Lou Pearlman built his Orlando entertainment empire on the dreams of young artists like Sean van der Wilt, an aspiring pop singer best known for his smooth dance moves. But now that Pearlman's in jail and his empire is in ruins, van der Wilt and other artists find themselves legally tied to companies that no longer function.
"I had so many plans and so many goals and then everything just crashed," said van der Wilt, 27. "I need to move on. My goal as an artist is to be heard. I want my music to be out there."
Van der Wilt has filed motions in bankruptcy court asking to be released from his contracts with two of Pearlman's companies, Trans Continental Management and Trans Continental Records. Singer Aaron Carter, best known as the younger brother of singer Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, is asking for his release as well. Other artists also are affected, but bankruptcy trustee Soneet Kapila said he doesn't know how many. He is reviewing the issue.
"They're all under exclusive agreements and they can't move on in any aspects of what they're doing," said Nashville lawyer Jason Turner, who represents van der Wilt. "It's getting extremely frustrating."
Pearlman's most successful artists, *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, previously sued him and paid millions to free themselves from his control. Another of his boy band creations, US5, is now affiliated with Triple-M Music in Germany, although Kapila said he is investigating whether Pearlman still has a financial interest in the band.
But unlike those groups, which sold millions of records, van der Wilt has yet to make his first album. He said he has recorded more than 20 songs, but Trans Continental Records defaulted on its obligation to produce a record for him.
Now living in Los Angeles, van der Wilt said he has been supporting himself working as a dancer, including gigs with singers Rihanna and Kelis.
It was van der Wilt's dancing that drew Pearlman's attention at a 2002 Michael Jackson show in New York City. Van der Wilt said he was thrilled that Pearlman was interested in investing in his career.
"I'd always wanted to be a singer, but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to take it to the next level," he said. He signed contracts in 2003 and 2004, performed at Pearlman's talent contest events, toured with some of Pearlman's other groups and learned a lot about the entertainment business.
"It was great experience and exposure," he said. "The only problem I had was broken promises. He just didn't carry through on things." Van der Wilt said Pearlman paid him $3,000 a month for living expenses and covered costs, such as recording fees, rehearsals and tour expenses.
Pearlman and Trans Continental "spent about $600,000 on my career that did not happen," van der Wilt said. "If that money was spent the right way, something amazing could have come out of it." Van der Wilt said he essentially managed himself because Pearlman was preoccupied with other things.
In the months before he fled the country, Pearlman "just seemed very stressed out beyond belief," he said. When the company stopped sending him expense money last fall, van der Wilt said Pearlman wrote personal checks for a few months. "He didn't want the artists to know everything was going down."
Van der Wilt said he knew something was wrong, but was still shocked when he learned Pearlman had been accused of defrauding banks and investors out of hundreds of millions.
"Lou is just the type of person who wants to make everybody happy," he said. "He was very proud of everything he had. He loved to talk about it and show people. He was a very proud man and he was a very lonely man."
Van der Wilt said Pearlman called him after leaving the country and "talked to me as if nothing was going on, life was great and he was trying to get something together.
"I thought we had a good friendship, but friends don't lie to friends," he said. "He'd never tell you 100 percent what was going on."
Helen Huntley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8230.