes worth of songs, to be exact – but her label stubbornly refused to give her a proper release. She finally filed a lawsuit against them in 2013, and in January of 2014, she was released from her contract and signed over elsewhere. JoJo has released music since, but with irreparable damage done to her career.
JoJo’s case proves many things. One: Labels can and will make decisions that damage their artists’ careers, even if it’s not “commercially reasonable.” Two: Nothing kills a music career faster than wasted time. Hell, JoJo made music during her legal turmoil, but since nobody heard about it, she’s now irrelevant. Three: Contracts are binding but not always impossible to circumvent. In JoJo’s case, her lawyer used a law restricting the length of contracts for minors, and the case was settled outside of court.
Kesha unfortunately cannot use that law to her advantage, even though her contract is similarly terrible. Its worst quality is that she’s still obligated to release four more albums with them. The key word here is release, because it doesn’t mean record; even if Kesha made twenty songs a day, her label is the one that decides to actually release the music. Kemosabe’s most successful artist is far and away Kesha, even with her past years of inactivity, and not many of Kemosabe’s artists have even released albums. For example, Becky G has several singles under her belt, but the prevailing theory is that because they haven’t been particularly successful, Kemosabe and Dr. Luke don’t want to bother releasing an album that’s probably not going to sell. A similar case transpired with girl group G.R.L. and their missing album; they managed to squeeze an EP out, but after an albumless extended period of time, they disbanded after member Simone Battle committed suicide.
Kesha’s “Warrior” was a commercial failure, “Die Young” aside; even though the album received considerable critical praise, it peaked outside of the top 5 and scraped by with a gold certification. In the aftermath of a messy court case, I doubt Dr. Luke or Sony will be too excited to help Kesha get music released, and even if an album were to appear on Spotify, promotion would likely be minimal, diminishing success as well. Sony has sabotaged the careers of their artists before: Kreayshawn, a rapper known for her viral hit “Gucci Gucci” and little else, recently claimed that Sony made her album a Hot Topic exclusive in order to ruin her sales. She later announced her pregnancy, and then was dropped four days later.
What is Kesha supposed to do in her situation? Should her main goal to be as successful as possible, in order to get more albums out and please her label? Furthermore, why doesn’t Kemosabe just drop her? The notion that Kesha can freely record without Dr. Luke then becomes questionable; Dr. Luke, if anything else, is a certified hitmaker, and although he has had his missteps, producing with him is the easiest way to get on the Hot 100. The fact that he’s in charge of the label, and thus certainly has some control in what gets released from her, makes this situation even more inevitable. This idea seems to be the implication; if Kesha wants to be free from her contract, she must release successful albums. To release successful albums, she has to work with the very man she’s accused of assaulting her for years. Contracts and commercial success be damned, it’s incredibly cruel to force someone to have to decide between her career and her humanity.
The title track of “Warrior” emblematic of Kesha’s love for self-reliance: “We ain’t perfect but that’s all right / Love us or hate us / Nothing can break us” goes the pre-chorus. But to juxtapose these lines with the traumatic stories on what she’d allegedly been forced to endure throughout her career is troubling, to say the least. The image that’s been shared the most from the trial is of her sobbing in the courtroom, her mother by her side. To see the self-proclaimed warrior in that position is saddening in ways I cannot describe.