R Kelly conviction: will this be music’s #MeToo moment?

“It’s too late,” Robert Kelly, wearing sunglasses indoors, smoke billowing up from the cigar in his left hand, toasted with friends. “They should’ve did this shit 30 years ago.”

It was May of 2018 and the R&B artist, known as R Kelly, had been fending off lawsuits since the 1990s. But he was under renewed scrutiny after BuzzFeed reported that he was holding women in a “cult-like” setting, requiring them to ask his permission to eat or use the bathroom.

Kelly brushed off the allegations, swivelling liquor in a plastic cup as he bragged: “The music has already been injected into the world.”

Three years later, the 54-year-old may be headed to prison for life. In recent weeks 45 witnesses in a Brooklyn courtroom told stomach-churning stories about Kelly’s physical, mental and sexual abuses. Now, 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 sexually exploiting children.

It is little wonder why Kelly previously felt invincible. He had endured decades of allegations and lawsuits, each one systematically delayed or settled, as music executives and staff looked the other way while his star rose. Kelly’s enduring hits such as “I Believe I Can Fly” dominated primary school graduations, even as black women sued him for abusing them as teenagers.

“Nothing trumps the almighty dollar in the music industry,” said Jim DeRogatis, a Chicago music journalist and critic who has reported on R Kelly’s transgressions for more than 20 years. “Much more so than film, politics, any other realm in #MeToo, there’s this image of the ‘bad boy’ hip hop or rock n roll star.”

R Kelly performs at the pre-Grammy gala in 2011 © Mark J Terrill/AP

Kelly’s comeuppance, considered the most high-profile criminal conviction in modern music history, has shed an uncomfortable light on the practices of an industry that has made a fortune from these “bad boys”. 

The artist sold more than 40m albums over the course of his career. Even as listening waned this year due to his public disgrace, his former label RCA has made nearly $2m in royalty revenue, Billboard estimated in August.

In 2017 the #MeToo movement swept the film and television industries as reporting exposed the abuses of Harvey Weinstein and others, toppling scores of powerful titans of business and politics. But with a few exceptions, the music business has not undergone the same moment of reckoning that was felt elsewhere in Hollywood or corporate America.

Many popular musicians, including David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson, have been accused of sexual misconduct over the years. Lurid stories abound of rock stars seizing upon starry-eyed teenage fans.

However, with Kelly’s conviction, music now has its Weinstein — a singular figure whose acts were too pervasive and heinous to be ignored. But will the industry change this time?

When the music stops

In some respects, Kelly has already been muted over the past few years. He has been virtually erased from the radio and dropped by record labels Sony and Universal. Kelly’s monthly Spotify listeners have halved from more than 8.3m in 2018 to 4.9m as of this week, according to Chartmetric data. But this figure still puts him on par with acts such as Stevie Nicks and The xx.

As he faces financial crises, Kelly recently sounded out investors to buy his share of his songwriting catalogue, according to people approached by the singer. Yet a catalogue stacked with monster hits is now a fire sale; even Merck Mercuriadis, the executive who has gobbled up hundreds of catalogues at eye-popping prices in recent years, says he has “no interest”.

Barry Massarsky, who values music assets, said he “would not touch” the task of appraising Kelly’s catalogue. “Buyers would be really skittish. We’ve never had to deal with reputational risk before,” he said. “It’s all about predicting future cash flows, and how would you do that here?”

Yet while the industry shuns him now, music executives have known about accusations against Kelly for decades.

At the top of this list is Clive Calder, who made billions by signing teen stars Nsync and Britney Spears, in addition to R Kelly, building his company Jive Records into a 1990s pop powerhouse. Calder told the Washington Post in 2018 that “clearly we missed something”, but added that he was “not a psychiatrist”. 

After Kelly was arrested for child pornography charges in 2003, Barry Weiss, Jive’s chief executive from 1991 to 2011, told the New York Times: “For better for worse, he’s got to stay true to his audience. R Kelly’s got to be R Kelly.”

Weiss told the FT that when he made that comment, he had “no idea of the extent of the reprehensible behavior that was going on”. 

Weiss said that contracts typically prevent record companies from dropping an artist unless they are convicted of a crime. “Once you sign them, you’re locked into a contract,” he said. “[The artist] is not an employee. They don’t work for you. It’s a work for hire agreement.”

Even now, there is little to indicate that either Weiss or Calder’s careers have been impacted by their association with Kelly. Last year, industry bible Rolling Stone featured Weiss in a glowing series about “industry leaders”, while Calder is retired in the Cayman Islands, having sold his empire for $2.7bn.

Calder could not immediately be reached for comment.

“Executives are paralysed. They are burying their heads in the sand,” said Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive who has accused music mogul Russell Simmons of rape. “The notion that this dysfunctional culture is necessary to produce the magic of a hit record is a cop-out.”

Drew Dixon
Drew Dixon, a former A&R executive who has accused music mogul Russell Simmons of rape, which he denies © Getty/Equality Now

Dixon in her early 20s landed her dream job: scouting talent for Def Jam recordings where she worked with artists such as the Notorious B.I.G. But she ended up leaving the company after she alleges Simmons raped her. She would eventually exit the industry entirely. Simmons has denied Dixon’s allegations and has said all his relationships have been consensual.

Kelly will be in jail for at least 10 years. Yet his music will live on, as record companies and streaming services point fingers at each other over who should be responsible to decide whether to take his songs offline.

Sony’s RCA and Universal Music each own chunks of Kelly’s copyrights. Neither company promotes his work and both have dropped Kelly from their roster. But they keep his music online.

One major label executive at the pair, speaking anonymously, defended the choice to keep Kelly’s music out in the world, arguing that removing it would punish the co-writers of his songs who still make money from them. Another executive said the streaming services should make the call on what content they host.

Spotify in 2018 briefly removed Kelly’s music from its powerful playlists, but reversed the policy only a few weeks later, stating at the time: “We don’t aim to play 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 discouraged by the relative silence from big musicians and music executives this week. “R Kelly is the sacrificial lamb,” said Dixon. “They decide: we’ll cut off that appendage and keep it moving.”

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