The year was 2011 and you couldn’t turn on a Top 40s station without hearing Kesha’s “Tik Tok” blaring through your radio speakers. At the height of her career, Kesha Sebert or Ke$ha made a name for herself through her trademark glitter-coated tresses and her songs about “brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack.” Since its release, “Tik Tok” skyrocketed to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 in its first week and became the second best-selling single in digital history, the highest ever by a female artist since 2003.
Kesha has since become a polarizing figure, often disparaged for her juvenile stage antics and her controversial lyrics that promote partying and drug and alcohol abuse. With her continued worldwide success, two platinum albums, and two headlining tours under her belt, fans were puzzled when the pop songstress suddenly disappeared from the public eye, checking into a rehab facility for eating disorder-related issues in 2013.
Kesha filed a lawsuit in October 2014 against her former producer, Dr. Luke or Lukasz Gottwald for sexually, emotionally, and physically abusing his former client for over a decade. The suit alleged that Gottwald forced the singer to take drugs and alcohol to lower her inhibitions, made repeated unwanted sexual advances, and exacerbated Kesha’s eating disorder by telling her to lose weight and comparing her to a “refrigerator.” Gottwald responded to her claims with a countersuit for defamation of character and breach of contract.
The legal battle has brought Kesha’s musical career to a complete standstill for the last two years. The last single to feature Sebert was Pitbull’s 2013 hit “Timber” and her last album, Warrior, was released in 2012. In recent legal proceedings, Kesha asked to the court to allow her to record music again. Because Kesha is bound by Sony Music’s contract, she is legally unable to release new music unless she works with her alleged rapist and former songwriting partner.
“Kesha now faces an abysmal decision: Work with her alleged abuser or idly and passively wait as her career tick-tocks away,” said Jim Urie, Universal Music Distribution CEO, in the most recent filings. “Kesha’s window of opportunity is nearly shut: she has not been recording, touring or able to market merchandise for nearly a year—an eternity in the industry. If Kesha is not permitted to resume working immediately with the backing of a major record label, her window will forever close.”
Kesha’s case is not unique in a music industry where record labels can bar their clients from leaving their contracts and artists have to fight for the right to release their own music. Last year, Joanna Levesque (a.k.a. JoJo) broke free from her contract after a decade-long legal battle that stalled her career for seven years. Her then label, Blackground Records, was acquired by Interscope and refused to release any of JoJo’s new music, despite recording three versions of the same album, choosing a track listing, shooting multiple covers, and finalizing the credits on her album. Jive Records prevented Outkast’s Big Boi and Andre 3000 from releasing their own album in 2010, Lupe Fiasco warred with Atlantic Records over the release of his album, Tetsuo & Youth, and Bow Wow made public pleas to be released from his contract with Columbia Records. In the case of Sky Ferreira, the singer went through four or five label presidents who kept shelving her work and delaying her album releases.
From extreme cases like Kesha’s sexual abuse lawsuit to mismanaged artists like JoJo and Ferreira, record companies wield an exorbitant amount of power over their artists by controlling when they can release their own work and preventing them from leaving their contracts. The alternative—leaving a company before the contract is up—could leave a career unsalvageable. New artists rarely have any bargaining power and legal representation, meaning that they rarely understand the types of contracts they’re signing onto and record companies can have absolute authority over their clients. Often the result we see is artists being held hostage by their own labels.
“I am a hostage,” Fiasco said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I gave them what they wanted. If I didn’t, at the end of the day, the album wasn’t coming out.”
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