You wouldn't have guessed it from looking at the crowd gathered at 550 Madison Avenue Friday morning, that this was the culmination of a national movement. But the 15-person group was just that — they were the boots-on-the-ground side of the online Free Kesha movement.
The movement aims to set musician Kesha free from her contract with Lukasz Gottwald, a.k.a. Dr. Luke, the producer who the singer alleges emotionally and sexually abused her for years and with who she is legally obligated to produce six albums with. The Free Kesha movement got its start in 2013 after the singer revealed her struggles with Gottwald, but has recently made headlines after a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled that Kesha would not be able to terminate the contract that binds her to the producer.
The case has recieved a large amount of coverage online, and celebrities including Adele, Miley Cyrus, and Demi Lovato have all lent their voices to support Kesha. For many, the singer's specific case represents a larger problem of sexism in the music industry.
Yet there was a striking discrepancy between the online buzz surrounding Kesha's predicament and the actual protest outside the Sony building. A Change 2 petition asking Sony to free Kesha has received over 200,000 signatures, and tweets about the protest received over 1,000 retweets from various accounts. Yet the protesters outside Sony numbered about 15 people. There were more reporters than protesters, but given the media hype, it didn't seem to matter.
The protesters included mostly 18- and 19-year-old college students and fans of Kesha from New York and Connecticut, as well as a few older protesters who, though not personal fans of Kesha, see the outcome of her case as indicative of a broken system that discourages women from coming forward about sexual assault.
Leading the protest was Michael Eisele, who runs the Twitter account @KeshaTODAY. Eisle has been a vocal advocate of Kesha's since 2013 when she disclosed that she was given little creative input on her album Warrior. "Kesha has touched the lives of people by encouraging them to be themselves," Eisle says, adding, she inspired him to come out to his parents.
Though Sony made remarks on Thursday that they don't have the power to free Kesha due to the bureaucratic complexities of her contract (she is technically signed, not with Sony, but with Dr. Luke's label Kemosabe which is owned by Sony) Eisele says he still believes Sony has the power to set Kesha free.
"Kemosabe is a joint venture with Sony. They have the capability of cutting ties with Kemosabe in total, which would put the record label under, essentially," Eisele says. "So by them cutting ties with Dr. Luke, they can free Kesha, because no Kemosabe, no contract."
Jessie, 31, is also skeptical of Sony's claim that they're not in a position to terminate the contractual relationship between Luke and Kesha. "Sony is hugely powerful. I think this is one of those situations where, horribly, money has a lot of power. And contracts can be broken. I mean, we live in New York, we know this because of real estate — it's very easy to break a contract," Jessie says, adding, "she's not asking for prosecution, she's asking for a new contract. Sony should want her to do her best and they should giver her that option."
Jenny and Lila, two NYU students, aren't self-proclaimed Kesha super-fans, but the pair showed up to protest what they see as a problem with the US justice system. Their signs read "White men in power are not exempt from the law."
"It's great that Kesha's voice is being heard," Jenny says, "but it's so important to listen to other voices, and we're hoping this issue will raise up other people as well."
Lila echoes Jenny's sentiments, adding, "I hope that this also opens opportunities for women of color, trans women, queer men, queer women also have their stories heard because they're equally if not more important. We hope that eventually people will start prioritizing women and people's rights over a piece of paper."
None of the protesters seemed perturbed by what could be seen as the event's lackluster attendance. Instead, they seemed elated that the issue is getting any attention at all. The Free Kesha movement started and continues to grow online, and shouts of "Keep tweeting, let's get it trending" could be heard repeatedly at Friday's protest.
Dr. Luke's lawyers have called the Free Kesha movement a "trial by Twitter." But it's exactly this social media outcry that has given Kesha's legal battles the attention they to need to be taken seriously by the mainstream media.