After #FreeKesha: A Long, Hard Look at Sexual Misconduct in the Music Industry

Musicians have always lived with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Though, for female artists, it seems like that lifestyle can often come without consent. In the last year alone, a number of prominent women in music have reported cases of sexual assault that stretch as far back as forty years — the most controversial as of late being that of pop singer Kesha.    

Two weeks ago, in the wake of Kesha’s failed lawsuit against Sony Music Entertainment — which she claimed forced her to continue working with her rapist — a global discourse emerged about sexual misconduct in the industry. Now that the Internet’s attention has already moved past the #FreeKesha movement, her case — and vocal support for all victims’ safety — will probably be forgotten until another wildfire of public outrage sweeps the news feed.

But the conversation hasn’t ended. We need to keep talking about this.  To that end, I reached out to two talented women working in the music and entertainment industries, and asked them to weigh in on the subject in a roundtable discussion. Suzanna Slavin is an A&R manager at a New York City-based independent record label after having worked as the right arm of its president for three years. Kelsey Amentt is based in Los Angeles working as an assistant in the television industry.*

***

Emily: As we all know, Kesha publicly lost a New York Supreme Court injunction against Sony to extricate herself from her record deal with producer Dr. Luke, who she says sexually abused her for years during their partnership. Since 2014, Kesha’s career has been rather dormant — presumably to avoid working with her alleged rapist. In the wake of the February 19 verdict, Sony released a statement saying that the company “has made it possible for Kesha to record without any connection, involvement or interaction with Luke whatsoever, but [it] is not in a position to terminate the contractual relationship between Luke and Kesha.” Do you believe Sony should take greater responsibility in protecting Kesha?  

Kelsey: Yes, after the Sony leak last year, they should re-establish their position. Sony is an interesting situation — after last year’s leak, they need to reevaluate their handling of the female gender from payroll to contracts. Even if the allegations about Dr. Luke prove to be untrue, they should honor Kesha’s case and make sure she’s able to sign and release with other producers, whether or not her statements are true.

[Editor’s note: In December 2014, Sony Pictures was the target of a major email hack that leaked details about the company’s operation, including salary data. Those numbers revealed that women employed by Sony are paid a significant amount less than its male employees.]

Suzanna: I think as a label it’s important to protect and care for all of your artists as if they were your own children. In this particular case, there are a lot of trickier details that no one would truly understand unless they were directly involved in the situation. But as an outsider — and a female — yes, I do believe Sony could have been more involved in protecting their artist’s comfort and ultimate happiness to help her continue her career the way she’d like to.

I think as a label it’s important to protect and care for all of your artists as if they were your own children.

Emily: Kelsey, do you think the Sony leak played a sizable role in the company’s response to this court decision? Suzanna, given your experience at a label, could you offer some context as to how difficult it is for an artist to break from a record contract, and typically, under what circumstances is it possible?

Kelsey: I think it should play a role. I don’t think it actually is. If Sony was more aware of their interactions with females or with the female gender, they would, or should, be more on Kesha’s side, but because they’re staying out of it, saying Kesha can collaborate with whomever she likes, they’re not taking a side and ultimately, in a bystander way, taking sides with Dr. Luke.

Suzanna: To be honest, I don’t have the complete knowledge as to how or why an artist could break from their record contracts. Typically, we sign deals that are based on a number of records and usually include an [option].

Emily: Okay, that makes sense. Another dimension in this case is the legal system’s response to Kesha’s plea, maintaining that the artist is contractually obligated to produce six more albums — with at least six songs on each to be produced by Dr. Luke — and can’t release any music outside of her “heavily negotiated” Sony deal. Based on the court’s decision, how do you believe this will impact all victims of sexual assault, regardless of whether or not they file high-profile civil cases?

Kelsey: I, personally, feel that Kesha should be able to make her contract null because of her situation. Let her not be able to record with Sony if that means she can record freely. As long as she’s not obligated with any person she deems a threat. It’s okay if it’s a struggle to get her work out there, but she shouldn’t be obligated to make her work with her accused offender. No matter what.

Suzanna: I agree with Kelsey. I think if you’re a victim of any sort of sexual assault, no matter what industry it is or contract that you sign, you should be able to negotiate either out of it or change the terms.

Emily: On a greater scale, outside of corporate reasoning, what kind of moral standard do you believe this verdict will perpetuate in our society?        

Suzanna: I think it’s clear that people, women in particular, are standing by Kesha because this isn’t the first time a woman hasn’t been heard or believed with regard to being sexually assaulted or abused. I think cases like these will only bring out more cases and stories and hopefully can lead to a significant change with how our society respects women, whether it’s in or out of the workplace.

Emily: That’s very true. With respect to that widespread reaction, various female artists have voiced their support for the pop singer, whether online or through personal gestures. Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson and Lorde, among others, posted words of solidarity on social media, while Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to cover Kesha’s legal expenses. In light of the convoluted nature of Kesha’s case, when it comes to taking firm action against it, do you think such a response from her contemporaries — who can presumably understand what it means to navigate the industry as women — carries much weight in helping her career?

Suzanna: I don’t think it’ll necessarily change the outcome, but it’s always comforting and noble to see peers helping and supporting each other in “glamour” industries like these.

Kelsey: What bothers me the most is that Taylor Swift is donating money rather than saying anything.

Suzanna: I agree with that as well.

Emily: I certainly agree with your point, Suzanna, but I get the sense that some of these artists are holding back from saying or doing more, as if there isn’t a safe space in the music industry to openly discuss the problem. Kelsey, I feel the same way — it doesn’t seem like enough to just throw money at a situation and expect someone to pull themselves out of it. If anything, it seems like a somewhat condescending gesture when you consider how lucrative Taylor Swift’s career has become while Kesha is fighting this legal battle at the expense of her own.   

[Kesha] shouldn’t be obligated to make her work with her accused offender. No matter what.

Suzanna: Demi Lovato addressed it well in her tweets with regard to how Taylor Swift contributed to Kesha’s situation. Ultimately, she apologized for getting fired up about it, which in all honesty I don’t think she needed to. But in this case, it’s true that words speak much louder than actions.

Kelsey: What irks me is that there are so many people in this industry and any other industry who will support but won’t say anything. They should at least be able to commit to something of this level rather than helping with lawyer fees. Kesha at least deserves her own support.

Emily: Yes, I felt Demi didn’t need to apologize either, but I can see what you mean, Suzanna. It’s just difficult to understand how there’s been such a great appeal for feminism among female artists over the last year or so, almost as if it’s becoming the next big trend, yet it seems to be on someone else’s terms.

Suzanna: Right. Well, I’m hopeful that with stories like these coming out more and more that women will not feel as guarded to come forward with their own personal stories. We need to feel safe.

Emily: Right, I completely agree. With that in mind, since Kesha first filed her lawsuit in 2014, multiple women in the music industry have stepped forward to report their own cases as victims of sexual assault. Last year, former Runaways bassist Jackie Fox revealed that the band’s manager Kim Fowley had drugged and raped her at 16, almost 40 years after the incident. Additionally, last January, several women, including Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman, reported sexual misconduct at the hands of music publicist Heathcliff Berru, who has since resigned from his firm, Life and Death PR. Why do you believe reported acts of sexual assault have become so prevalent, almost evolving into a cultural expectation, in the entertainment industry?  

Suzanna: It’s so unfortunate that stories and situations like these are in fact “expected” in the industry, or even just in general. As I said earlier, as more of these stories emerge into the public, especially with musicians and public figures, it’ll only help more women to feel safe and come forward with their own.

Kelsey: This always happens and will always happen. It’s a matter of expectation and unfortunately will continue to happen until it’s recognized.

Suzanna: Also, just to point out, I don’t at all believe this is an issue directly related with the music industry or being a female in music means these instances are “expected” to happen by any means. This is obviously an overall issue with being a woman in general.

[Sexual abuse] is a matter of expectation and unfortunately will continue to happen until it’s recognized.

Emily: Of course. In regards to confronting and resolving the issue, what can the industry do to help those victims? We can all agree they shouldn’t fear for the future of their careers.

Suzanna: It could go as far as freedom of speech. Everyone is entitled to speak their minds and share their experiences, and with that in mind, there shouldn’t be a concern about speaking up about instances like these. If anything, they’re bold actions that should be respected and I don’t think it should jeopardize anyone’s career.

Kelsey: I understand the hesitation about revealing who they are and their names, but ultimately, I hope Kesha is supported by folks who are in the same situation. 

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There are numerous resources available for victims of sexual abuse to seek help. If you would like to report a case, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).   

*The views expressed in this piece do not reflect those of the panelists’ respective employers or companies.

Feature image courtesy of Billboard.

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