Since late 2017, Kesha’s live shows have meant more than ever. They’ve been explicit celebrations — of life, of her survival, of her newfound musical freedom. At most shows, she opens her encore with ‘Praying’, her heartwrenching return single that calls out her abuse at the hands of producer Dr. Luke. With each rendition of the song, she relives her journey from trauma through healing.
— Content Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual and emotional abuse. —
And then, she sings ‘Tik Tok’, the single that made her a star — and (in)famously, one of her foundational collaborations with Dr. Luke. It’s always a liberating moment — yet it’s undeniably strange, too.
It’s Kesha Sebert’s choice to keep performing ‘Tik Tok’ — to reclaim a song that sounds less bratty, more joyful than it used to. But it’s not by choice that their names are still associated; that Dr. Luke still earns performance royalties from each rendition of the songs they once co-wrote together.
Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald was, without question, the most visible and influential pop producer of the first half of the 2010s. He’s still producing current hit songs, while largely avoiding public scrutiny.
Within the pop music community, debate still continues about whether or not to stream Dr. Luke productions — and we’ve yet to propose a path towards accountability, let alone ethical consumption of his music. This column is my attempt to look at the bigger picture, and offer a clear-eyed way forward.
The Star-Making Machinery
Dr. Luke started his professional career in the Saturday Night Live band, playing lead guitar from 1997 to 2007. While performing a DJ set, he met pop superproducer Max Martin, and soon became one of his most prominent collaborators. With pop-rock smashes like ‘Since U Been Gone’, ‘U + Ur Hand’, ‘Girlfriend’, and ‘4Ever’, Luke was crucial in the success of that generation’s popstars, while also helping to reinvent his mentor’s image as a vestige of the Britney and Backstreet Boys days.
In 2008, Luke began to trade his crunchy guitars for bright, buzzy analogue synths. The hooks became sleeker, more efficient — almost weaponised. He reached his commercial peak working with Katy Perry and the then-Ke$ha — who he’d mentored since she was 18 in 2005, when he signed her to his publishing company Prescription Songs, and his label Kasz Money Productions, Inc. With Billboard Hot 100 chart-toppers like ‘California Gurls’, ‘Tik Tok’, ‘We R Who We R’ — they’d created a hell of an addictive formula.
Without ever singing a lead vocal, Gottwald was anointed within the industry as pop’s reigning king, with a gaggle of young male producer disciples around him: names like Ammo, Benny Blanco, Billboard, Cirkut. In 2011, Kasz Money became Kemosabe Records, a joint venture with Sony, with Luke at its helm. And in magazine profiles, the “Doctor” became a persona, defined by his charming, headstrong quirks and his precise musical process — which guaranteed results.
He was indeed the common denominator (or perhaps, the formula) behind all his artists and their undeniable hits…But even at the time, it rang false that he was credited as an auteur, while Kesha, his most prominent protege, was so often taken at face value. Some critics and fans were in on the joke — that she was flipping the gender politics of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill for the 21st century, with genuine heart behind it if you knew where to look. Other critics and casual listeners seemed to think she really was her party-girl persona. Either way, she was rarely granted consideration as a songwriter or artist in the public eye.
Kesha’s 2012 album Warrior was highly anticipated, but the album that arrived was as confident as it was muddled. Supposedly, Kesha had wanted to pursue a more rock-oriented direction, but Luke and her label insisted on maintaining her dance-pop sound. The two parties clashed in private, then in public.
In late 2012, after the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, U.S. radio stations began to pull Warrior’s triumphant lead single ‘Die Young’ in reaction. The lyrics in question: “So while you’re here in my arms/Let’s make the most of the night, like we’re gonna die young!”
Kesha expressed sympathy, but more surprising was her follow-up tweet. In the early 2010s, popstars were still expected to act like they were on top of the world — yet here she was, admitting that she wasn’t entirely in control.
In 2013, the Free Kesha movement emerged in response: a collection of fans who appeared to be in touch with Kesha, her mother, and other insiders. They alleged that her artistic vision was being controlled by Dr. Luke and Kemosabe Records, who had quashed not just demos that ran counter to her commercial direction, but also a full-length collaboration between Kesha and the Flaming Lips.
A few glimpses of her rawer sound emerged: on the Deconstructed EP that came with Warrior, the fan-curated bootleg album What Kesha Wants: The Creative Freedom Movement, and especially her deeply emotional cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’.
In early 2014, Kesha checked herself into rehab for an eating disorder. Before she could unlearn and move past her trauma, she had to identify its source.
In October, she filed a civil suit in California against Dr. Luke, alleging sexual assault, battery, and long-term emotional and psychological abuse. Kesha sought to be released from Kemosabe Records, citing that Luke’s actions had violated their contract. On the same day, Luke filed a countersuit in New York for defamation, alleging that Kesha’s true motive was extortion.
All of this cast a more sinister light on their recent past. Fans recirculated old Dr. Luke tweets that had seemed cocky at the time, but now looked like evidence — especially a photo he’d posted of a vulnerable Kesha sleeping. Even just this week, testimony was unsealed that showed Kesha reporting a sexual assault by Dr. Luke to her managers and label heads as early as 2005.
In early 2016, a judge denied Kesha’s injunction to be released from Kemosabe Records. This effectively meant that she would be prohibited from recording music without Dr. Luke being involved on some level. She’d been forced into a false binary: to work with her abuser, or to choose, “voluntarily”, to not make music at all.
It seemed like a clear injustice: the law had valued the technicalities of contract law over workplace safety — and ultimately, a human life. Later in 2016, suspicion was even cast on the presiding judge, when the New York Post uncovered that judge Shirley Kornreich of New York County was married to an attorney whose firm represents Sony and RCA Records — a huge potential conflict of interest.
It was at this time that broader public awareness came to the forefront. Fellow artists like Jack Antonoff and Adele spoke out in her support, while Taylor Swift donated $250,000 towards Kesha’s legal fees. I covered those original cases in 2016, while Vulture has a full timeline of their legal battles. The Twitter account @burbankbeach also has a useful thread of claims against Luke.
At the time, the outlook seemed grim. Five years later, Dr. Luke’s defamation suit continues. But whether it was due to the public outcry, the negative publicity towards Sony, or the pointlessness of forcing two duelling parties to maintain a working relationship — Dr. Luke exited as the CEO of Kemosabe in early 2017. The label still releases music from its existing roster, but does not appear to have made any new signings since — and it no longer maintains a web presence.
In the years since, Max Martin and Katy Perry, Luke’s two other most prominent collaborators, stopped collaborating with him. Pink and Kelly Clarkson have pulled no punches in publicly denouncing him. Lady Gaga, a survivor of sexual assault herself, was subpoenaed in Dr. Luke’s case over private text messages between her and Kesha — and fiercely defended Kesha in court. Public opinion was clearly on Kesha’s side.
In 2017, Kesha got to make a miraculous return: first with ‘Praying’, then her joyous third studio album Rainbow. It was surreal to hear top 40 radio stations and award shows showcase ‘Praying’, months before the #MeToo movement kicked off in earnest. Whether or not you knew Kesha’s history, you couldn’t miss the song’s message.
Rainbow was universally hailed as Kesha’s best album. There was no separation between her past and present, darkness and light, nor its pop, glam-rock, psychedelic and country styles — Kesha was simply, herself in her entirety.
But in the thrill of the moment, the business dealings behind the album flew under the radar. The details are murky, it seems likely that Dr. Luke did profit from Rainbow — and even approved its release. Though that fact in no way invalidates the album, it was easier to buy into the narrative that Kesha was completely triumphant — rather than rain on her parade with the elusive, inconvenient truth.
Kesha’s follow-up album, last year’s High Road, had a less splashy release in early 2020. She’d shed the emotional baggage of Rainbow, largely diving back into a more playful electropop style. High Road is an odd duck of an album — oft-messy, but without question, authentically Kesha.
As for Dr. Luke, he laid low for a few years. The early-2010s turbo-pop that he’d pioneered was over; by 2015, chart pop had taken a moodier, more R&B and hip-hop-inflected turn. Deliberately out of the spotlight, it was easy to forget Luke existed. And yet, his stylistic influence never quite went away — much of K-pop in particular sounds like 2011 never ended.
He continued to co-write and produce on less notable songs, occasionally taking up pseudonyms like Tyson Trax, Made in China, and supposedly, Manhun Glow. The ridiculousness of those monikers hid that they were a veil. Dr. Luke’s name was no longer a marquee attraction, but a secret shame.
Under The Blacklight
In 2017, the German-born, California-based pop artist Kim Petras released her official debut single, the sparkly 2011 throwback ‘I Don’t Want It At All’. She was overflowing with charisma — a strong voice, catchy songs, flamboyant image replete with a Paris Hilton cameo. And she had the story: over a decade earlier, she had received heavy media coverage for undergoing gender affirmation surgery at a young age. Now, she had something to prove: that she was more than a headline; more than, but certainly not above being, pop’s first out trans woman star. She wanted to be defined on her own terms, by her music.
Petras was a member of the LGBTIQ+ community, outside the major-label system, making colourful, celebratory pop that was largely out of vogue with streaming trends and the charts. To her mostly young, queer fanbase, that made her an underdog several times over.
However, fans and journalists soon took notice of her industry connections: specifically, that Lukasz Gottwald and his alias Made in China had songwriting and production credits on all her tracks. Petras had signed to Luke’s publishing company Prescription Songs in 2016 (though her recordings were, until mid-2021, released and distributed independently).
She wanted to be defined on her own terms, by her music.
Dr. Luke became Kim Petras’ professional and artistic mentor, while she became his first pathway towards an eventual comeback. Their working relationship raised various ethical questions, most of all: was she exploiting her outwardly progressive image to cover for working with an alleged abuser? Was her catchy music helping to launder his tarnished image? How deliberate was it all? At the very least, her success and his resurgence are inextricable.
Petras has given many interviews, yet only addressed her connection to Dr. Luke a handful of times. Her most articulate response to the Luke/Kesha situation came in the wake of fan backlash when she joined Troye Sivan’s Bloom tour as a support act in 2018: “While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr. Luke, that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple perspectives cannot exist at once. I didn’t communicate this clearly in the past.”
In 2019 she told The Sun: “It’s a complicated situation between the two of them. I just don’t want to include myself in that.” When asked by The Sun if she would consider working with Dr. Luke again, Petras responded, “I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.”
Two years later, she’s doubled down. Officially, Kim Petras signed with Republic Records just last week. Unofficially, fans have deduced via songwriting credits that she’s signed to them via Amigo Records, which appears to be Dr. Luke’s latest imprint under Republic Records and Universal Music Group. Their executives have privately taken in a figure that Sony will no longer protect.
by all accounts, dr. luke has a new imprint under republic records (UMG) called “amigo records” that kim petras is now signed to. that’s about as obvious a single that he’s been welcomed back into the industry with open arms as i can imagine https://t.co/XLnqg6V48h
— jaime brooks ☭ (@elite_gz) July 29, 2021
Full disclosure: I’ve previously written positively about Petras, whose music I mostly enjoy. I saw an opportunity to cover her as an artist, without much room to interrogate her relationship with Dr. Luke in a meaningful way. To be honest, I don’t regret doing the piece — but I always had far more to say about her situation.
In addition, Jared Richards interviewed her for Music Junkee in 2019, and gave a spot-on assessment of her appeal. Though he chose not to ask her about Dr. Luke, his reasoning is solid: “Ultimately, in the moment, I decide there is no real point. She’s already extensively spoken about it, the words rarely changing, let alone their substance.”
Say It Ain’t So
Since 2018, Doja Cat’s star has been on a meteoric rise. She got people’s attention with the deeply silly viral hit ‘Mooo!’ — and then repeated that success over and over again. In 2020, the dreamy disco track ‘Say So’ became her first song to top the Billboard Hot 100, and the first to do so thanks to a TikTok dance trend, eleven years after the Kesha single that gave the app its name. It was also Dr. Luke’s first #1 since 2014.
While Luke’s been less hands-on in his involvement with Doja’s career, she’s been more crucial to his return than Petras. In 2013, when she was just 17, Doja Cat was signed by Dr. Luke to Prescription Songs, and a joint deal between Kemosabe and RCA Records.
Part of Doja’s appeal is that she’s such a slippery, uncancellable cultural figure — like a more self-aware Azealia Banks. It’s unfortunate that this quality extends to her working relationship with Luke, where she’s been even more elusive than Petras. In a 2021 Billboard profile, the author was able to email Luke directly to ask about their collaborations — yet Doja herself simply did not comment on him during their interview.
I see y’all fighting for me. Thank you.
— yeeeeeees (@DojaCat) March 11, 2020
Instead of answers, we’ve had to settle for allusions: the above tweet, a response to fans’ surprise that Dr. Luke produced ‘Say So’; and another tweet she liked, endorsing speculation that she signed with Luke before she was aware of Kesha’s allegations.
There’s no public information on how many albums she’s signed for. But like Kesha prior to Luke’s exit from Kemosabe, Doja’s record contract appears to mandate a number of collaborations with him on each of her releases. With no realistic prospects for escaping her deal, most observers seem to have accepted that she’s just riding out her contract.
By contrast, Kim Petras had seemingly never been obligated to collaborate with Dr. Luke. Instead, she voluntarily signed that brand new contract with Amigo/Republic in 2021. She’s all in.
A Bitter Pill
Last year, Variety’s 2020 Hitmakers list mistakenly credited Dr. Luke as one of the producers of Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’. While factually incorrect, that didn’t mean he had zero involvement with the song.
Dua’s global smash was co-written with frequent collaborator Emily Warren, a young, yet established name in the Los Angeles pop songwriting sphere — and a fierce advocate for songwriters’ rights. Her publishing is signed to the previously mentioned Prescription Songs, also known as RX Songs.
Here’s the simplest explanation for what a publishing company does: they promote, manage, and pay advances and royalties out of a writer’s catalogue, in exchange for a cut of their songwriting royalties (recording/master royalties are a separate field, typically administered by labels themselves).
Prescription Songs was founded in 2009 by none other than Lukasz Gottwald, who’s never hidden his involvement. He’s never had to. They’re the third rail of his comeback — and by far the biggest, yet least visible to the public.
Prescription Songs was founded in 2009 by none other than Lukasz Gottwald, who’s never hidden his involvement. He’s never had to.
As an independent company, Prescription essentially functions as Dr. Luke’s own oasis — or fiefdom. Many of their artists and songwriters owe him their careers (though certainly not their talents). If he were anyone else, a successful publishing company divesting away from major labels would be a huge positive.
But after ‘Say So’ and the increasing rise of Prescription in the last few years, there was no longer any ignoring his presence in the industry. He’s stayed private on a personal level, but in his professional life, momentum is swinging back in his favour.
In the last few years, Dr. Luke’s received a wave of press that’s been positive — but complicated. In 2020, there was a Variety piece on his return; on the same day in April this year, Billboard published a profile of Doja Cat, and another on Prescription’s success with Luke as captain of the ship. Those pieces all juggle several responsibilities: to accurately portray Prescription’s business dealings and the songwriter-friendly precedent they’ve set within the industry; meaningfully address his history with Kesha; and interrogate him and his associates’ relationship to her allegations.
Those impulses clash, not so much because of the journalists or publications involved, but because the figures they interview seem unfazed by their questions — or dodge them outright. Said one unnamed executive to Variety, “Time is the great healer, and he’s been all but exonerated, as far as I can see. As an industry, we’ve forgiven far worse.”
If time has helped Kesha heal, it’s zero percent thanks to the actions of Lukasz Gottwald.
Ultimately, is it bad that he’s getting any kind of press? Or would things be worse if he and Prescription were operating with zero coverage? I personally think that articles like the above are unavoidable. What’s more problematic is every interview with Luke or Prescription that takes the easy way out, and brushes past his accusations and ongoing legal case.
To get another informed perspective, I interviewed Tom, one of the admins of the Kesha Discord, a fan group that also posts updates about her music and legal situation on Twitter. He responds, “Dr. Luke is testing out step-by-step how far he can go in his attempts to reenter the spotlight. He has begun to drop the pseudonyms he previously used on his more recent productions to avoid public backlash, and orchestrated a carefully crafted PR campaign that is intended to restore his reputation.
“He relies on the limited attention span of the public who — understandably — does not keep up with the developments of this lawsuit to the same extent as during the height of the #FreeKesha movement between 2013 and 2016. Even though Kesha does not physically have to work with her alleged abuser anymore, she is not ‘free’.”
Defining the Problem
This is the ongoing issue: that Dr. Luke, who’s been accused of sexual assault and emotional abuse by Kesha, has been allowed to continue operating as a powerful music industry figure with few personal or professional consequences. What would accountability look like for a figure such as Dr. Luke? Can we — fans, journalists, industry figures — do anything to halt his momentum? How can we envision a solution?
The most direct proposal would be to boycott Dr. Luke… right?
It’s time to boycott artists that willingly work with him like Kim Petras, Kid Laroi and Saweetie. But let’s be honest it won’t happen because people will throw their morals out the window if the song is good. https://t.co/R13P5a8aSA
— Kate Bishop (@FataleLady) August 27, 2021
Seemingly every few months since Kim Petras’ debut, and even just this week, certain segments of pop music fandom would (re)discover her involvement with Luke, and react accordingly. Their dual message: boycott Kim Petras, and don’t support anyone who voluntarily works with Dr. Luke, Kesha’s alleged abuser.
They’ve been successful in raising awareness of Petras’ ties with Luke, at least within their broader community of devoted online pop fans — but they haven’t been able to stall her momentum, nor stifle the appeal of her music. The furore would eventually die down, then the cycle would repeat all over again.
every time it’s brought up, we hit the same walls, and we get this weird cognitive dissonance that no one can actually do anything about. You either have to live with it, or you don’t
— Richard S. He 何盛皓 (@rsh_elle) June 28, 2019
The hurdle they have to overcome isn’t necessarily that Petras’ fans don’t know or care. It’s that the majority of people won’t perceive the question of whether or not to stream her music as a moral binary: don’t stream Kim Petras or you’re against Kesha. In a vacuum, they may have the moral high ground… but if the dilemma were that simple, the situation would already have been resolved. It has not.
The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed
I’m going to posit that a boycott, in Dr. Luke’s case, cannot be an effective strategy to remove him from power, nor lower his profits in an impactful way. Of course, targeted boycotts can be effective to a degree: they were part of the #MuteRKelly campaign, as well as less coordinated attempts to de-platform alleged individual abusers, from Ryan Adams to Ben Hopkins of the queer punk duo PWR BTTM. Even so, their streams will never hit zero.
But the inherent problem with any attempt to boycott Dr. Luke is: there is essentially no such thing as a clean break. The list of songs he’s personally collaborated on is big… but the full list of songs that he profits from via Prescription is uncountable. Their roster of songwriters numbers around 140 (the only public list is, oddly enough, in their Twitter header image). Their writers’ catalogues include several songs with over one billion Spotify streams: ‘Don’t Start Now’, ‘Eastside’, ‘New Rules’, ‘Mood’.
If you attempt to boycott Luke’s old co-writes, he’ll continue writing new songs. If you attempt to boycott the artists with whom he collaborates directly, what about his songwriters? And if you can keep up the energy to do a blanket boycott, checking every songwriting credit on New Music Friday or the Hot 100, there are millions of listeners who will stay unaware, don’t care, or may not see that as a solution.
Started making NMF posts a year after joining the @RXSongs team in 2014. Found this pic from 2018 where I was clearly shocked by how many cuts we had coming out that week. Pretty incredible that EVERY week’s list looks like this or longer now. Not bad for an indie 🥲 pic.twitter.com/7og2HtlkU3
— Jillian Rutstein (@JillianSay) August 6, 2021
Thirty years ago, if you wanted to financially boycott, say, Phil Spector (then-domestic abuser, later convicted murderer), you would simply have to not buy a CD. You could change the radio station if ‘Be My Baby’ came on, but he would receive royalties based on the number of stations that played his music — not your car stereo. Regardless of the impact of your choices, it seemed easier to know where you stood. Of course, that was an illusion too, in a media environment where it was easier for transgressions to stay private.
In the streaming economy, every play is considered an act of consumption. This has led to a situation where individual consumers threaten to punish problematic artists by withholding fractions of cents, while compensating the artists they do support with other fractions of cents.
Can you be concerned about both? Perhaps, but the system itself is so flawed that each stream — or non-stream — is a mere drop in the ocean.
You could withdraw from pop music and major labels completely… but is it right that the onus is on the listener? Is independent music inherently less prone to exploitation than pop? Is it healthy to treat popular art as a cultural minefield?
Knowledge Is Power
There are no easy answers to any of this, but at least we’ve acknowledged the problems we face in the present day. The next step is to look at the past: this Western music-industry system we were born into, and how and why we arrived at it. The more we educate ourselves, the more we can reach toward genuine positive outcomes.
Here’s one undeniable positive: that Kesha’s lawsuit, and her disclosure of Dr. Luke’s abuse, have done an enormous amount to open up the conversation around exploitation in the music industry — beginning several years before the #MeToo movement came into popular awareness. As fans and participants in music, it’s our job to help continue that momentum.
So why does the music industry so often fail its artists while covering for abusers? How are those two notions connected? Dr. Luke’s case illustrates what are the industry’s three core structural flaws.
The first of these? Hierarchy. In a perfect world, major labels and their artists would always have mutually beneficial relationships…but we’re all familiar with the cliched reality: the controlling producers and A&R men who pay for recording sessions, yet stand in the way of the artist’s true vision, demanding hit singles that follow trends (e.g. Clive Davis’ clashes with Kelly Clarkson).
In some ways, things have gotten better. Majors are less focused on developing artists from scratch in-house (the Britney/Christina model), and more looking to capitalise on independent artists who’ve already built strong brands and fanbases. It’s forced younger artists to define what they want for themselves, on their own terms.
In theory, they should be better equipped to deal with labels, should they choose to sign with one. Of course, deals with the devil still exist — for example, Megan Thee Stallion just filed her second legal case against 1501 Certified Entertainment, for preventing the release of her remix of BTS’ ‘Butter’.
Still, in mainstream pop, the old ideals seem to slowly be falling by the wayside. Ariana Grande, who signed to Republic Records in 2011, had to play by the rules in order to gain her agency: “There was a two-album period where I was doing half the songs for me and half the songs to solidify my spot in pop music”. Kesha bet on herself with Rainbow, self-funding the recording sessions with no guarantee that Kemosabe and Sony would ever allow their release. But Billie Eilish, signed to Interscope in 2017, has always been allowed to function with an enormous amount of independence.
Where Dr. Luke represents the old-school producer mogul, figures like Jack Antonoff and even Max Martin have proven to be positive forces in both art and industry, mentoring the next generation.
But both major and indie labels are still hierarchical — and therefore, subject to gatekeeping and imbalances of power. One example: Denis Handlin, former CEO of Sony Music Australia, was recently stood down by Sony’s global arm, just one month after celebrating his 50th anniversary in the industry. His ousting came at the time the label was investigating allegations of toxic workplace culture.
How much was his removal motivated by PR, and how much by a genuine desire to clean up the company’s act? Universal Music Australia recently followed suit, and are now investigating their own workplace culture. We’ll just have to wait and see — but journalists, grassroots organisations like Beneath The Glass Ceiling, and the Schwartz Media podcast Everybody Knows will be doing their best to keep them accountable.
The music industry’s second flaw is representation. Women are still vastly underrepresented in music production, engineering, live audio, and the business itself. However, it is essential to note that closing the gender gap would not magically solve everything overnight. Roughly two-thirds of Prescription Songs’ employees are female, yet that hasn’t voided the patriarchy at the heart of their company.
In honor of Women’s History Month we started a new collection of motivational messages from our incredible women executives. @RheaPasricha is a true leader and we value her years of music industry knowledge and wisdom daily. pic.twitter.com/kuCqdpOqJt
— Prescription Songs (@RXSongs) March 4, 2021
Diversity isn’t an end solution, it’s the bare minimum of a launching point for true equity. We need representation for its own sake, to help foreground marginalised perspectives — and for its success to not solely be measured by its profitability.
That leads to the music industry’s final flaw: capitalism itself. The music industry is fundamentally broken, and has been since the beginning of recorded music. The rot starts at the top (Taylor Swift-level artists not owning their masters) and flows all the way to the bottom (every artist who receives a fraction of a cent per stream, from platforms that are biased towards major labels).
The modern music industry most benefits business people who don’t have to bear the financial risk of being an artist: executives and shareholders, tech companies like Apple and Spotify (where the three major labels all own shares), and venture capitalists who’ve been buying up masters and publishing catalogues, like Scooter Braun and Hipgnosis Songs. Even they, while raiding the streaming economy that they built, have to wade through an enormous amount of red tape leftover from archaic, complex copyright laws. The current state of affairs isn’t ideal for anyone.
Power Is Power
Hierarchy, a lack of diversity, capitalism: these factors all intersect to enable Dr. Luke’s ongoing relevance. The music industry — hell, industry in general — is morals-agnostic. It facilitated Dr. Luke’s comeback more easily than Kesha’s, because both have proven to be profitable.
To quote Larry Rudolph, manager of Kim Petras, Miley Cyrus, and until last month, Britney Spears: “The guy’s a genius. He’s incredible at what he does and always has been. He got into an ugly and unfortunate public situation with an artist — but it’s not like his talent went away.” For the executives at Republic and Universal, who continue to prop up Lukasz Gottwald, it’s that simple.
But for the artists and songwriters hungry for success, or who simply want to make a living from their art, working with controversial figures is more a question of optics than ethics. They each have to make a cost-benefit analysis: do the professional benefits of working with Luke outweigh the potential negatives?
That even includes collaborations between artists and Luke-associated figures, some of whom are close personal friends — like Dua Lipa with writers like Emily Warren and Sarah Hudson, or Bebe Rexha with Doja Cat.
Rexha’s spoken up about uncomfortable experiences she’s had in the studio with several producers, including Dr. Luke. When she featured Doja on last year’s single ‘Baby, I’m Jealous’, she wasn’t signing up to work with Luke himself…but Doja’s songwriting and recording royalties will be funnelled through Prescription Songs and Kemosabe. She and Luke are a package deal.
The most candid response to all of this came from Troye Sivan in 2018, who’d grappled with the ethics of enlisting Kim Petras for his Bloom tour, and ultimately decided in her favour:
— 👼🏼 (@troyesivan) June 3, 2018
It’s hard to deny that for Petras, or any number of artists who signed with Prescription with full knowledge of Kesha’s allegations, their decision to work with Dr. Luke has been a net positive. Blame them for their choices if you like, but it’s not their fault that those choices have been rewarded.
Bonnie McKee, co-writer of ‘Teenage Dream’, said on the songwriting podcast And The Writer Is…, “Luke’s deals are famously bad, everybody knows that…He’s a brilliant businessman, so he’s getting his — that’s fine. And he gave me my career…I don’t regret it at all.”
At Prescription, however, Luke’s steadily developed a more artist-friendly image. Says Rhea Pasricha, their head of A&R for the west coast: “Luke is as involved as we or our writers need him to be. He has let us steer the reigns on the company and has empowered us to make executive decisions, as well as sign writers that we are passionate about.”
The music industry is so competitive that Prescription Songs must seem like a relatively appealing place to work. The current level of negative publicity has not been enough to stop new signees, or get old ones to walk away (Kesha’s contract struggles have not been an encouraging sign for anyone who might want to make a stand).
To be clear: everyone has options. Some may even aspire to change the company’s culture from the inside. All they have to do is ignore one giant elephant in the room.
It’s Been a Long Time Coming…
The truth is, there is no private, individual moral calculus that we can use to rationalise our way out of an existing structural issue. There is no path to un-streaming Lukasz Gottwald out of his fortune, nor his ongoing career.
Perhaps we reach to cancel Dr. Luke because he’s a morally obvious target; because the forces that enable him are abstract and invisible. When we listen to music for enjoyment and solace, all of this can seem like a catalyst for eternal depression. But we also come to music to shed light on the people and the world around us.
Acceptance — that things are worse than you’ve been led to believe — is the first step to healing. Perhaps, following Kesha’s lead, we can even begin to reclaim some of the good.
Meanwhile, Kesha’s legal clashes with Dr. Luke continue. Says Tom of the Kesha Discord, “Kesha is not ‘free’. She still must defend herself in a $50-million defamation lawsuit that has been going on for almost seven years, and is seemingly intended to financially ruin and humiliate her. She remains contractually bound to her alleged abuser, who uses the money he makes off her music to sue her.”
There is no path to un-streaming Lukasz Gottwald out of his fortune, nor his ongoing career.
The irony of Luke’s defamation case is that he’s only created more negative publicity for himself. His claims of defamation include Kesha’s private communications, made public by his own lawyers. As her legal team told Variety in 2018, “It would have remained completely private, except that Dr. Luke and his team took an email obtained only in discovery and decided to publish it to millions of people in his amended complaint against Kesha, and then claim reputational harm from his own widespread publication.”
With these disingenuous tactics, even his most ardent supporters can’t possibly believe that he has the moral high ground. The case is messy on purpose: it drags out the process, makes journalistic coverage more difficult, and ultimately, suppresses Kesha in a battle not of morals, but attrition.
In August 2021, what do Kesha’s prospects look like? Tom writes, “Last month, Kesha gained permission to assert a new counterclaim against Dr. Luke under New York’s amended anti-SLAPP statute, that is supposed to protect defamation defendants in suits brought by powerful and wealthy individuals. This is a game-changer that has been rightfully dubbed her ‘biggest victory’ yet by various media outlets, and has effectively turned the tides of this case.”
“The burden of proof for Dr. Luke to establish that Kesha defamed him is now much higher. I am confident that he will face an uphill battle from now on, as this case is heading for trial.”
“If Kesha prevails, she’ll be in a position to recover damages from Dr. Luke for the years of suffering this lawsuit put her through, as well as the millions of dollars in legal fees she had to spend defending herself. Kesha has come a big step closer to the justice she deserves.”
It’s a relief to hear that we can be tentatively optimistic. Step one was reclaiming her ability to record music, and to be able to write and release it on her own terms for the first time. Step two: to disentangle herself from this lawsuit, and hopefully never have to think about it again. But as long as they share songwriting credits, Kesha’s full financial independence from Dr. Luke is impossible.
As for Dr. Luke? Even if he loses his civil case, true accountability is elusive. He’s never been charged with anything criminal, and even if he was, how much faith do we really have in the carceral system, which prioritises punishment over reform and restitution?
The eventual outcome may itself be worth protesting. But ultimately, we’ll have to live with some level of discomfort — in the Kesha case, as in so many aspects of our everyday lives.
…But Is Change Gonna Come?
What can fans do to support Kesha? Says Tom of the Kesha Discord, “The most important aspect is to remind yourself and others of the circumstances Kesha (still) finds herself in, and not to let this lawsuit fizzle out of the public consciousness.”
We need to shed more light on Luke’s recent connections with Republic and Universal. So, encourage journalists who interview him, his collaborators and employees to ask direct questions. Encourage artists to not be flawless, to speak up about the issues they face within the music industry. In the long run, honest dialogue will be far better for artists and the industry than PR that’s built on false flattery, which only allows for vulnerability when it serves people’s personal brands.
Personally, if I do cover Kim Petras, Doja Cat, or other Luke-affiliated artists in the future, I’ll do so while acknowledging their connections. As a journalist, pretending they don’t exist is no solution. However, I certainly don’t see myself giving them straightforward positive press like in my previous piece.
Wherever you draw the line, it’s always better to acknowledge the impact – and reality – of your decision.
I wonder if the depth of Petras’ and Doja’s expression is limited by their associations with Luke — which stifles their ability to truly be candid in their life and art. Petras is as natural a popstar (and potential queer icon) as, say, Kylie Minogue, but I question if she’ll ever be embraced to the same level. Meanwhile, Doja is one of the stars of our current moment, but does she have the relatability, the vulnerability, to be beloved in the long term?
Will I listen to Dr. Luke’s ongoing projects? Yes. Not always (and there are still other ways to acquire music outside streaming). But I think the question of whether to stream problematic artists is ultimately about one’s personal boundaries — not the concept of “voting with your wallet” with fractions of cents. Non-consumption alone is not an act of protest.
At The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber makes the opposite case. Philosophers have been having this argument since the dawn of time: do we define our morals by our actions, or the consequences?
Wherever you draw the line, it’s always better to acknowledge the impact — and reality — of your decision. Whether or not you listen, others will. The profits will continue to flow. If you’re not a fan of pop music and don’t have to make this specific choice…unfortunately, you’ll have to make similar choices elsewhere.
Consequences should be real and tangible. But the fantasy of “cancellation” is that as a society, we can simply wash our hands clean of problematic figures, pretend they don’t exist or wish death upon them, and not go on examining the root causes (from the internal, human psychology, to the external, sociopolitical factors).
This has simply never been true. There’s no unopening Pandora’s box, no unwriting of history. We can only add to our existing history — and write one that acknowledges the full complexity of reality.
wanting other people to give you the answers on how you’re supposed to be A Good Person is part of the problem in itself! besides, things that might seem mundane or small or futile in isolation can make a big difference down the road. no one really knows for sure!
— Wolfenstein 3D-pilled dissident (@ellaguro) August 20, 2021
Artistic perfection exists only in moments. There’s no paradise, and there never has been. Progress is built upon past mistakes, not a conservatism that idealises a moral purity that’s never existed, and never will.
Still, I hold out hope — that these specific major-label stories are the death throes of a previous generation. I hope that we’ve learned from the ugly exploitation of Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse; that no one will ever be trapped in the same way as Britney or Kesha. I know that progress isn’t linear, and justice is elusive — and hard to define. But we can hope — that prevention will be easier than finding a cure for all the ailments of our present moment.
Pop music can be bliss, but ignorance should never be.
Richard S. He is a musician, screenwriter, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.
Photo Credit: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic