#FreeKesha: 6 Things To Know About Her Legal Battle Against Dr. Luke And Sony
For the last year and a half, the pop star Kesha (born Kesha Rose Sebert) has been waging a legal battle against her longtime producer, Dr. Luke (born Lukasz Gottwald), and Sony Music Group, seeking to end her contract with Gottwald’s imprint with the label, to whom she still owes six more albums. In her lawsuit, Sebert alleged that her one-time mentor had drugged, raped and emotionally abused her over a period of nine years, which Gottwald denies.
This past Friday, February 19, New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich denied Sebert’s request for a preliminary injunction, which would have prevented Sony/Kemosabe from seeking damages if she were to release music outside of her contract until the suit is resolved. The decision, while no doubt supported by hundreds of pages of soulless contract law, is a troubling reflection of the legal system’s treatment of corporations as people. The law protects Sony’s contract terms and financial stakes at the expense of an alleged victim’s physical and mental well-being.
But what is at stake for Sony? Is their refusal to shred Kesha’s contract really about squeezing every possible dollar they can out of the pop star by forcing her to record with Kemosabe Records? Or is her money-making potential secondary to her worth as a bargaining chip between Sony and Dr. Luke, whose own contract expires this year? Here’s what we know…
1. Kesha and Dr. Luke’s professional relationship was not the creative mentorship it appeared to be. Born in Nashville, Kesha Rose Sebert was discovered by Gottwald at age 17, and he encouraged her to quit high school and move out to Los Angeles to pursue a music career in 2005. She quickly signed with Gottwald’s publishing company, Prescription Songs, and his label, Kemosabe Records, at age 18, taking Ke$ha as her stage name. Dr. Luke produced her 2009 debut album, Animal, which went platinum thanks to hits like “Tik Tok” and “Your Love Is My Drug,” as well as her sophomore record, Warrior, in 2012.
In 2013, around the time that Pitbull and Kesha’s Dr. Luke-produced hit, “Timber,” was ear-worming its way onto every pop radio station in the country, rumors started to fly. On her MTV reality show, Ke$ha: My Crazy Beautiful Life, also airing that year, Sebert revealed she had very little control over Warrior, with Gottwald scrapping many of the songs, including personal favorites, that she had written for the record. Fans began holding signs at concerts which read “Fuck Dr. Luke,” while Kesha’s mother Pebe Sebert blamed the producer for restricting her creativity.
2. Things began to unravel publicly when Sebert checked into rehab for an eating disorder. According to her mother, Kesha had suffered from bulimia since being signed to Gottwald’s label, and that the producer had repeatedly told her to lose weight, comparing her body to a refrigerator. After spending two months in treatment, Sebert left rehab in March 2014 and immediately dropped the dollar sign from her stage name, the first sign that she was exerting control over her life and career.
3. In October 2014, Sebert sued Gottwald for sexual assault and battery. Her suit also alleged she was the victim of sexual harassment, gender violence and emotional abuse, and that Gottwald was in violation of California business practices over their 10 years of working together. Sebert also alleged that Gottwald had drugged her repeatedly, describing one occasion where she woke up in Gottwald’s bed completely naked. Her lawsuit asked the court to break her contract with Kemosabe.
Gottwald responded by filing a countersuit, claiming that the abuse allegations are a false ploy to break her contract. In June 2015, Sebert amended her lawsuit to include an additional complaint against Sony, claiming executives knew and turned a blind eye to Gottwald’s conduct.
Yesterday, Gottwald posted a series of tweets complaining about being put on trial by Twitter, and people not knowing all the facts. He tweeted screenshots of a few news articles about a deposition Kesha in 2011 – three years before her lawsuit – denying that he had ever sexually abused her. At the time, Kesha and Gottwald were caught up in a legal battle with her former managers at DAS Communications, and Kesha was asked about a number of the same allegations she’s now making about Gottwald, only in 2011, she denied them. “Dr. Luke never made sexual advances to me,” she stated at the time. The deposition is currently sealed, though Gottwald’s attorneys would like for it to be unsealed so they can use it in the current lawsuit.
While they see it as being helpful to their case from a legal standpoint — Kesha would have to admit to committing perjury – from a public opinion standpoint, I actually think it lends credibility to Kesha. The very fact that these allegations have been around for years before Kesha ever filed her suit indicates she has been crying out for help for much longer than we know. As for her prior denials, anyone with a modicum of empathy for sexual assault survivors would consider the fact that victims often defend or lie for their abusers out of fear and manipulation before passing judgement.
“Luke walked Kesha down the beach and threatened to destroy Kesha’s life and the lives of her family if she didn’t cover up his sexual assaults,” Mark Geragos, her attorney, explained about why his client lied in her deposition. He said asking to unseal the deposition is a “a pathetic attempt to once again blame the victim.”
4. Pending a resolution to the lawsuit, Sebert’s career is at a complete standstill. According to her contract, Kesha still owes Kemosabe Records and Sony six more albums, each of which must have six songs produced by Gottwald. And while Geragos said that Sebert is eager to record her third album, having written dozens of songs in rehab, “her only condition is that she be allowed to record with a record label that is not affiliated with someone who has emotionally and sexually abused her.”
Keep in mind, this does not mean Kesha is necessarily asking to leave Sony entirely (although who could blame her if she wanted to at this point, given how they’ve treated her). Sony Music Group is no tiny operation – in addition to Kemosabe, other subsidiary labels include Columbia Records, RCA and Epic Records, plus a long list of smaller independent labels. But without Sony’s approval or an injunction, Kesha literally cannot work. Geragos argued:
“She cannot work with music producers, publishers, or record labels to release new music. With no new music to perform, Kesha cannot tour. Off the radio and stage and out of the spotlight, Kesha cannot sell merchandise, receive sponsorships, or get media attention. Her brand value has fallen, and unless the Court issues this injunction, Kesha will suffer irreparable harm, plummeting her career past the point of no return.”
“I know I cannot work with Dr. Luke,” Sebert stated in her affidavit asking for a preliminary injunction. “I physically cannot. I don’t feel safe in any way.”
What’s more clear than that? Given the disturbing nature of Sebert’s allegations, as well as Gottwald’s countersuit claiming defamation and breach of contract, no matter what you believe happened to these two, it seems clear that they cannot and should not work together again. So why is Sony refusing to budge?
The company absolutely has the power to break Sebert’s contract while keeping her within the Sony family – after all, they’ve done it before. When Zayn Malik decided to quit One Direction in 2015, Sony released him from his 1D contract with Columbia Records/Syco and then signed him to a new solo deal with RCA. Malik’s reasons for leaving One Direction were vague, but largely believed to be the result of stress and creative differences. If they were willing to bend over backwards for Malik, surely Sony could lift a finger to help Kesha while still protecting their precious pocketbooks, right?
As it stands right now, the most they’ve offered is a twitch. According to the New York Times, during last week’s hearing, Sony indicated “that the label would be open to having Kesha record outside of Dr. Luke’s direct purview” by allowing her to record with another producer, but still releasing the music under her contract with Kemosabe. This sounded good enough to Judge Kornreich, justifying her “instinct to do the commercially reasonable thing” by not “decimating a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.”
“[Sebert] has been given the opportunity to record, she can record,” Judge Kornreich said. “She does not have to have any interface at all with Mr. Gottwald in recording or producing.” (Hear tha Kesha? You don’t have to interface with him! Feel better now?)
Geragos has argued that Sony’s promise (which has likely been batted around behind closed doors) is “illusory,” and the label likely wouldn’t promote and support Kesha’s new music. However, now that Sony has extended that offer in front of the court, Geragos seems to regard it as a potential starting point for future negotiations, saying in an interview, “Obviously I wanted a complete separation, but this is a positive first step to get Kesha back in the studio.”
6. Pressure is on Sony to #FreeKesha. The response from other stars in the music industry, including from women who have worked with Dr. Luke, has been heartening and hopefully bolstering to Kesha. Fiona Apple, Sara Bareilles, Lorde, Halsey and Ariana Grande, are just a few who have tweeted their support. Demi Lovato went on an epic Twitter rant about feminism and rape culture,while Kelly Clarkson, who worked with Gottwald on “Since U Been Gone,” tweeted cryptically, “Trying 2 not say anything since I can’t say anything nice about a person… so this is me not talking about Dr. Luke.” Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help Kesha financially “during this trying time,” while her 1989 collaborator publicly offered to record with Kesha until “that creep can’t block you anymore”:
“Our interest is in [Kesha’s] success,” Sony has declared. “Our interest is in Dr. Luke’s success. They are not in the least bit mutually exclusive.” However, in refusing to sever Sebert’s contract, despite having been more flexible with other artists, Sony has turned their backs on Kesha and declared their allegiance to her alleged rapist and abuser. Hell, why should they care what he did to her? The impact of rape culture – which doesn’t believe victims unless a court of law has validated their claims – lessens the pressure on Sony to consider the value of standing with her instead. The thing about corporations is that they are not human, and any seemingly humane or morality-based decisions are still about one thing and one thing only — MONEY.
Dr. Luke is one of the most successful producers working today, and his five-year label deal also contracted him exclusively as a producer for Sony artists, churning out such hits as Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and the aforementioned “Timber.” However, Kemosabe Records itself is “bleeding money,” according to Billboard, especially with Kesha MIA in the studio. Gottwald’s own contract with Sony is expiring later this year, and resigning him to another exclusivity deal likely hinges on Sony keeping Gottwald happy – by keeping Kemosabe under their umbrella, and Kesha under his thumb.
While it would of course be in Sony and Kemosabe’s interest to make money off a third record, it’s clear Kesha’s success is not their priority — musicians are not known for making their best music under pressure, which is why many artists don’t churn out records at the rate stipulated in their contracts, and labels don’t force it. That Sony expects Kesha to record six more albums, the rights to which will be owned by the man she says raped and abused her, is absurd on even just a practical level — not to mention monstrously cruel. Sony must know that Kesha is unlikely to deliver under those terms, and I’d wager that they’re willing to take the loss, so long as they can use Kesha as a bargaining chip to ensure Dr. Luke continues to be a success for them.