On 19 February, Kesha Rose Sebert, better known by her stage name Ke$ha, lost her historic case against producer Dr Luke and record label Sony in the New York Supreme Court.
Kesha asked the court to temporarily nullify her contract so that she would no longer have to work with Dr Luke, who she accuses of sexually assaulting her ten years ago, as well as abusing her throughout her career, or Sony, who she alleges knew of the abuse and covered it up.
In her decision, Justice Shirley Kornreich ruled that Sony would suffer irreparable harm if Kesha were freed from her contractual obligations, and that her “instinct is to do the commercially reasonable thing”.
Words like that should send shivers down the spine of every decent person, as surely as it has sent fear into the hearts of survivors of rape and abuse across the world.
But more specifically, it should spur us to learn more about the culture of exploitation and abuse that has thrived inside the entertainment industry since its inception, and to speak out against it at every available opportunity.
We need to do it now and we need to do it loud, before this ruling and the chilling effect it will undoubtedly have on survivors of rape and abuse sets back the fight for justice yet again.
Kesha is a woman who works in an industry that has spent decades aiding and abetting the activities of predators and abusers like R Kelly and Elvis Presley, either by directly providing them with victims or covering up their crimes after they took place.
This is also an industry that has consistently oppressed, exploited and silenced women and children, year after year, to protect their profit margins.
But Kesha’s case is important because it reminds us that the entertainment industry doesn’t just abuse people in the shadows, it does so in the light of day.
Kesha did not press criminal charges against Dr Luke for raping and abusing her, she asked to be released from a contract that compels her to work with her rapist and abuser, a contract with the capacity to destroy her career.
Contracts like Kesha’s are, as Justice Kornreich noted, “typical for the industry”, but that’s an indictment of the industry, not a defence of such contracts.
When Kesha first signed with Dr Luke and Sony, the contract would have created definite obligations for her to produce between one and three albums, but with clauses included to allow Dr Luke and Sony to demand more if they decided to.
These clauses are called “options”, and Dr Luke and Sony have called their options in, the result being that Kesha is legally obligated to produce six more albums before she’s free from her contract.
If you want an idea of how much of her life Kesha is expected to spend working for a man who abused her and a company that covered it up, then consider that Britney Spears (who’s been recording for almost twenty years) is currently working on her ninth album.
Even if Dr Luke had not used his position of power in the industry to abuse Kesha, and even if Sony had not covered it up to protect one of their highest-earning producers, the terms of Kesha’s contract, and all contracts like hers, are inherently exploitative.
Essentially, aged 18, Kesha signed away her right to work for anyone but Sony for an unknowable amount of time.
Even if she starts recording her third album this year for release during the next, then releases the remaining five albums on her contract at the same rate as her previous albums, one every two years, she won’t be free from Sony until she’s 40.
Supposing the lawsuit never happened, we could shave four years off that timeline, but that still leaves an 18-year-old woman signing away the next 18 years of her life.
Can you imagine tolerating that in any other industry?
We wouldn’t stand for anyone else, whether it be in a supermarket, law firm or in the military, having their employees sign away the kind of rights that artists are expected to just toss aside.
Kesha’s case is as much a battle for workers’ rights as a fight for justice for survivors of rape and abuse. Dr Luke accuses Kesha of fabricating her allegations against him in order to extort her way out of her contract.
But in a justice system that consistently punishes the survivors of rape, not the perpetrators, and under a legislative regime that stacks the deck in favour of corporations at every turn, it would make no sense for Kesha to take her case to court unless she thought it was her only chance to free herself from her abuser’s control, especially when she had to give up two years of her life, two years in which she didn’t record or perform, in order to do it.
Justice Kornreich was very persuaded by Dr Luke and Sony’s insistence that they gave Kesha their permission to work with producers other than Dr Luke. She told Kesha’s lawyers that this revelation “decimates your argument”.
Never mind that Sony will obviously punish Kesha for daring to speak out of turn by refusing to promote anything she does without Dr Luke.
Never mind that Dr Luke will still retain ownership and ultimate creative control over her material, and will continue to change album tracklists and cut songs against Kesha’s wishes, as he already did on Warrior, just to show her that he still has all the power.
Never mind that Kesha’s legal obligation to produce music pales in comparison to Dr Luke’s legal obligation not to rape and abuse his employees.
The court was asked to decide between the sanctity of a recording contract and the safety and freedom of a human being.
The court decided wrongly.
By Dean Buckley