San Francisco Chronicle
July 26, 2003

The story behind surprise 'Boss' show Bill Graham protege turns indie, scores coup

Five days after leaving his post as president of Bill Graham Presents, Gregg Perloff landed the biggest rock show of the year -- Bruce Springsteen at Pacific Bell Park -- as the first event by his new concert production firm.

After 27 years with the historic company the late rock impresario started in 1966, Perloff left the building with some cake and a commemorative poster a week ago last Wednesday. The next day, he launched his own concert production company, and his former bosses aren't welcoming the competition.

"I wasn't planning on doing anything this soon, but something fell in my lap," Perloff said.

More than a sensational entrance for his new concert production company, Another Planet, Perloff's Springsteen coup is a gauntlet thrown at the feet of his former employers, San Antonio media giant Clear Channel Communications.

Clear Channel responded, serving Perloff with correspondence Friday, threatening to sue if he doesn't give up the Springsteen show. Tickets to the Aug. 16 show will go on sale Monday morning. Clear Channel has another Springsteen show the same weekend at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

"We trying to get to the bottom of what's right and wrong," said Clear Channel's Lee Smith, named Thursday to fill Perloff's post. "Nobody wants the show to implode, but everybody wants to protect their interests. Somewhere in the middle is a road."

With Perloff's company entering the marketplace, some acts might become the beneficiaries of bidding wars, which could mean increased ticket prices to the public. Perloff's venture also sends a strong signal to other dissatisfied concert industry executives across the country that there is life after Clear Channel.


RETURNING AS COMPETITORS

Like Perloff, many promoters who sold out to Clear Channel's predecessor, SFX -- such as Louis Messina of Texas -- are seeing their employment contracts near expiration and are making noises about going back into business on their own again.

"We are starting to see the rebirth of companies that were acquired in the roll-up of SFX," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, a Fresno magazine that follows the concert industry.

"Some old-timers have found happiness working with Clear Channel," said booking agent Paul Goldman, whose Monterey Peninsula Artists represents the Dave Matthews Band, Bonnie Raitt and many others. "Some have found unhappiness.

The handwriting is on the wall. Some people are now free to do something else. "

Perloff, who went directly from promoting Boz Scaggs concerts as a UC Berkeley student to booking shows for Graham, is stepping out from under the lingering shadow of the company's charismatic founder. He took the company's reins after Graham's 1991 death in a helicopter crash and, with 14 other BGP executives, bought the organization from Graham's estate for $5 million in 1995. Two years later, Wall Street financier Robert Sillerman purchased the company from the partnership for $65 million as he consolidated the nationwide network of wily, maverick promoters that comprised the country's concert production industry with his SFX Entertainment, which, in turn, was acquired shortly thereafter by radio conglomerate Clear Channel.

At the heart of Perloff's departure is a David versus Goliath battle of philosophies, with Perloff representing the kind of tough, independent entrepreneur that corporate behemoth Clear Channel virtually eliminated in the concert production business. Perloff said he expected to resolve their differences after his contract expired in February and stay with the company. But he returned from a rare Caribbean vacation two weeks ago and told Clear Channel he had decided to leave and produce concerts on his own.

"I've never been considered a corporate type," Perloff said.


DRESSED FOR SUCCESS

Sitting poolside this week in the backyard of his Contra Costa hills home, Perloff worked both his cell phone and land line in a pair of shorts and T- shirt, unshaven. He rented offices in Berkeley but hasn't had time to set up shop. His longtime colleague, Sherry Wasserman, a 31-year BGP veteran, joined Perloff in his exodus. A third Clear Channel executive, Rick Mueller, the firm's top talent buyer, initially announced his plans to leave with Perloff and Wasserman but rescinded his resignation late Wednesday under pressure from Clear Channel.

"In Clear Channel, we couldn't be the best at what we do," Wasserman said. "Bill built it. We continued it. That environment didn't allow it to flourish."

New BGP president Smith, a former Concord Pavilion box office manager who first went to work for Graham in 1988, has been most recently booking winery entertainment schedules for this region from his home in Healdsburg.

In an industry where personal relations qualify as a business asset, Perloff and Wasserman had been major players at the San Francisco concert production firm since Peter Frampton was still selling records.

"Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman are among the elite of concert producers in the world today," said John Scher, whose New York firm, Metropolitan Talent, handles artists such as Art Garfunkel and Bob Weir. "There are artists, agents and managers who are clearly going to want to work with them."

Tony Demetriades, longtime manager of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, agreed that their long-standing relationships would serve Perloff and Wasserman well.

"He was Clear Channel," he said. "Before that, he was BGP. He and Sherry are the company."


A SUDDEN DEVELOPMENT

The Springsteen dates developed suddenly last week after the New Jersey rocker decided to book two West Coast stadium shows on a weekend when he was originally scheduled to be off.

"In the last few days, it came together," said Pat Gallagher, president of Giants Enterprises, "coincidentally, when Gregg left the company. Our relationship has really been with him." Springsteen also avoided working with Clear Channel in his past two Bay Area appearances. Although Clear Channel owns the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View and the Sleep Train Amphitheatre in Marysville (Yuba County) and retains a management contract with the Chronicle Pavilion in Concord, other public auditoriums and arenas from Pac Bell Park and the Cow Palace to HP Pavilion in San Jose and Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland are available for concerts from outside promoters such as Another Planet. Clear Channel also owns leases on the Fillmore Auditorium and the Warfield Theater.

"There is a segment of the industry looking for an alternative, a different way to do business," Perloff said. "Artists are independent by nature. They like to be involved in their destiny, and a number of people are looking for a different way to do business."

Perloff envisions a small company that produces as many as 100 concerts per year (as opposed to the 1,500 he produced as regional head of Clear Channel) with a small staff.

"What we'd like to do is put together a small boutique organization that isn't just working to pay its overhead," said Perloff, who declined to discuss the financing of his new operation.

During the past few years, Perloff presided over the building of the brand new White River Amphitheater outside Seattle, with Mount Rainer serving as the stage backdrop; the Fillmore Denver, a small but highly regarded concert hall; a $2 million renovation of Los Angeles' Wiltern Theater; and the construction of the Marysville amphitheater. According to Perloff, his region was responsible for the most growth in the Clear Channel operations in the past two years. Regardless, Perloff worries that his former employers will sue him.

"I've worked so hard for these guys the past six months just so they couldn't do what they're going to do," he said.


AN ENTERTAINMENT BEHEMOTH

In addition to more than 1,250 radio stations, 39 TV stations and 775,000 billboards, Clear Channel owns more than 200 concert venues across the country.

With owners whose relations with President Bush stretch back many years, a number of the company's radio stations hosted rallies supporting the war in Iraq.

Clear Channel buys outright entire tours by artists such as Janet Jackson, Madonna, Pearl Jam, 'N Sync and Aerosmith.

Concert attendance has dropped in three consecutive years, and only rising ticket prices have kept revenues up. Clear Channel has also managed to increase costs of ticket surcharges, parking and other ancillary income.

"It's starting to look like the model of the movie business," Metropolitan's Scher said, "where theater owners make their money selling popcorn and soda."

With the departure of Perloff and Wasserman, only two of the original 15 partners remain at the former BGP offices. Perloff's co-president Nicholas Clainos left in January 2001 over a dispute on Clear Channel's refusal to use the name Bill Graham Presents. "That's the DNA of the company," Wasserman said.

"Our friends have gone across the street," said BGP Chief Operating Officer David Mayeri, with newly appointed President Smith, the sole remaining partners. "We wish them well. The reality is that BGP is made up of many people. We have a great team, and we're looking forward to putting on shows as we have in the past."

E-mail Joel Selvin at jselvin@sfchronicle.com.

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