A Music Agent Figured Out How To Get COVID Funds For Artists. Now He Says a Rival Stole His Idea. 

A talent manager who allegedly helped artists like Vampire Weekend and Marshmello gain access to $200 million in COVID-19 relief funds is the target of a new lawsuit that claims he stole the idea to tap those government funds — aimed primarily at helping venues, not artists — from somebody else.

In a complaint filed Wednesday (Nov. 30) in Los Angeles court, longtime music agent Laurence Leader says he was the first to realize that artists might also be able to access Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, a COVID-era federal program that gave out more than $14 billion to help live venues shuttered by the pandemic.

But Leader claims his “novel idea” was quickly stolen by talent manager Michael Oppenheim, who then allegedly used the same scheme to secure more than $200 million in SVOG funds for his own clients at the talent firm NKSFB, including Vampire Weekend, Marshmello, Common, Lil Wayne and many others.

In a complaint seeking more than $30 million in damages, Leader called Oppenheim’s conduct “despicable” and an “outright betrayal” of his trust.

“This lawsuit is brought due to the blatant and brazen theft by defendants of [Leader]’s novel idea for popular mainstream artist and band clients to obtain a grant under a specific government program,” wrote attorneys for Leader’s company, London Calling Entertainment.

Oppenheim did not immediately return a request for comment. Leader’s lawsuit, filed by veteran music litigator Richard Busch, was first reported by the news outlet Puck.

Launched by the U.S. Small Business Administration in April 2021, Shuttered Venue Operators Grants were designed to do exactly what they sound like — provide financial aid to live venues and others companies closely related to them, like vendors that provide services for live events. According to the last report issued by the SBA in July, more than $14 billion was handed out to more than 20,000 businesses.

Though the SVOG funds were a lifeline during COVID for many venues, some have argued they were left out. Dozens of venues have filed lawsuits against SBA over the past two years, claiming they were unfairly denied millions in aid.

In his lawsuit, Leader claims he was the first to discover that touring artists might also qualify for the program. Even though he says others doubted him, he believed that one definition of SVOG eligibility — “performing arts organization operators” — sounded “precisely” like the so-called loan-out companies that artists use to handle their touring businesses.

When Leader used that approach and tried applying for an unnamed jazz musician in June 2021, it was an immediate success: He says his client was quickly awarded nearly $10 million in SVOG money.

Leader says he soon shared his grant idea with Oppenheim, whom he says he’s known professionally for more than 40 years. But Leader claims he shared the SVOG concept “confidentially,” with the clear understanding that he could only be used if Leader was paid a 15 percent commission on grants secured.

Oppenheim initially believe the plan would not work and voiced “skepticism,” Leader’s lawyers say, and eventually went “radio silent” on the entire thing. But Leader claims he later discovered that the talent manager and his firm NKSFB had in fact boldly embraced the idea — allegedly filing successful SVOG applications for more than 70 of their client artists.

“As a direct and proximate result of defendant’s misuse of plaintiff London Calling’s idea … defendants obtained SVOG program grants totaling well in excess of $200 million,” Leader’s lawyers wrote.

Leader doesn’t claim that his idea is a piece of intellectual property, like a patent, copyright or trade secret, since it almost certainly wouldn’t qualify for any such formal protection. As the case is litigated, Oppenheim’s attorneys might argue back that no single person should be able to claim proprietary rights to the process of merely applying for a public government aid program.

But Leader says he and Oppenheim forged an “implied contract” that his valuable idea — helping artists access an otherwise off-limits program — would remain confidential unless Leader was compensated. By using the same scheme for his own ends without payment, Leader says Oppenheim breached that contract.

In monetary terms, he’s seeking $30 million in damages — or a 15 percent cut of the $200 million that Oppenheim allegedly secured in grants. Leader also wants an unspecified amount of “punitive” damages on the grounds that the breach of contract was “willful and malicious.”

Read Leader’s entire lawsuit here:

Chris Eggertsen