R Kelly’s conviction: will it be the #MeToo moment for music?
“It’s too late,” Robert Kelly, wearing sunglasses inside, smoke billowing from the cigar in his left hand, clinked glasses with friends. “They should have done this shit 30 years ago.”
It was May 2018 and the R&B artist, known as R Kelly, had been pushing back lawsuits since the 1990s. But he came under further scrutiny after BuzzFeed reported he was holding women in a “cult-like” setting, forcing them to ask permission to eat or use the toilet.
Kelly brushed off the allegations, spinning alcohol in a plastic cup as he bragged, “Music has already been injected into the world.”
Three years later, the 54-year-old could be sentenced to life in prison. Over the past few weeks, 45 witnesses in a Brooklyn courtroom have told heartbreaking stories about Kelly’s physical, mental and sexual abuse. Today, one of the best-selling recording artists in recent history is finally facing the consequences. The jury on Monday found Kelly guilty of all charges of sex trafficking and racketeering, including child sexual exploitation.
It’s no wonder Kelly previously felt invincible. He had endured decades of allegations and lawsuits, each systematically delayed or resolved, as executives and music staff looked away as his star rose. Kelly’s enduring hits such as “I Believe I Can Fly” dominated elementary school graduations, though black women sued him for abusing them as a teenager.
“Nothing trumps the almighty dollar in the music industry,” said Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago journalist and music critic who has covered R Kelly’s transgressions for more than 20 years. “Much more than cinema, politics, any other area in #MeToo, there’s this image of the hip hop or rock n roll star ‘bad boy’.”
Kelly’s comeuppance, considered the most publicized criminal conviction in modern music history, shed an uncomfortable light on the practices of an industry that made its fortune on these “bad boys.”
The artist has sold over 40 million albums during his career. Even as listenership declined this year due to its public disgrace, his former label RCA generated nearly $ 2 million in royalties, Billboard estimated in August.
In 2017, the #MeToo movement swept across the film and television industries as reports exposed the abuses of Harvey Weinstein and others, toppling dozens of powerful business and political titans. But with few exceptions, the music business has not experienced the same judgmental moment as elsewhere in Hollywood or in corporate America.
Many popular musicians, including David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson, have been accused of sexual misconduct over the years. Scary stories abound with rock stars grabbing teenage fans with starry eyes.
However, with Kelly’s conviction, the music now has its Weinstein – a singular figure whose actions were too pervasive and heinous to ignore. But will the industry change this time?
When the music stops
In some ways, Kelly has already been muted for the past few years. It was virtually wiped from radio and abandoned by the Sony and Universal record companies. Kelly’s monthly listeners on Spotify have halved from over 8.3 million in 2018 to 4.9 million this week, according to Chartmetric data. But that number still puts him on par with artists like Stevie Nicks and The xx.
As he faces financial crises, Kelly recently surveyed investors to buy his share of his catalog of compositions, according to people approached by the singer. However, a catalog filled with monster hits is now a clearance sale; even Merck Mercuriadis, the executive who has swallowed up hundreds of catalogs at breathtaking prices in recent years, says he has “no interest”.
Barry Massarsky, who values ââmusical assets, said he “would not touch” the task of evaluating Kelly’s catalog. âBuyers would be really apprehensive. We’ve never had to deal with a reputational risk before, âhe said. âIt’s about predicting future cash flow, and how would you do that here? “
Yet while the industry shuns him now, music executives have known about the charges against Kelly for decades.
At the top of that list is Clive Calder, who has made billions signing teenage stars Nsync and Britney Spears, in addition to R Kelly, making his company Jive Records a 1990s pop powerhouse. Calder told the Washington Post in 2018 that “we clearly missed something”, but added that he was “not a psychiatrist”.
After Kelly’s arrest on child pornography charges in 2003, Barry Weiss, CEO of Jive from 1991 to 2011, told the New York Times: âFor better or worse, he has to stay loyal to his audience. R Kelly must be R Kelly.
Weiss told the FT that when he made the comment he had “no idea of ââthe extent of the reprehensible behavior that was taking place.”
Weiss said contracts generally prevent record companies from dropping an artist unless they are convicted of a felony. âOnce you sign them, you are locked into a contract,â he said. “[The artist] is not an employee. They don’t work for you. It is a contract of employment for remuneration.
Even now, there is no indication that Weiss or Calder’s careers have been affected by their association with Kelly. Last year, the Rolling Stone industry bible featured Weiss in a laudatory series on “industry leaders,” while Calder retired to the Cayman Islands, having sold his empire for 2.7 billions of dollars.
Calder could not immediately be reached for comment.
âThe executives are paralyzed. They bury their heads in the sand, âsaid Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive who accused music mogul Russell Simmons of rape. “The idea that this dysfunctional culture is necessary to produce the magic of a successful record is an evasion.”
Dixon, in her early twenties, landed the job of her dreams: researching talent for Def Jam recordings where she worked with artists such as Notorious BIG. She would eventually quit the industry altogether. Simmons denied Dixon’s claims and said all of his relationships were consensual.
Kelly will be in prison for at least 10 years. Still, his music will live on, as record companies and streaming services are singling out who should be responsible for deciding to take his songs offline.
One of the couple’s top record company executives, speaking anonymously, defended the choice to keep Kelly’s music in the world, arguing that removing it would punish the co-authors of his songs for making it. are still making money. Another executive said streaming services should call the content they host.
Spotify in 2018 briefly removed Kelly’s music from its powerful playlists, but only reversed the policy a few weeks later, stating at the time: “We are not aiming to be judge and jury. . ”
Sony, Universal Music and Amazon declined to comment for this story, while Spotify and YouTube did not respond to requests for comment.
Dixon says she is disheartened by the relative silence of great musicians and music leaders this week. âR Kelly is the sacrificial lamb,â Dixon said. âThey decide: we’re going to cut this appendix and move it forward. “