In the days after last weekend’s premiere of “Surviving R. Kelly” — the harrowing Lifetime documentary in which multiple women level detailed accusations of sexual misconduct against the singer — public outcry against him has reached fever pitch, particularly for RCA Records, his longstanding label, to end its relationship with him. As of this writing, Kelly remains on the roster and the label did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet allegations of sexually abusive behavior by Kelly toward young women are hardly new; they date back more than 20 years. Most infamously, Kelly was charged with child pornography in 2000 after a video surfaced that purported to show him having sex with an underage woman (Kelly was cleared in 2008 after that woman declined to testify against him). In 1995, when he was 27, he briefly married the late singer Aaliyah, who was 15 at the time (in “Surviving R. Kelly” an executive who formerly worked with the singer says he forged Aaliyah’s birth date on the marriage license to say she was 18, and another witness says she saw Kelly and Aaliyah having sex). Just last year, reports of Kelly essentially holding women captive in a “sex cult” were published. Multiple other reports have surfaced over the years.
Through it all, RCA — Kelly’s label home for the entirety of his solo career, both directly and as part of its partnership with Jive Records (which merged with RCA in 2007) — has stood by the singer, albeit effectively muted from discussing anything involving his music, never mind his non-professional endeavors. Meanwhile, the public remains baffled: how is it possible that R. Kelly remains an RCA recording artist after so many years of horrific accusations? There are several factors.
A major reason is the fact that, despite the number and specificity of the allegations, Kelly has never been convicted of a crime and has steadfastly maintained his innocence. As Spotify learned last year when it attempted to ban artists — particularly Kelly — from its playlists based on behavior it vaguely defined as “hateful conduct,” attempts by music companies to penalize artists for their behavior is a slippery slope. Spotify ended up briefly penalizing two artists — Kelly and rapper XXXTentacion, neither of whom had been convicted of the relevant charges of sexual misconduct — before walking back the policy due to its vague definition (why didn’t they also penalize artists who have been convicted of serious crimes?) and execution.
But Spotify is a streaming service; RCA, which is owned by Sony Music, is a record label, and like all record labels, its reputation is inextricably connected to its roster. “Some recording agreements say that if [an artist is] convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude, generally speaking it is the label’s right to terminate the contract,” attorney Leslie Frank, a partner of King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, where she represents entertainment-industry clients including Metallica, Dr. Dre, Pearl Jam and Skrillex, told Variety last year. Such a provision is not always found in recording contracts, she added. “That is a modern concept; if a contract is older or maybe with a very prominent artist whom the label has no reason to believe would have any trouble of the criminal variety, then it won’t necessarily have that provision.”
However, whether or not such wording is in a contract, “any record company — or, really, any party to any contract — can decide they no longer want to be in the contract,” Frank continued. “The question is what can happen as a result of them asserting their desire to terminate the term of the agreement. R. Kelly could sue for damages. If R. Kelly does not want to terminate the agreement and instigates a dispute saying that it’s a breach of contract by RCA, if RCA is concerned about the cost of litigation and how a court might decide, they could try to come to a settlement with R. Kelly.”
The simplest exit for the label, Frank said, would be to wait for Kelly’s contract to expire. His most recent release for RCA was a 2016 Christmas album, although he has released several songs independently online since that time (and announced Friday that he has a new album on the way), presumably with RCA’s consent.
“The terms of recording agreements are contract periods, and the artist has to deliver a certain number of recordings — the traditional version is an album — and the record label would have some number of months to get it commercially released,” Frank said. “If the record label doesn’t release the record, the contract usually says something like ‘the artist’s remedy is to terminate the agreement,’ or the remedy might be that the artist requires the label to license the record to [another company] to release.
“However,” she continued, “if he hasn’t delivered a record that he was supposed to deliver on the timeline in his current contract period, RCA would typically send him a written notice saying, ‘You were required to deliver this record as of whatever date, you haven’t done it, you have 30 days to cure.’ If he doesn’t deliver it, that’s material breach and the label would have the right to terminate.” She added that if RCA has not exercised its next option, they could be out of contract within 30 days of receiving a reminder letter from Kelly.
Yet the backlash from “Surviving R. Kelly” could mean that RCA does not have time to wait for an option period or the singer’s contract to end. Other insiders suggest that the company’s decision to remain with Kelly could be influenced by the perception that the black community, which comprises the majority of Kelly’s audience, remains divided on the situation. “Talk in the urban community is that it’s not just about Kelly — it’s about all the enablers who worked with and around him,” one insider says. “R. Kelly could not do [the alleged behavior] by himself.”
While RCA is presumably several removes from any such behavior, if the outcry in the wake of “Surviving R. Kelly” continues to grow — and grow beyond the black community — it could conceivably force RCA’s hand. This could be especially true in light of the label’s curious decision to announce a new deal with Chris Brown — who, unlike Kelly, has been convicted of violent crimes against women — last Friday, the day after the first episode of the Lifetime documentary aired.
The move, however, could also signal that RCA is not concerned about such optics. “The most obvious inference is that RCA signed a new deal with Chris Brown because it weighed other factors more heavily than his having pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna in 2009,” an entertainment attorney tells Variety. “If public adverse reaction to RCA’s decision is significantly greater than anticipated, that could influence the label’s decision-making process. [On Friday] R. Kelly announced a new album on Twitter, so there could be more soon.”
Another entertainment-business attorney is perhaps more cynical. “It’s yet another example of how tolerant the music industry seems to be of people who might not receive the same treatment if they were in more conventional businesses,” the attorney says. “People like R. Kelly have leverage: There’s a lot of relationship entanglement in this business, and there seems to be a higher pain threshold to accommodate some of these artists who are still franchise players. The only thing I can say beyond ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is, until no one is paying for Kelly’s music anymore, it comes down to one thing: money.”
Another industry insider points to such artists as Phil Spector — the influential 1960s-era producer who remains in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in 2009. “If a label starts purging its back catalog based on an individual’s later behavior [such as Spector’s], that’s a slippery slope,” the insider says. “But in terms of the active, current roster, a company has to ask, ‘Who are we actively working with as an organization, and what does that say about us?’”