Dr. Luke in the Limelight: Music Producers & Employment Law

April 13, 2016

Kesha’s attempts to void her recording contracts with Lukaz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald and Sony are directly related to allegations of harassment and rape. The lawsuit and the media frenzy surrounding it have placed the music industry (and how artists are employed in the industry) in the spotlight. In her lawsuit, Kesha claims she was the victim of sexual harassment, gender violence, civil harassment, unfair business, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress as well as sexual assault and battery.

Certain categories of people are legally protected from discrimination. For example, the law gives women legal protection from sexual harassment at work (and if you’re experiencing this—you should contact an attorney). However, Kesha’s claim is not a typical sexual harassment claim. Why? Being a full-time working musician is not like working a regular 9-5 job for an employer. Record deals in the music industry essentially obligate an artist and a record company to work together in order to produce and distribute music in exchange for a certain payment rate. The record company pays for all the expenses. Record deals allow record companies to recoup their expenses and receive profits from the music through sales, licensing and performance. The terms of record deals are negotiated by the artist and the record label, but when an artist is unknown or previously unsigned they have little or no real bargaining power.

Musicians like Kesha and George Michael attempted to renegotiate the terms of their music deals after they became successful, and then ultimately filed lawsuits to be released from their obligations under the music deals. Record companies typically do not allow an artist to terminate the contract and courts are unlikely to invalidate the negotiated contracts. The main reason Kesha has not been able to get out of her recording deal is because it is based on contract law, not a typical employment relationship that woudl be covered under federal anti-discrimination and harassment laws.

In order to get out of her contract with Dr. Luke, Kesha needed to prove that Dr. Luke harassed her. Kesha asked the court to let her out of her contract while the case is being litigated so she could record music with other producers and record labels. The court did not find that Kesha proved her abuse allegations and found the contracts valid. While the case continues to be litigated the public outcry in support of Kesha has been fierce and fueled by large social media campaigns and support from several celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Kelly Clarkson. Recently, Kelly Clarkson (who worked together with Dr. Luke on her songs Since U Been Gone, Behind These Hazel Eyes, and My Life Would Suck Without You) gave a radio interview where she claimed Sony strong-armed her into working with Dr. Luke.

Clarkson stated in part:

“The last time I worked with him I only worked with him because literally I got blackmailed by my label; It was a really hard time for me. They were like, ‘We will not put your album out if you don’t do this’. We’ve clashed before. He’s difficult to work with; he’s kind of demeaning.Obviouslyhe’s a talented dude but he’s lied a lot. Musically it’s been really hard for me because he will just lie to people and it makes the artist look bad.”

Kesha was unsuccessful in her latest bid to have a New York Appellate Court overturn the lower court’s decision to uphold her contract with Dr. Luke. While Dr. Luke has been winning the legal battles, Kesha is winning in the court of public opinion, which may affect Dr. Luke’s future in the music industry. Regardless of his legal successes, he is a public relations liability.

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