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‘You Owe Me’: Songwriter Accuses Former Publishing Exec of Leveraging His Power for Sex

Nataliya Nikitenko's allegations against former Kobalt executive Sam Taylor shine a spotlight on the power imbalances that have largely gone unexamined in the music industry.

In March, the songwriter Nataliya Nikitenko posted a photo of Sam Taylor, former executive vp of creative at the music publisher Kobalt, on her Instagram story along with the incendiary allegation that the executive was a “sexual predator.” That same month, she sent an email to company executives seeking to be released from her publishing administration deal, claiming that her alleged experience with Taylor left her “traumatized” and charging that the company “has barely, if ever, had my back.”

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From 2016 to 2019, Taylor had worked as Nikitenko’s “point person” at Kobalt as she amassed a string of credits that included Little Mix‘s “No More Sad Songs” and A Boogie wit da Hoodie‘s “Streets Don’t Love You.” Nikitenko appeared to be building a strong songwriting resume.

But she alleges her success came with a price. Nikitenko accuses Taylor of “abuse of power,” claiming that, in 2016, she gave in to pressure from the executive to have sex because she feared there would be “consequences for my career” if she didn’t submit to his advances. She says they had sex five more times between the fall of that year and February 2020.

In a statement to Billboard, Taylor’s lawyer said “Sam and this woman were together a total of three to four times over three years. Their relationship was completely consensual at all times. And it is a shame that his efforts to genuinely help her career, unrelated to any relationship, are being turned on him in this manner. We assume that she’s doing this with full knowledge of the complete lack of linkage between his efforts on her behalf and any relationship. That relationship has long since ceased.” (Through his lawyer, Taylor declined to answer a detailed list of questions about Nikitenko’s allegations on the record.)

It appears that Nikitenko is not the only person affiliated with Kobalt who complained about Taylor’s conduct while he was there. Speaking with sources familiar with the executive and his time at the music publisher, Billboard has learned that several employees flagged Taylor’s behavior to Kobalt’s human resources department — one complaint alleged a sexual relationship between the executive and another employee, while another claimed that the executive had threatened a co-worker.

Kobalt declined to respond to specific questions about these complaints, but issued a statement to Billboard that reads, “Since the beginning, Kobalt has had a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any sort. It’s against our culture, values, and policies.”

Taylor joined Republic Records in 2020 and is now the head of hip-hop and R&B A&R. Republic declined to comment for this story.

#MeToo in Music

Stories of sexual misconduct in the music industry have circulated behind closed doors for decades. In a study published by Midia and TuneCore in 2021, roughly two-thirds of the more than 400 women surveyed named sexual harassment as a major problem in an industry characterized by “unbalanced power dynamics.”

Yet victims of sexual misconduct rarely go public with their claims. There are many reasons for their silence, according to experts; among them, fear of personal humiliation, victim-shaming, and the reality that even when they do come forward, the consequences are rarely severe for the alleged abusers. “There hasn’t been a public reckoning with #MeToo in music in the way you expect there to be,” says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law center.

Maybe that’s beginning to change. Sony Music Australia recently faced allegations of sexual harassment and a toxic work environment spanning two decades; the CEO of the Australian operation was ultimately held responsible for the workplace culture and removed from his position. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone reported that Warner Music Group chief executive Stephen Cooper allegedly propositioned an employee in 2017 — he denied the accusation — and the investigation into that claim and sexual misconduct allegations against two other executives led the company to revise its Code of Conduct, roll out additional training programs, and fire one of the other two executives.

As for Nikitenko, she says she is exploring possible legal action and hopes that, by going public, she can be a catalyst for more accountability in the music industry. She believes that accountability should extend beyond individuals to the companies that employ them. She has asked Kobalt to let her out of her publishing deal, but is wary of the termination agreement the company offered her because it contains a non-disparagement clause.

“There Was Nothing Professional About It”

When a young songwriter inks a publishing administration deal with a company like Kobalt, having an executive who is proactive on her behalf “is of the highest importance,” says one source with extensive experience in music publishing. “You need someone who will ride for you internally but also just make connections for you,” the source adds. “In fact, [having that] is the only thing that matters beyond making sure the publishing deal a writer signs is not some draconian trap.”

Paige Parsons had originally signed Nikitenko — who wrote under the name Tash Phillips — to Kobalt, but parted ways with the company a few months later. In February 2016, when Nikitenko attended the company’s annual Los Angeles “Writers’ Hang,” which offers writers a chance to mingle with their peers, she says she first met Taylor, an industry veteran who previously worked at both major labels (Elektra and Atlantic Records) and music publishing companies (Warner/Chappell and Sony/ATV, now Sony Music Publishing).

I profiled Taylor for Rolling Stone in 2019, not long after he earned a promotion at Kobalt. (I have spoken or texted with him a few times since then, in addition to reaching out to him for this piece.) Producers I spoke with at the time admired Taylor’s ear and his ability to facilitate their next hit — “Sam really helps the people that he signs,” J. White (Cardi B‘s “I Like It”) said, “linking them up with each other, bringing them more opportunities.” When Kobalt promoted Taylor, the company praised him for being “integral” to “key signings and [the] development of songs that have gone on to generate billions of streams.”

Sammie Taylor
Sam Taylor in 2021 Courtesy of Universal Music Group*

At the Writers’ Hang, Nikitenko says Taylor asked for her number and later texted her, “don’t forget me.” He became more flirtatious, according to Nikitenko, at a meeting later that year where she played music for several Kobalt executives. Taylor was present, she says, and complimented some of her demos. After the meeting, she recalls that he asked to take her to dinner.

“I just turned 21. I thought this guy was like 40,” Nikitenko remembers. “There was nothing professional about it.” She says her response at the time was to laugh nervously.

After several months, Nikitenko eventually met Taylor outside of work. She says she tried to make the meeting “a publisher-client situation,” proposing via text that it take place in a public place. But Taylor messaged that he wanted to meet at her house. “That’s not really how I roll,” Nikitenko replied. “I was always down to go out [to dinner] with u not just meet up at my apartment.”

In another text, Nikitenko wrote to Taylor, “I didn’t hit u up for u to just meet at my apartment and sleep with u.” “That’s your problem,” the executive texted back. “You think I’m saying let’s do that.” He added “I’m not that guy” and “whatever happens happens.”

The pair met at a restaurant in October 2016, according to Nikitenko. She claims Taylor asked to drive her home that night, and she recalls thinking, “I felt like I had no other option than to let him come back to my place. If I didn’t do this, I know there are going to be consequences for my career.”

They had sex that night, she says, then Taylor “immediately left.”

“It’s Inherently Inappropriate”

Texts show that, a few days after that initial encounter at Nikitenko’s apartment, Taylor messaged, “2nd [round] soon.” “It wasn’t, ‘do you want [to sleep together again]?’ It wasn’t a question,” says Nikitenko. “I remember going to [one of my best friends] and crying and saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.'”

That longtime friend confirmed to Billboard that Nikitenko frequently confided in her about Taylor. When the friend first heard of Nikitenko’s interactions with the executive, “my initial thoughts were: This is so inappropriate, he’s taking advantage, he’s manipulative,” she says. The friend recalls that during one dinner that devolved into “a sobbing flurry of information,” Nikitenko said she worried that Taylor was “going to start withholding opportunities.”

Another text from Taylor read, “Only 3somes with me FYI.” When Nikitenko wrote back “… not into threesomes really… lol,” the executive responded “… couple drinks you’ll think diff lol.”

A different confidant of Nikitenko’s describes the songwriter’s interactions with Taylor as “gross,” noting that the executive was married. (Sources say Taylor kept a photo of his wife in his office at Kobalt.) “It wasn’t non-consensual,” the friend says of the interactions. “But with a power dynamic like that, it’s inherently inappropriate.”

That friend remembers asking Nikitenko, “why don’t you walk away?” To which she says the songwriter replied: “you don’t understand how much power he has over my career.” Taylor would remind Nikitenko of the work he claimed he’d done on her behalf. Among his texts: “ask around on how much I’ve pitched or pushed your name;” “half your shit inside that [office] is because of me defending or pushing them to go for you.”

Some institutions have long regulated sexual interactions between people who work together with differing levels of power. (In the wake of the #MeToo movement, more organizations have followed suit.) “When there is a power dynamic in a workplace relationship, it is very difficult to verify true consent,” says Shannon Rawski, an assistant professor at Ivey Business School who has studied sexual harassment and the effectiveness of sexual harassment training.

“That’s because there is always a potential threat for the person with less power [in the interaction] — economic loss, negative career impact, possible retaliation — even if it is not expressed,” adds Lynn Bowes-Sperry, an associate professor at Cal State East Bay who has been studying and writing about harassment-related issues since 1996.

Experts say that’s why many prominent corporations try to regulate or prohibit sexual interactions at work between employers and their subordinates. At organizations which don’t have these rules in place, Rawski says that “people in formal positions of power have a special responsibility to not put any of their subordinates in a situation where they’re not sure what the consequences would be for saying no to a sexual or workplace romance request.”

But abuse of such power dynamics can be hard to police. And in the music business, it’s made harder by the fact that employment relationships are often unconventional. Nikitenko says she believed Taylor had influence over her career — a belief his texts fostered — but he wasn’t her boss in the traditional sense: She had entered into a contractual relationship with Kobalt, but was not a W-2 employee.

A version of Kobalt’s U.S. Employee Handbook obtained by Billboard “strictly prohibits harassment of any employee by any supervisor, employee, customer or vendor on the basis of sex or gender.” Examples of “prohibited behavior” include: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors… sending sexually explicit e-mails, text messages and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” But while the Handbook prohibits harassment of employees, it does not address potential situations in which employees harass artists who have contractual relationships with the company.

“Kobalt maintains robust employment policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, and all Kobalt employees are required to complete mandatory harassment training,” the company said in a statement.

“You Owe Me”

Taylor made a mark at Kobalt by signing ascendant hip-hop stars Gunna and Roddy Ricch along with hit-making producers like Teddy Walton and Ben Billions. But behind the scenes, one person in the music industry who knows Taylor describes him as “a master manipulator” who would strategically forge alliances and friendships by doing things like telling one person that someone else was talking about them behind their back. Two of Nikitenko’s longtime friends also use the word “manipulative” to describe the way he interacted with her.

“He would position [Nikitenko] to do things for him,” another confidant says. She offers a hypothetical example of how Taylor would talk to Nikitenko: “‘I’m gonna send your stuff over to Drake, don’t you worry. Are you gonna send me a little something? Am I gonna get a reward for this?'”

In 2017, a song Nikitenko had written titled “Him” attracted the interest of an executive at Republic Records as it was putting together the soundtrack for the third installment in the 50 Shades of Grey franchise, 50 Shades Freed. This type of placement is a potentially career-changing look for a songwriter. “We get this 50 placement you owe me something lol,” Taylor texted. (The song did not end up appearing in the film.)

Nikitenko received similar texts when she sent Taylor some demos in 2018 that she hoped would make it to the R&B singer Kehlani (“I have them and you owe me,” he wrote) and when he helped connect her with a new manager (“you owe me dammit”). “He says, ‘you owe me, you owe me, I need my fee,'” Nikitenko recalls. “Which meant sex.”

Although she discussed her situation with close friends — the second confidant recalls that Taylor “made her so nervous all the time” — Nikitenko says she did not report the executive’s behavior to Kobalt until recently because she did not believe the company would come to her aid. Staying silent is not unusual for people in her alleged situation. According to a 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, studies found that just “6% to 13% of individuals who experience harassment file a formal complaint.”

“I Have to Speak Out”

Kobalt promoted Taylor in July 2019, but a few months later, Nikitenko says he called her to say he had been fired from the company. “Kobalt does not discuss the circumstances under which employees leave Kobalt, including with respect to Sam Taylor,” the company said in a statement to Billboard. “However, he has not worked at Kobalt since October of 2019.”

On the phone with Taylor that year, as Nikitenko recalls it, he warned her, “‘if you tell anyone, anyone, about us, we’re both fucked.'” She alluded to this call again in her recent post on Instagram.

Nikitenko told two senior executives at Kobalt — Sas Metcalfe and Sue Drew — about her allegations against Taylor on a Zoom call in September 2020, according to information reviewed by Billboard. Nikitenko says the two women offered their sympathy, while also telling her that they had previously been unaware of any of her accusations. It’s not clear whether Metcalfe and Drew would have been told about the other alleged incidents involving Taylor that had been reported to the human resources department, and Kobalt declined to respond to questions about the other complaints.

Taylor was promoted to his current position at Republic Records in December 2021. When Nikitenko found out about his new role, she says she thought, “that’s so much power over young women coming into the office. I have to speak out.” (Since 2020, she has also been going to a therapist that specializes in processing trauma.)

Nikitenko says she felt comfortable enough to share her allegations more widely during a trip back to Australia to see her family in March. With an ocean between her and Taylor, she posted the “sexual predator” accusation on Instagram. She says he has not contacted her since that post, though she messaged him to say, “who’s the one living in absolute fear now?”

The same month, Nikitenko also sent an email to Kobalt executives, which she shared with Billboard, asking to be let out of her deal. Among the reasons she wrote that she wanted to leave: “Sam Taylor putting me through what he did and doing everything he did to me and my body leaving me traumatized.” She also alleged that Kobalt allowed an artist to record one of her songs without her permission, a charge that the company denied via email. “Kobalt considered the allegations baseless,” the company added in a statement, and “communicated that view to [Nikitenko].”

Metcalfe wrote back to the songwriter and, without referring to Taylor, said the company would let Nikitenko walk, according to emails viewed by Billboard. The executive then looped in the company’s head of business affairs, Jim Arnay, who sent over paperwork that would formally dissolve Nikitenko’s relationship with Kobalt. But the document, which she shared with Billboard, came with a provision that read, “you agree not to disparage Kobalt and its officers, directors, employees, or agents in any manner likely to be harmful to them or their business, business reputation or personal reputation.”

When reached for comment, Kobalt said in a statement that “to settle this matter and avoid further engagement, Kobalt offered to terminate the Term of [Nikitenko’s] agreement early. The terms ultimately offered by Kobalt were favorable to [her] and did not require repayment of her outstanding advance.” And the company noted that “non-disparagement clauses” are “standard.”

Nikitenko says she views those clauses as an attempt to muzzle her and prevent her from speaking about her interactions with Taylor in the future. “It’s basically an NDA,” she says of the paperwork Kobalt sent her.

She still has not signed the document.

Stories about sexual assault allegations can be traumatizing for survivors of sexual assault. If you or anyone you know needs support, you can reach out to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). The organization provides free, confidential support to sexual assault victims. Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the anti-sexual violence organization’s website for more information.