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Rita Ora, British chart-topping songstress and coach on The Voice UK, has filed a lawsuit that addresses the current state of Roc Nation and tests California’s famous “seven-year rule” on personal service contracts.
In a complaint filed on Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, she’s seeking a declaratory judgment that the recording agreement she signed in 2008 at the age of 18 with Roc Nation violates California law and is unenforceable.
Ora is taking such action after presenting herself as “orphaned” from Roc Nation in light of the Jay-Z company’s developing interest in sports management and other endeavors.
“When Rita signed, Roc Nation and its senior executives were very involved with her as an artist,” states the complaint. “As Roc Nation’s interests diversified, there were fewer resources available and the company suffered a revolving door of executives. Rita’s remaining supporters at the label left or moved on to other activities, to the point where she no longer had a relationship with anyone at the company.”
With unmistakable references to Jay-Z’s new pursuits (the streaming service Tidal is mentioned), the lawsuit paints Roc Nation as a “diminished” record label with “only a handful of admittedly worthy heritage superstar artists.”
Ora (now living in California) says she’s on her own, “self-funding her promotional television appearances, recording costs and video projects,” but she has a problem. In 2013, Roc Nation switched its distribution partner from Sony to Universal, but according to the lawsuit, she’s been left behind at Sony, which she paints as “hamstrung” by Roc Nation’s alleged inattention.
“Between Sony’s limited economic return from its orphaned relationship with Roc Nation and Sony’s indirect relationship with Rita, Rita is caught in a political quagmire of dysfunction,” states the complaint.
Ora is now seizing on California Labor Code §2855 (the “seven year rule”), which was put to the test in 1944 when the actress Olivia de Havilland became upset with Warner Bros. The studio kept extending de Havilland’s contract despite suspending her for rejecting suggested roles. In 1944, the California Court of Appeal ruled that de Havilland could not be subject to a contract to perform personal services beyond seven years from the beginning of the deal. The ruling fundamentally changed Hollywood and helped bring down the old studio system.
But the “seven year rule” has continued to be controversial in the recording industry, where artists often wait years before making a new album.
In the late 1970s, Olivia Newton-John brought a case against MCA Records alleging a violation of the rule. The record company objected that the singer still hadn’t delivered promised albums. Newton-John emerged victorious, but upon heavy lobbying by the recording industry, the California legislature carved out new rules for record contracts whereby artists who didn’t fulfill their commitment during the term of a deal could be sued for “lost profits” on uncompleted albums.
Given that record contracts deal in deliverables, there’s been tension ever since with artists like Courtney Love and Thirty Seconds to Mars invoking the “seven year rule” only to see labels respond with a demand for damages for albums not made. Many of those legal battles settled, and these disputes often invite renegotiation as much as anything, but here, Ora is presenting the kind of situation that could shape interpretation of an important law in the entertainment industry. For one thing, Ora says that she’s only been permitted to release one album despite creating multiple additional records for release. Her 2008 deal gave Roc Nation the option of up to five albums with a “pay or play” provision and limitations on her ability to seek equitable relief for a breach. Nevertheless, Ora now has made a bold move for freedom.
“Rita’s relationship with Roc Nation is irrevocably damaged,” states the complaint made on Ora’s behalf by attorney Howard King. “Fortunately for Rita, the California legislature had the foresight to protect its artists from the sorts of vicissitudes she’s experienced with Roc Nation.”
Reps for Roc Nation haven’t responded to a request for comment.
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