Will Dr. Luke & Sony Marriage Last After Kesha?
Regardless of what happens in court, the star producer & his corporate home have to decide whether to renew a five-year deal that hasn't produced any more Kesha-level stars.
Come the fall, will the Dr. be in -- or out -- of his deal with Sony? That’s one of the lesser examined, and certainly less lurid, questions arising as Kesha’s battle with her former mentor, Dr. Luke (nee Lukasz Gottwald), and Sony Music makes its way through the court system and sphere of public opinion.
Whether the producer is still on a hot streak may seem like a less provocative issue than what really happened behind closed doors between Dr. Luke and his most successful discovery. But all these factors could come into play by the time his five-year contract with Sony Music expires later this year. In November 2011, published reports had the deal for Sony to bankroll his imprint Kemosabe Records and enlist his exclusive production services worth an estimated $60 million over five years. Six months ahead of that end date, it stands to reason that Sony would either exercise a continuation of business relations, renegotiate the terms or cut Kemosabe loose.
Letting the deal lapse wouldn’t necessarily make a free agent of Kesha, who, in her bid to be released from Kemosabe and Sony, alleged in 2014 that Dr. Luke’s so-called mentorship included rape, though she denied it in a video deposition three years earlier (a Feb. 19 ruling by New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich denied the singer’s request for an injunction that would allow her to work with a different label). But a formal separation between Dr. Luke and Sony could at least lighten some of the public-relations burden for the company, which finds itself in the awkward position of having some of its own star artists (including Adele and Kelly Clarkson) issue statements supporting Kesha in the dispute. Still, getting out of the Dr. Luke business entirely would be a drastic step, given his status as one of the most successful producers in pop history.
Any campaign to get Sony to "free Kesha" is probably misguided, since the company has no direct contractual relationship with the singer that it could even consider severing. Moreover, if Sony were to pressure Dr. Luke to end his contract with her, the company would leave itself open to being sued for tortious interference. Kesha's supporters could instead focus their efforts on a "drop the Doc" campaign, in the same way that entertainment companies were pressured to cut ties with Bill Cosby, but the allegations made against Dr. Luke have been far narrower, and there are still plenty of people in the business inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, even if they're staying quieter. If Sony wants out, the company is much likelier to let the clock run out. (Reps for Sony and Dr. Luke would not comment.)
Would they want to anyway, just based on how the deal has played out? It's hard to imagine many major labels that wouldn't want to be -- or stay -- in the Dr. Luke business on some level, based on the stats: On the Billboard Hot 100, he's racked up 16 No. 1s as a producer, a streak that has him tied for third in the record books with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, trailing only George Martin and Luke's own frequent collaborator, Max Martin. (Not all of those have benefited Sony; half of those 16 No. 1s have been with Katy Perry, whom he continued to co-produce even after signing his otherwise exclusive Sony deal.) He's tied for sixth on the list of writers with the most No. 1s to their name. Expand the parameters further and he's credited with an astonishing 39 top 10 hits as a producer (and 40 as a writer).
As a label chief, though, Dr. Luke hasn't had the same magic touch, and few would contend Kemosabe has lived up to its potential over the last four and a half years. The imprint did have a hit single in 2015 with “Locked Away” -- by the Virgin Islands-based duo R. City, with a featured vocal by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine -- which peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 and made it to the top on Mainstream Top 40. Other fledgling Kemosabe artists have had a tougher time: Becky G made it to No. 16 on the Hot 100 in 2014 with "Shower" and LunchMoney Lewis rode its "Bills" single to No. 79 last year, while Christian Burghardt and Sophia Black failed to chart. Elliphant and Lil Bibby both have albums due in March.
On the production side, Sony has more to show for its Dr. Luke investment, though his last multi-week No. 1s, Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” and Pitbull’s (and Kesha’s) “Timber,” arrived in 2013. More recently, he had co-writing and playing credits on Maroon 5’s “Sugar,” which was officially produced by his most frequent current collaborator, Cirkut, also a member of Dr. Luke’s 40-person-strong Prescription Songs writing-production stable.
It’s far from inconceivable that Dr. Luke could be itching to see the deal end too, to stretch his production wings without being limited to the Sony fold. He got an exemption from that exclusivity to return to his most commercially fruitful ongoing collaboration, with Katy Perry, in 2013, executive-producing Prism and working with Cirkut and Max Martin on the No. 1 singles “Roar” and “Dark Horse.”
Given the show of sisterhood that’s arisen for Kesha, it’s worth noting that the bulk of Dr. Luke’s most indelible collaborations have been with powerful female singers, since his collaboration with Max Martin for Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” put him on the path to being as much of a household name as the Swede. He and Martin worked together again on Pink’s I’m Not Dead in 2006 and Avril Lavigne’s The Best Damn Thing in 2007 before hitting on an even hotter muse with two ubiquitous singles from Perry’s debut in 2008. After Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” in 2009, Dr. Luke proved he could discover as well as develop talent with Kesha’s star-making debut, which he co-produced with Benny Blanco and other upstarts in his stable. Follow-up albums with Kesha and Perry, as well as executive production for a Britney Spears collection and a smash with B.o.B marked him as arguably the most sought-after pop producer in a business far from short on contenders for that title.
Upon signing the Kemosabe deal, Dr. Luke seemed determined to build a small, unpredictable roster heavy on acts with potential international appeal, like the Mexican-American Becky G, Japanese/Native American Sophia Black and Swedish Elliphant. In between developing these acts, he spent the last couple of years working with acts like Shakira, Usher and Ciara, keeping his dance card full, if not quite achieving the radio ubiquity of a few years before.
What a Kemosabe exit from Sony Music would mean for Kesha’s recording future is not entirely clear. Sony would retain ownership of the albums she’s already released, and the litigation revealed that RCA is entitled to further albums under the furnishing agreement with Dr. Luke -- something that could outlast the expiration of a Sony/Kemosabe deal. At the very least, until that contract peters out, Sony is not in a position to interfere with Kesha’s standing contract with Dr. Luke’s Kasz Money. Says one source: “It’s the reason why Sony can’t cut her loose” -- nor would they necessarily want to, if she still represents their best opportunity to get a return on the Kemosabe investment.
Given the contentious circumstances, it’s ironic that Dr. Luke’s label was named after a term of endearment. Before the year is up, both he and his former protégé may find out who their friends really are -- and who will get to claim free agency first.