Kesha vs. Dr. Luke: Will Celebrity Backlash Lead Sony to Settle the Case?

Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Lorde and Ariana Grande have all tweeted their support for Kesha and Taylor Swift’s reps announced she is donating $250,000 to the cause.
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

With a battle cry of #FreeKesha, A-list musicians and scores of fans are rallying behind pop star Kesha Rose Sebert after a New York judge on Friday denied her request to get out of her contract with music producer Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald), who she claims sexually abused her.

Music attorneys, however, are split on how much of an effect the social backlash will have on the outcome of the legal battle.

“Everything has a price tag,” says attorney James Sammataro. “There is probably a number in which Sony — particularly if it’s sensitive to the potential backlash of growing support for Kesha on social media — would strongly consider releasing Kesha.”

The artist sued in 2014 seeking to be released from her contract with Dr. Luke’s Kemosabe Records, which is owned by Sony Music, claiming he had been physically and emotionally abusive to her during their 10-year working relationship. The producer fired back with a defamation claim, alleging the pop star was fabricating the allegations to get out of her contract.

Daniel Zucker, executive vp business & legal affairs at RCA Records, a division of Sony, told the court in December that competition within the music industry is intense and this case could lead to other labels poaching Sony’s artists.

“If Kesha is allowed to disregard her exclusivity obligations to Kemosabe Records without even alleging a breach of the RCA Recording Agreement … Sony’s credibility within the record industry will be irreparably injured,” Zucker wrote in an affidavit. “Allowing Kesha to rebuke her obligations to Kemosabe Records also sends a message to Sony’s other existing and potential artists that they may be able to disregard, at will, their contractual obligations.”

Sammataro, who isn’t involved in this lawsuit, says he understands Kesha still owes six albums under her contract and Sony also is likely weighing the “intangible impact of losing an A-list talent in her prime to a competitor, at a time in which public’s interest is probably at an all-time high.”

A Kesha fan launched a GoFundMe campaign on Friday with the goal of raising $2 million so the artist could buy her way out of her contract. As of Monday afternoon, it has raised about $14,000.

“I can’t imagine a scenario where $2 million would ever quite cut it, unless there’s serious concern about the Twitterati backlash,” says Sammataro. “It may be enough of a social pressure to consider options they wouldn’t otherwise consider.”

Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Lorde and Ariana Grande have all tweeted their support for Kesha, and Taylor Swift’s reps announced she is donating $250,000 to the cause.

“We’ve seen what the power of Taylor Swift can do in the music industry,” says Sammataro. “She has a massive fan base that she can mobilize.”

At this point, even if Dr. Luke were to win the legal battle, the damage to his career and reputation may be irreparable.

“He’s already been tried in the court of public opinion,” says Sammataro. “There’s going to be some reticence for people to work with him.”

On Monday afternoon, Dr. Luke turned to Twitter in an effort to turn some of that public opinion in his favor, posting he never had sex with Kesha and that he understands “why people without all the information are speaking out. I can appreciate their compassion.”

Music attorney Harvey Geller says the situation is a horrible mess and the ongoing litigation doesn’t seem to be productive or helpful.

“I think they should have settled it privately long ago,” says Geller. “A public spectacle is not good for either side.”

Geller suggests one option would be Kesha could pay Sony, or her direct label, for any investment they made in her that wasn’t recouped by her revenue for the company.

“It’s clear from the press that the two side are not happy with each other,” says Geller. “It’s a bad relationship for both. It looks like both sides have already lost.”

Attorney Mark Passin says when he started practicing law more than 30 years ago that it was much more common for artists to jump labels.

“You really don’t see that happening as much now,” he says. “In this situation, due to the nature of the allegations, hopefully they can work out an economic solution which will allow her to leave the label and continue with her career.”

Passin says with any potential buyout or settlement, a studio has to weigh the costs and benefits.

“If they feel other well-known artists won’t sign with them in the future, they’ll take that into consideration in the economic analysis,” Passin says, adding that these cases rarely go to trial and are usually settled after an injunction hearing, like the one held Friday.

Passin says potential compromises could include Sony reducing the number of remaining albums Kesha owes in her contract in exchange for a payment upfront and/or a royalty on future albums with whatever record label she signs with.

Instead of scrapping the contract, Sammataro says Kesha and Sony need to figure out a way to work within the confines of the existing agreement that will allow her to make music for her fans in a safe and protected environment.

Not forcing Kesha to continue working with Dr. Luke is “clearly the right move from a PR perspective,” Sammataro says, but from a creative perspective there is a risk for Sony. “All they know is she’s been successful with Dr. Luke."

Passin says Sony could distance itself from Dr. Luke in light of the publicity and the serious allegations involved, but whether it will likely depends on what the label has in writing with the producer.

“Sony has to be careful to make sure it complies with its contractual relationship with Dr. Luke,” he says.  

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