Kane Brown is being sued, which probably shouldn’t surprise anyone. And the lawsuit is by a former producer and label owner who says he helped establish Kane Brown’s career and cultivate his rapid ascent into superstardom without receiving fair compensation, which shouldn’t surprise anyone either. In the music and entertainment realm, these types of lawsuits are fairly common. Once a star hits it big, people often come out of the woodwork to claim all sorts of ownership in their success, legitimate or otherwise. But this particular situation is different, and for a few important reasons. And more importantly, the implications of the lawsuit could be quite significant.
Jamal Fincher Jones, known professionally as Polow da Don, is an American record producer, rapper, and owner of the Zone 4 record label out of Atlanta. Unlike a lot of these instances where former band members, side players, or associate producers want to see if they can litigate their way to an easy payday at the pain of a newly-minted superstar, Polow da Don is quite successful in music already, and is wealthy in his own right. He’s produced massive hits for performers such as Nicki Minaj, Usher, Lil Wayne, and others.
Polow da Don’s lawyer Richard Busch explains, “As we note in the Complaint, Mr. Jones has worked with some of the biggest names in the record industry, and has worked on many of their biggest hits, so this is not something he wanted to have to do. He therefore attempted to resolve this repeatedly short of litigation, but was left with no choice but to file this lawsuit to protect his rights.”
Polow da Don claims that he discovered Kane Brown in 2015 and offered to record and produce new music for him. Brown wasn’t a complete unknown at that point. He had been a contestant on The X Factor back in 2013, and self released an EP in 2014 called Closer produced by Brantley Gilbert’s guitarist, Noah Henson. But Kane had no serious music career or representation to speak of until Polow da Don took Kane Brown under his wing, and put the song “Used To Love You Sober” out through Zone 4.
“Used To Love You Sober” was Kane Brown’s moment. It’s what took him from a relative unknown to a superstar, starting with simple a teaser video for the song that received an improbable one million views in under three hours, and 11 million views total just two weeks later. This isn’t just where Kane Brown’s career took off, it’s also where the questions started flying about just how Brown was able to rack up such incredible numbers. The success of “Used To Love You Sober” sent Kane Brown onto the mainstream country charts while remaining completely unsigned, and sales of his Closer EP skyrocketed.
Around this time is when Kane Brown’s first manager, Jay Frank, came into the picture. Jay Frank owns DigSin, which is a digital marketing and data strategy company that analyzes data in the marketplace and then uses it to craft strategies of how to help launch artists and bands. At the time, Jay Frank was also the vice president of Global Streaming Marketing at Universal Music Group, and had access to another service called Digster owned by Universal that helps curate streaming playlists. Preferential placement on streaming playlists through Jay Frank’s connections is at least partially to blame for how Kane Brown inexplicably rose in popularity, as Saving Country Music investigated in great detail in Kane Brown: Market Manipulations and the Manufacturing for an Organic Star.
Kane Brown’s current manager, Martha Earls, worked for Jay Frank and DigSin, and transitioned to Brown’s full-time manager as his ascent continued and he was signed to Sony Music Nashville. Kane Brown has also been implicated in the music market manipulations of the massive Red Music playlists on YouTube operated by a shadowy European company. These YouTube playlists act like huge metadata streaming funnels for tracks and artists, and are also thought to be behind the overwhelming and inexplicable success of the Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line collaboration, “Meant To Be.”
What does all of this have to do with a lawsuit against Kane Brown by a former producer? During the discovery process of the lawsuit or any eventual trial, information about just how Kane Brown came to prominence could be illuminated. The books will be opened so to speak, if the plaintiff is rewarded his request for a full accounting of Kane Brown’s career, and specifics of how Kane and his management made him into a superstar could become a matter of public record.
We are living through the asterisk era of music data, when the question isn’t if behind-the-scenes money shifting and influence peddling is resulting in top placement on powerful playlists that result in the launching of massive superstars and monster singles, but how much of a factor it’s playing in the performance of certain songs and artists. Companies who push songs to playlists could be considered similar to BALCO during baseball’s steroid period. Kane Brown has been considered the A1 specimen for questionable music data by individuals throughout the country music industry and beyond, and this is rumored to be one of the reasons he was snubbed recently by the CMA Awards. Kane Brown didn’t do himself any favors back in 2015 when he confronted the concerns by saying, “A lot of the people in Nashville think the numbers are fake, but they can’t prove it.” This lawsuit just might prove just how Kane Brown’s camp has been operating, past and present.
It’s worth stating that paying Red Music or using positions of power to leverage preferable placement on streaming playlists is currently not illegal, just underhanded. Unlike radio which is regulated by the FCC, it is the Wild West when it comes to how songs get selected for streaming services.
There is also a very good chance the Kane Brown lawsuit could be resolved well before any discovery phase or trial commences, or the findings of the court could be sealed from public view. Kane Brown may also have nothing to hide. But it’s often lawsuits, divorces, and other legal proceedings where matters that individuals and business want to keep private eventually go public. The lawyer for Polow da Don is also likely to continue to use the court of public opinion to put pressure on Kane Brown and his management to settle this matter in Polow da Don’s favor.
Polow da Don claims in the lawsuit that after the success of Kane Brown’s “Used To Love You Sober,” he began negotiations with Epic Records, which is a division of Sony, to be a distributor of Kane Brown’s music. But no deal was reached at that time. However Kane Brown’s management (Jay Frank and Martha Earls) started negotiating with Sony directly, cutting Polow da Don out of the deal, even though he had a signed exclusive personal services agreement with Kane Brown that included the singer’s first album, and an option for five more.
Polow da Don claims he “remained in the dark, almost totally excluded from all aspects of Defendant’s career and the benefits guaranteed under the Agreement.” He also claims that his requests for accounting information were met with a letter from Kane Brown’s management threatening criminal action for harassment. This is when he decided to pursue legal action.
The bombshell moment for the asterisk era in music streaming is likely to happen at some point. It may be wishful thinking to think this Kane Brown lawsuit will be it. But it could be, just like the Katie Arminger lawsuit exposed some of the alleged behavior at country radio and labels. And so this lawsuit is definitely worth watching.