Special Report: The music banker's big score

Thu Dec 6, 2012 5:57pm EST

1 of 5. U.S. pop star Michael Jackson gestures during a news conference at the O2 Arena in London March 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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(Reuters) - From an office on Sunset Boulevard, a dapper 69-year-old has emerged as a go-to guy for musicians and songwriters looking for quick cash.

His name is Parviz Omidvar, and over the past two decades, he has been lending to artists and securing those debts with royalty payments his clients earn from their work. Michael Jackson was a customer, as is the son of late Motown legend Marvin Gaye. Omidvar's website carries an old testimonial from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Bobby Womack: "Thank you so much for always being there for me."

Today, Womack is suing Omidvar for fraud. He alleges the financier tricked him into selling for $40,000 full control of a royalty stream that annually pays many times that amount on Womack-penned hits, including blaxploitation classic "Across 110th Street" and "It's All Over Now," the first U.S. No. 1 record for the Rolling Stones. Womack's lawyer says the 68-year-old musician was misled into signing the deal in April last year, when he was incapacitated by painkillers following prostate cancer surgery.

Omidvar calls Womack's claim "a simple case of buyer's remorse." Womack understood he was selling his royalties, and his allegations are "a complete lie," Omidvar says.

Omidvar's quick cash can come at a steep price. Reuters found scores of loans with interest rates ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 percent every 10 to 15 days - annualized rates potentially ranging from 43 percent to 81 percent. Many loans included fees of up to 20 percent of the principal, which could accrue interest at the same rate as the loan. In one lawsuit brought by an Omidvar client, a California court found that one of the financier's companies had charged illegally high rates on loans smaller than $5,000.

By comparison, Advanced Royalty Tracking, which competes with Omidvar, says it charges 13.88 percent interest a year and requires that artists fit a strict set of criteria to qualify for a loan. The Houston company has about 50 clients, each making $100,000 or more a year in royalties.

Omidvar says he currently has no outstanding loans at such high interest rates and that these practices are not representative of his business. He says rates on many loans were later reduced retroactively once he determined that the clients were capable of repaying him in full.

BITTER RIVALRY

Complicating Omidvar's business is a bitter rivalry with the financier who introduced the "Bowie Bond," the 1997 deal in which rocker David Bowie raised $55 million by selling debt backed by his future royalties.

Omidvar and that financier, David Pullman, have filed at least 11 lawsuits and countersuits against one another involving a handful of songwriter clients. Omidvar says Pullman is "obsessed with destroying our business" and that before Pullman came along, there were "virtually no problems with clients." Pullman says Omidvar and his sons, Oliver and O'Neil, who have helped their father in his business, "blame everyone but themselves for their illegal activities."

The music bankers are battling over a famously risky clientele: songwriters, often elderly and desperate for money. Times have always been hard for musicians, and industry lore is studded with examples of naive talents gouged by agents and record-company operatives.

The Internet has added to the struggle as pirated downloads have eaten deep into sales of recorded music. Making matters worse, a long-term credit drought is plaguing songwriters, musicians, arrangers and producers.

TOO RISKY

Decades ago, music publishers and songwriter societies like ASCAP and BMI would advance money to artists against future earnings. By the late 1980s, they and the handful of banks in the business largely abandoned the practice as too risky. An artist's royalty income can fluctuate greatly, depending on record sales, radio airplay and licensing agreements.

"It's extremely difficult to get a conventional loan, because they have a very unconventional working history," says Bob Clarida, a copyright attorney.

Omidvar fills this void. The idea is simple: Advance money to artists, who sign over their royalty streams to his company. Omidvar then collects the royalties directly from record labels and music societies until the debt is repaid with interest. On his website, he offers "immediate cash to music royalty earners so they don't have to wait months to receive their much-needed distributions."

Omidvar says he started out at an accounts-receivable factoring company and fell into the music business by chance. Clients say he wears formal suits and ties, setting him apart in casual Southern California.

"When you walk in, you feel like this guy knows what he's doing," says Danny Pearson, a former client whose credits include the 1978 hit "What's Your Sign Girl?"

Omidvar writes his loans as commercial notes; interest rates on such notes, unlike those on short-term consumer loans, generally are exempt from regulatory rate limits. While many of the notes carry maturities of six months to a year, he says, most are written with the expectation they will be paid off within weeks. "We don't want people to default in 30 days," he says. "If we did that, we would be loan sharks."

Marvin Gaye III, the son and heir of the late soul singer, says that for 17 years, he has been a satisfied customer of Omidvar, whom he calls "a really great guy." "If you understand the contract," he says, "there's no surprises."

LONGTIME CLIENT

Bobby Womack's family has a different take. Womack started out in the 1960s as lead singer for doo-wop group the Valentinos. He went on to play guitar for soul star Sam Cooke and released hit singles like "Woman's Gotta Have It," "Harry Hippie" and "Across 110th Street."

In the 1980s, Womack began borrowing from Omidvar. His lawsuit says he took roughly 15 advances from Omidvar over the past 25 years.

By 2011, Womack was suffering from prostate cancer, dementia, cataracts and other maladies, according to documents filed in the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court. In April that year, he was hospitalized for complications from prostate surgery and placed on a morphine drip for two weeks, his suit says.

It also says that the day after leaving the hospital, Womack visited Omidvar's office. Thinking he was simply borrowing money, the suit says, he signed away all his royalties for $225,000 to an Omidvar company called Music Royalty Consulting Inc.

After "costs and charges" were deducted from the $225,000 loan Womack expected, the suit alleges, he received a check for $40,000 for "all past, present and future income" - a fraction of what his royalties regularly bring in annually, his lawyer says. Womack's suit claims he was confused because of medication he was taking, and never would have signed had he been of sound mind.

Omidvar, in an interview, says Womack "was in completely great shape" and understood he was selling his royalties. He notes that during the months preceding and after the deal, Womack was performing in concerts, "dancing his heart out." YouTube videos of live performances in March and June of 2011 show an animated and seemingly unimpaired Womack on stage.

"Dementia and dancing are two different things," says Jim Ryan, Womack's lawyer. Ryan declined to make Womack available for an interview. The case is scheduled to go to trial in May next year.

FATHER AND SON

California exempts most commercial loans from usury caps. Even so, a jury in 2009 found that Omidvar had overcharged on loans of less than $5,000, which are subject to limits.

That case involved Daryl Cleveland, son of Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, who co-wrote Marvin Gaye's mega-hit "What's Going On" and Smokey Robinson's classic "I Second That Emotion."

Al Cleveland was a client of Omidvar's. When Al died in 1996, Daryl, now 56, kept up the borrowing, using his father's $100,000 annual royalty stream as collateral. In court documents, Cleveland said Omidvar promised that he would treat him "like a son."

Over the course of eight years, according to Cleveland's lawsuit, Omidvar made him almost 200 loans. The terms ranged from five to 18 months, and the amounts from $31 to $44,426, with an interest rate of 72 percent a year, plus a "processing fee" typically of 20 percent.

Cleveland was chafing under these terms in 2005 when David Pullman, the bond dealer, offered to help.

When Pullman created song-royalty bonds for David Bowie, the concept of issuing debt backed by a steady stream of music royalties captivated investors. Pullman put together multi-million-dollar issues for the Isley Brothers, James Brown and Marvin Gaye, and trademarked them as "Pullman Bonds." By 2004, Moody's Investors Service had rated the original Bowie Bond one notch above junk status. Today, Pullman buys royalties outright from artists who are looking to sell.

TRADE SECRETS

He doesn't shy away from conflict. In the late 1990s, Pullman sued former business partners for billions of dollars, alleging they misappropriated his trade secrets by issuing Bowie-like royalty bonds. That suit was ultimately dismissed. He also filed complaints about elderly neighbors in his New York City co-op, accusing them of running an illegal bookbinding business out of their apartment. Pullman and the co-op entered litigation, and the board kicked Pullman out, setting a legal precedent allowing New York City co-ops to oust undesired residents. Pullman moved to Los Angeles shortly thereafter.

More recently, Pullman has been striking deals with Omidvar clients like Daryl Cleveland under which he, in essence, buys their claims against Omidvar, and then sues him for large sums, alleging that Omidvar engages in predatory lending.

Pullman says that in 2004, he paid Cleveland roughly half a million dollars for royalties on his music library. The agreement also granted Pullman the right to join Cleveland in suing Omidvar for $2.5 million for allegedly charging excessive interest rates and fees.

Omidvar denies the allegations. Cleveland could not be reached for comment.

The case took a surprise turn in June 2006, when Cleveland settled with Omidvar for $18,000.

Two months later, Robert Besser, a lawyer representing Cleveland and Pullman, received a fax signed by the songwriter's son. It stated that Cleveland had been tricked by Pullman - it didn't specify how - into selling his father's entire song catalog, contending that he had agreed to sell only half of it. The letter alleged that Pullman had wrongly represented himself as a lawyer when they first met and that Pullman "lied every step of the way."

Pullman, who denies the allegations and calls the letter "questionable," kept up the fight, pursuing one of Omidvar's companies, Currency Corp, for breach of contract. A year later, Cleveland signed a court declaration in support of Pullman's case.

A jury eventually found that Currency had charged interest and administrative fees exceeding legal limits on approximately 44 notes in amounts under $5,000. It awarded Pullman $38,554, less than half of what he had sought, plus $142,000 in legal costs.

Cleveland received nothing beyond the original $18,000 settlement.

"I TRUSTED HIM"

Today, Omidvar and Pullman are fighting over the heirs of producer and musician Gene Page, whose songwriting credits include "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," a hit for the Righteous Brothers. He also worked with Diana Ross and Lionel Richie.

Page died in 1998 at age 57. His son, Chris, recalls in an interview that at the funeral, Omidvar hugged him. "He told me that my dad told him to look after us," says Chris, who is 41 and works as a personal fitness trainer in California. "I trusted him." That feeling was strengthened when he saw his father's gold records lining the walls of Omidvar's office.

Omidvar had some bad news, too: He told the family Gene had died owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service and to Currency Corp, according to court filings.

In the ensuing years, Page's widow, Maibell, regularly received money under a complex arrangement of loans to and from Omidvar.

There was the $600,000 death benefit from her husband's musicians union. Omidvar managed that money through a company called Tiffany Ventures to invest in real estate, using funds borrowed from the death benefit.

For the nine years following Gene's death, Omidvar also wrote the Page family commercial loans at 2 percent, compounding every 10 days, or equal to 72 percent annually, plus a 20 percent "processing fee," according to documents in a lawsuit the Pages subsequently brought against Omidvar. In turn, Omidvar collected Page music royalties.

In 2006, Pullman approached Maibell. She thought he was offering a written deal to audit Omidvar's management of the family's finances, according to a lawsuit Maibell subsequently filed against Pullman in Los Angeles Superior Court. Several months later, the widow realized that by signing papers with Pullman, she had actually sold him her husband's royalties, along with the right to sue Omidvar, for $100,000, minus any debts she owed to Omidvar, according to court documents.

That suit alleged that Pullman "tricked Page into signing documents that effectively transferred her interests in royalties" and violated the Elder Abuse Act. Pullman said Maibell agreed to sell her interest in the songs because it would free her from Omidvar's debts.

But when it became clear in court proceedings that the money Maibell had been receiving for years wasn't from her husband's death benefit, as she had thought, but constituted loans from Omidvar, the Pages switched sides. The family withdrew its lawsuit against Pullman. He returned the Page royalty rights to the family, and the two parties joined forces in a lawsuit in the same court against Omidvar, alleging predatory and fraudulent lending practices.

According to documents in the suit against Omidvar, Tiffany Ventures paid Maibell an annual interest rate of 5 percent on the loan from the death benefit, later reduced to 2 percent - rates much lower than what he was charging on some of his loans to Maibell.

In addition, the Pages claimed they didn't know how much Gene Page's songs were earning in royalties. Pullman says they finally learned that the royalties totaled nearly $2 million between 1988 and 2009, averaging about $95,000 a year. The family claims it received almost none of that money.

CYCLE OF DEBT

As the Pages saw it, Omidvar was stripping them of their royalties while borrowing from them at rates much lower than the rates at which he was lending to them, creating a perpetual cycle of debt.

Omidvar says the Pages' claims are "all mumbo jumbo." Maibell knew she was borrowing money all along and liked it that way, he says, because it reduced her taxes. He points out that she signed and initialed each note.

In 2010, the Los Angeles Superior Court ordered Omidvar to pay Pullman and Maibell Page $735,192.29, plus costs. Omidvar is appealing the judgment. In January 2011, he unsuccessfully sued the Pages for breach of contract.

Maibell died in August from lung cancer at age 71, 14 years to the day after her husband's death.

Gene and Maibell Page are still featured in a testimonial on Omidvar's Royalty Advance Funding website. "Thanks for being so reliable and for doing so much more than you have to for me," Maibell says in a quote that appears above a picture of her embracing her husband. "I really appreciate your help."

(This story corrects name of Advanced Royalty Tracking. Corrects identity of person who signed fax sent to Robert Besser.) (Editing by Michael Williams and John Blanton)

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