In her ongoing legal battle with Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, Kesha was unable to get released from her contract with the producer’s record label last week. She claimed Dr. Luke sexually assaulted her, and thus she should no longer have to make music for his Kemosabe Records — but a judge ruled Friday the contract remains valid. (Gottwald has denied all charges.) Kesha has not filed a criminal suit against the producer, but the case raises a key question: If a record label head were convicted of a crime against their artist, is there anything spelled out in a contract that would allow the artist to break the deal?
Unlikely, several music-business attorneys tell Rolling Stone. “There isn’t a clause,” says Bob Donnelly, a veteran attorney for New York firm Lommen Abdo who has represented music stars from Ronnie Spector to Bootsy Collins. “It would usually be something that the parties would negotiate away from the glare of publicity.”
But Eve Wagner, a veteran entertainment attorney who represented Michael Jackson for 10 years, says an artist could break a contract under such a painful scenario, even if the contract didn’t contain obvious language like “rape invalidates this deal.” “There’s a covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and implicit in that is: ‘The company’s not going to be violating the law,'” she says. “A contract doesn’t say: ‘I will abide by the law.'”
The singer, born Kesha Rose Sebert, sued Gottwald in Los Angeles court in October 2014, accusing the producer of forcing her to drink, then consume “sober pills” — after which she allegedly woke up the next day, “naked in Dr. Luke’s bed, sore and sick, with no memory of how she got there,” the singer’s lawyer wrote in complaint. Gottwald has vehemently denied the charges. Sebert’s lawsuit, and Gottwald’s defamation suit filed in response, are both pending.
In her ruling on a separate Sebert lawsuit Friday, Shirley Werner Kornreich, a New York supreme court justice, declared: “You’re asking the court to decimate a contract that was heavily negotiated and typical for the industry.” Kesha wept in court, prompting widespread sympathy, the re-emergence of the #FreeKesha Twitter movement and support from Lady Gaga, Lorde, Snoop Dogg and others; Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to her cause.
Sony and Gottwald, who has recorded hits for Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Rihanna and others, offered to allow Kesha to record without Dr. Luke as her producer — a proposal the singer’s attorney, Mark Geragos, dismissed as an “illusory promise.” In an open letter supporting Kesha, actress Lena Dunham criticized the idea: “They are minimizing what Kesha says regarding how Gottwald’s continued involvement in her career would affect her physical well-being and psychological safety.”
Sony, though, may not have much leeway to negotiate over Kesha’s record deal. Her contract belongs to Gottwald’s company, Kasz Money, which made a separate deal with Sony’s RCA/Jive; Sony reportedly can’t release her from the deal even if its executives wanted to. Additionally, despite Sebert’s allegations, courts have not found Gottwald guilty of anything, and several attorneys argue Sony can’t break a contract based on accusations alone. But if that changes, and a jury rules in Sebert’s favor, “You’d think they’d drop [Dr. Luke],” Wagner says. “Hopefully, by then, her career will be back on track.”
However this ugly situation plays out, it’s likely to take a toll on the singer’s career. “Artists get involved sometimes in litigation, and the emotions take over, and it turns off their artistic faucet immediately,” says Howard King, an attorney for Metallica, Dr. Dre and others. “Litigation’s terrible for artists. It just is a troubling path.”