Kesha Rose Sebert might have lost an important battle Friday when Sony Records refused to free her from a contract she signed at age 18, but God knows she’s winning the war today.
Yesterday morning, the pop singer, who hit massively a few years back with the electro-glitter single “Tik Tok”, found herself in tears in a Manhattan courtroom. Sebert was seeking release from a six-album deal with Sony, arguing that she’s been traumatized by dealings with hit-making producer Dr. Luke (real name Luke Gottwald).
Sebert, 28, has alleged that Gottwald, who signed her and helped shape her chart-topping debut Animal, drugged and raped her in California after her 18th birthday. She’s also contended that the producer—who was never charged—was repeatedly verbally abusive towards her during their working relationship. (Gottwald filed a countersuit claiming this was an extortion attempt by Sebert to get out from her contract.)
In response, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled against releasing Sebert from her contract, arguing that would undermine state laws governing contracts.
That’s where Sebert lost.
But here’s where she’s winning: the considerable drama that has once again left the world wondering if anyone working at a major label has a clue what they are doing.
Amongst Sebert’s charges are that Gottwald called her fat and made comments suggesting she looked like a “fucking refrigerator”. She's argued that sparked body issues which eventually required her to go into rehab for bulimia.
On an artistic level, Kesha has contended that she wrote over 70 songs for the official Animal followup, Warrior, almost all of which were promptly scrapped by Gottwald.
Sony’s response to all this has reportedly been to suggest she keep making records for Sony while working with a different producer. That was backed up yesterday in court.
The fallout, however, has torpedoed the shit out of the old adage “all publicity is good publicity.”
Here’s what’s not good publicity: over two million people taking to Twitter right after the verdict with the hashtags #FreeKesha and #boycottsony.
It’s having Maggie Vail, label manager of the hugely respected Bikini Kill Records, tweet out the following:
And it’s watching while a growing list of influential heavyweights rally around Kesha Rose Sebert for all the world to see on social media:
One might legitimately ask what exactly has Sony so determined to keep Kesha under contract. If we were still in a world that still cared about CDs, the multi-platinum worldwide numbers wracked up by Animal might explain things. Warrior, however, barely went gold in the States.
So now we’ve got a war where, as long as Sony sticks to its guns, there are going to be two losers.
And one of them will be even bigger than Kesha.
Social media is making for interesting times as we hit the back half of the ’1Os. Once upon a time, to do battle with the major label system was to risk career suicide.
Ask Michelle Shocked. After suing Mercury Records in the ’90s to break a contract she claimed made her an indentured servant, the one-time folk-rock upstart promptly disappeared from sight.
Shocked learned, too late, you didn’t get on MTV or radio in the past without the clout provided by the major-label system. A system that—to paraphrase Steve Albini's infamous essay The Problem With Music—operated for years as a sort of modern feudal society, where the sweat of the common rabble (ie. every band not named U2) largely existed to fill the coffers or the label executives who signed U2.
(For a further breakdown of the hell that can be recording for a major label for everyone not named U2, read Jacob Slichter's excellent and essential So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful Of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer's Life.)
Today, the power once wielded by the majors has been irreparably eroded by YouTube, Spotify, and the fact every record released last year is currently available for free on The Pirate Bay.
The reality is that Kesha doesn’t need a major label as long as there’s the great equalizer known as the Internet. Christ, the woman has argued that she’d now happily give away her records away for free.
Sony, meanwhile, is obviously determined to milk what’s left of a career that’s been stalled since the Dr. Luke problem erupted in full in 2013. Fuck optics, and fuck everything that's happened during Sebert's career with the label—this is all about business. It doesn't matter what an obviously traumatized person has been through when there’s a bottom line to consider.
So, as the sun rose this morning, Kesha is still signed to Sony. The supposed upside for whoever is calling the shots in the Sony's head boardroom is that Kesha still owes the label a bunch of albums.
The downside is that what the likes of powerbrokers like Lady Gaga—not to mention two million totally disgusted people on the Internet—have to say about that. This is one PR disaster that shows no sign of going away.