The Legal Beat: Atlantic Records Facing Two Sexual Abuse Cases

This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between. This week: Atlantic Records faces decades-old sexual assault allegations under a new statute in New York allowing long-delayed abuse cases, Taylor Swift fans sue Live Nation over last month’s Ticketmaster debacle, Guns N’ Roses files a trademark infringement case against a site that sells literal guns and roses, and much more.

THE BIG STORY: Atlantic Hit With Abuse Cases Over Founder

Atlantic Records is facing a pair of new lawsuits from women who say they were sexually assaulted by label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in the 1980s and 1990s. And thanks to a newly-enacted statute in New York state, more such cases in the music industry could soon be on the way.

Last week, former Atlantic talent scout Jan Roeg filed a case that claimed Ertegun (who died in 2006) assaulted her on their first meeting in 1983 and that his abuse then continued for “decades” after that. Naming both his estate and Atlantic itself (a unit of Warner Music Group), Roeg’s lawyers said company leadership knew about the problem but failed to take action to rein Ertegun in, thanks to a “boys will be boys” culture at the company at the time.

Then on Sunday, former Atlantic A&R executive Dorothy Carvello filed a similar suit of her own, saying she had been “horrifically sexually assaulted” by Ertegun during her Atlantic tenure in the late 1980s. Carvello’s case cast a wider net, also claiming that former Atlantic co-CEO & co-chairman Doug Morris had assaulted her, and that former chairman and CEO Jason Flom had enabled the misconduct.

“Executives at Atlantic Records … treated the company, its corporate headquarters, recording studios, and — even its corporate helicopter — as places to indulge their sexual desires,” Carvello’s lawyers wrote. “Employees like Ms. Carvello were the collateral damage of this toxic workplace culture.”

Though the lawsuits are new, the allegations are not. In her memoir Anything for a Hit, Carvello made similar accusations against Ertegun and has since become a relentless voice calling for accountability in the music industry over what she alleges are longstanding patterns of abuse and attempts to silence victims. She’s even purchased stock in all three major record companies, aiming to use shareholder status “to bring more transparency to the music industry,” she told Billboard at the time.

Both of the cases against Atlantic were filed under the New York’s Adult Survivors Act, a new statute enacted in May that created a one-year window for alleged abuse victims to file long-delayed lawsuits that would normally be barred by the statute of limitations. Advocates said the law was needed because the trauma of sexual assault and fear of retaliation often prevent abuse victims from seeking justice within traditional time limits.

The ASA’s one-year window only went into effect on Nov. 24, and there’s reason to believe that many more cases could be coming before the law expires in a year. When New York passed a similar law in 2019 covering victims of childhood sexual abuse, CNN reported that nearly 11,000 suits were eventually filed during a 2-year window. And it seems unlikely those cases won’t include other decades-old allegations against former executives in the music industry.

“The ‘sex, drugs, and Rock n’ Roll’ culture in the music industry at companies like Atlantic Records was taken as license by powerful men like Ahmet Ertegun to engage in sexual assault and other abuse of women,” said Lawrence M. Pearson, Roeg’s lawyer at the firm Wigdor LLP, in a statement when that case was filed. “Now, Ms. Roeg and other survivors of sexual assault who in past years were forced into silence due to the threat of retaliation or loss of their careers can get justice under the Adult Survivors Act.”

Other top stories this week…

TAYLOR FANS v. TICKETMASTER – More than two dozen Taylor Swift fans filed a lawsuit against Live Nation over Ticketmaster’s botched sale of tickets to her Eras Tour last month, the first known case filed over the fiasco. Mostly repeating existing gripes about the concert giant’s “anticompetitive” control of the live music industry, the case also alleged a veritable kitchen sink of other wrongdoing, including intentionally misleading fans about the amount of tickets that would be available and failing to take action against bots.

CLASH OVER COVID CASH – Can you sue somebody for copying your “novel idea” that artists might be eligible for federal COVID relief funds? We’re about to find out. In a new lawsuit, a longtime music agent named Laurence Leader accused talent manager Michael Oppenheim of stealing his idea to help musical artists tap into Shuttered Venue Operators Grants — a COVID-era federal program designed primarily to help venues, not musicians. Leader says that after he disclosed the concept to Oppenheim in strict confidence, the rival used the same scheme to secure more than $200 million in SVOG funds for Vampire Weekend, Marshmello, Common, Lil Wayne and many others — something the lawsuit deemed “despicable” and an “outright betrayal.”

BILLION DOLLAR BOOZE BATTLEJay-Z’s nasty dispute with Bacardi over their D’Usse Cognac brand might be bigger than we thought. In sealed filings made public last week, the rapper’s lawyers disclosed that Jay-Z previously demanded that Bacardi pay him $2.5 billion for his half of the business; that the rapper had offered to pay $1.5 billion to instead buy out Bacardi’s half; and that disputed internal forecasts showed D’Usse selling 2 million cases of cognac and earning $142.8 million annually by 2026. But it might be a while before we get a final outcome: The sprawling case is currently mired in procedural bickering between the two sides, spread across four lawsuits in two different states as well as a private arbitration proceeding.

LITERAL GUNS AND ROSESGuns N’ Roses filed a lawsuit against a gun retailer that’s using the name “Texas Guns and Roses,” arguing that the name infringes the band’s trademark rights — and that the band members especially don’t want to be associated with firearms or “polarizing” political views. The band said the Houston-based company “espouses political views related to the regulation and control of firearms and weapons on the website that may be polarizing to many U.S. consumers.” The site claims to sell literal roses, but GNR’s lawsuit called that a “contrivance” to justify the name theft.

MAN WHO SHOT GAGA’S DOG WALKER GETS 21 YEARS – James Howard Jackson, the man who shot Lady Gaga’s dog walker and stole her French bulldogs last year, took a plea deal and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. Jackson, one of three men and two accomplices who participated in the violent robbery, pleaded no contest to one count of attempted murder. Prosecutors said the connection to Gaga was entirely coincidental and that the perpetrators were simply seeking to steal valuable bulldogs, which can cost thousands of dollars.

FREEPLAY SAYS MUSIC ISN’T, AH, FREE TO PLAY – Freeplay Music, a company that sells so-called production music for use with video content, filed a copyright lawsuit against CNN that claims the cable news giant used more than 100 different songs in international segments without paying for them. Calling it infringement on a “breathtaking scale,” the Freeplay demanded at least $17 million in damages – the maximum in so-called statutory damages for every song infringed. The case is one of dozens of infringement lawsuits Freeplay has filed over the years, drawing criticism that the company is more interested in “extracting settlements” than actually selling music.

ASTROWORLD LITIGATION UPDATE – More than a year into litigation over the deadly Astroworld music festival, attorneys for the event’s organizers told the judge overseeing the case that nearly 1,000 fans who sued over their alleged injuries have ignored discovery deadlines and failed to hand over “critical evidence.” With roughly 2,500 alleged victims still in the case, attorneys for the defendants in the case — Live Nation, Travis Scott, Apple and many others involved in the festival – warned that 956 of them had “not provided any response whatsoever” to basic requests for information: “There is no excuse for the non-responsive plaintiffs’ complete disregard of their discovery obligations.”

Bill Donahue