East Bay Express - Inside Outside Lands |
How his Another Planet Entertainment beat the competition to host the epic Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival.
By David Downs
August 13, 2008
The fun usually slinks away to die in places like San Francisco City Hall Room 416 - its grave demarcated by bland fluorescent lighting, cheap wood paneling, and expensive three-piece suits. But on November 15, 2007, someone could have sold tickets to the show.
Berkeley music promoters Another Planet Entertainment had prodded the generally somnambulant San Francisco Recreation and Park Department toward a historic crossroads. Another Planet wanted to throw an unprecedented two-evening, 120,000-person music festival in Golden Gate Park on the weekend of August 23, 2008. The world's number one rock band, Radiohead, and His Mellowness, Jack Johnson, were on the hook to appear, although Another Planet wasn't yet revealing that.
For decades, the department's answer to such requests had always been no. But this time around, it was broke. Pay raises for nurses and police and fire officers had put a $238 million dent in San Francisco's budget. New hiring was frozen, and the department was looking at possible cuts of $5.6 million for 2008-09. The seven-member recreation and parks commission wanted new revenue options.
So its staff had brought it a doozy: Give Another Planet enough of Golden Gate Park to fill three Oakland Arenas, let it book 64 bands and charge $81 a head, per day. Let the music run later than ever before - all the way to 10 p.m. Essentially enter into an unprecedented partnership with the five-year-old company to throw a West Coast Bonnaroo. If it sold out, the department would earn about $800,000. "At least during my tenure, I've never been able to propose this type of revenue to the commission," department Director of Operations Dennis Kern said.
Out in the audience, people wearing boomer business casual shifted uncomfortably in their seats, clutching scribbled notes, awaiting their two minutes of show time. Government staffers and gadflies held down half the seats. Lee Smith represented Another Planet's chief competitor, Live Nation, the Clear Channel spinoff that grosses half the North American concert industry's annual $4 billion in revenue. Smith had come to derail Another Planet's plans, joining a thin yet powerful camp of park and neighborhood activists and assorted loonies who worried about noise, traffic, grass, and, yes, gophers.
Representing Another Planet with guileless, calm intensity was principal Gregg Perloff - 55 years old and built like a tan, gray-haired roadie, albeit one wearing a collared shirt. Joining him were some of the tiny company's other employees, led by thirtysomething understudies Allen Scott and Bryan Duquette.
The parks department staff finished up its presentation, which served as the opening act to words from concert opponents, commission members, and Perloff. "We don't normally do two-day events, the operative word being normally," Kern said. "In Another Planet's case they were very persistent. They'd been working with us for some time and they believed in this so they approached me. It's sort of like rewarding persistence if you will. ... Based on their record and our discussion with them we believe that they are a high-capacity producer that would definitely have the wherewithal to present the event for us. The staff recommendation is approval."
The next presentation might as well have been a comedy act. One gadfly demanded an environmental impact report, the type of document needed to build a skyscraper or a dam. Even more humorous was when he asked the commission to mandate a silent concert, facilitated via iPods. "The parks provide us a quiet respite in a highly stressful life," the beret-wearing speaker said. "We go into a park and we're in beautiful California again. What do you say we have no amplified music and we do podcasts to everybody? Be silent out there. They'd all have their headphones on out there. That'd be great."
Tensions mounted as Smith of Live Nation requested a bureaucratic do-over. "We've always conducted business within parameters given," he said. "We have frequently asked if the park can accommodate larger, longer shows through our usual contacts and were always told no. It is wrong not to solicit us and other San Francisco entities to participate in the selection process. ... Enabling Another Planet to acquire this privilege unilaterally for even one year gives them an unfair advantage in the future both inside the city and within my industry."
But despite all the objections, Another Planet would end up winning its concert permit. In fact, the upcoming Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival will cap a stunning, five-year-run for the company. From taking over the Independent in San Francisco to managing the Greek Theatre at UC Berkeley, Another Planet went on to partner with Noise Pop on the first-ever Treasure Island Music Festival last year. This October will see the opening of its 3,500-capacity Fox Theater in Oakland, and 2009 will include the reopening of a retuned 4,500-seat Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. It was this hot streak that provided the credibility, expertise, and market clout necessary for Another Planet to make its pitch for Outside Lands.
Five years ago, independent music promoters like Another Planet were supposed to be going extinct. Live music was bottled up like beer - or at least like commercial radio. Instead, art smashed the spreadsheet and Another Planet became the Chez Panisse of local promotion by going local, organic, and sustainable.
Although some San Franciscans may pine for the city's hippie heyday, over the last five years Another Planet and its partners have written the first pages of an exciting new rock history. And they've done so by taking cues from the playbook of Another Planet's titanic mentor - the late rock promoter Bill Graham.
At least in that sense, Smith of Live Nation was right. Although his company employs 4,700 people and commands the careers of Madonna and Jay-Z, while tiny, thirteen-employee Another Planet has "foodie Fridays" and a walk-up office next to a hair salon, it isn't really fair having to compete with elder statesmen like Perloff and his partner, Sherry Wasserman.
Their Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival was a clandestine, three-year project that leveraged the duo's collective 65 years in the industry, which goes all the way back to an early show by the Who at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Now, the first of hopefully many Outside Lands festivals seems destined to become part of a new Bay Area rock renaissance directly connected to the first one. The New School of Rock is now in session.
On a cool, summer Monday in Berkeley, Perloff shuffles into Another Planet headquarters at noon wearing a black company hoodie, his thick forearm wrapped around a Roland keyboard. The three-show weekend involving Mark Knopfler and company has left the office tired, but glowing. He splays the Roland out on the front desk, to the quizzical smile of the new receptionist. Perloff heard she plays, and wants a lunch jam. The receptionist gets bashful, blushes, and tries to decline. Perloff persists.
All around her, framed and autographed photographs and prints of major Another Planet shows - Tom Petty, Radiohead, etc. - evoke the vibe of a teenager's bedroom: the coolest, cleanest teenager in Berkeley. Perloff is a commanding presence and excited about Another Planet's five years. But he doesn't want to dwell on the past. It is a source of strength and pain, of course. So much of what he and his colleagues have built comes from what they learned from Bill Graham, yet the company's ethos is profoundly different from that of its mentor. Perloff points to a quote on the corkboard above his desk that reads:
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful dedicated citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead
In contrast, the favored quote of Perloff's mentor's Bill Graham used to read:
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil: for I am the meanest sonofabitch in the valley." - Unknown.
Graham's outlook was the product of his environment. According to his autobiography, he was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Poland in 1930. His father died when he was two days old. Nazis gassed his mother on her way to a concentration camp, and pneumonia killed his younger sister during an orphan exodus through four countries. Once Wolfgang has relocated to the United States, residents of the WWII-era Bronx beat the crap out of the Jewish, Russo-German exile and foster child. By the age of eleven, he was an island unto himself. To blend in, he ditched his accent and changed his name to Bill Graham. Kitchen work led to waiting tables, managing staff, and event planning. Following the Korean War, during which he was court-martialed twice for insubordination, but later earned the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and an honorable discharge, one of Graham's surviving sisters lured him to San Francisco.
There, Graham brought Broadway-quality production to the nascent '60s music scene. Bill Graham Productions soon became nearly as famous as the artists it worked with: Hendrix, the Dead, the Stones, and Led Zeppelin. In the '80s, Graham helped invent the charity megafestival (Womad and US), called Steve Jobs a punk, and reportedly had a gun held to his head by Sean Penn while onstage during a Madonna show. In 1991, he and his lover and pilot died in a helicopter collision with high-voltage power lines in bad weather. The explosion knocked out power to 23,000 homes, as well as the Huey Lewis and the News concert that Graham had just produced and lifted off from. He was 61. He probably feared no evil.
Perloff, Graham's eventual understudy, was born in 1950 and raised in Maryland attending classical recitals with his parents. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Peaches and Herb in a high school gym changed his life at age fourteen. So did moving to Southern California for high school. His first major production involved the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt as undergrad at UCLA. At grad school in Berkeley, the ace booker worked school events and packed the Greek. He got a master's degree in city planning, but his heart was in music.
When Perloff sold out the Greek for four nights of Boz Scaggs, the success didn't sit well with Graham, who dominated regional promoting in the '70s by charm and force. "Bill hired Gregg so he wouldn't have to compete with him," Wasserman said with a smile, sitting on the couch next to Perloff, her cargo pants contrasting with the gray streaks in her long black hair.
A Berkeley lifer, Wasserman was thrown into the box office of the Berkeley Community Theatre at age fifteen. "I never had the typical fan experience," she recalled. "My first memories were always of taking a break and standing at the back." She worked into the top echelons of BGP, alongside Perloff. "I didn't realize I was working in a bubble."
But after Graham died the bubble burst, and a wave of consolidation changed music forever. Bankers sewed up live music just like they had with commercial radio. In 1995, Perloff and fourteen others bought BGP from Graham's estate for $25 million. Two years later, the group sold BGP to Canadian company SFX for $67 million, remaining as employees without knowing the company's plans. Giant Clear Channel Communications then acquired SFX for $3 billion, which it would later spin off as Live Nation in 2005. Inside the new empire, Perloff and Wasserman concluded they were out of place.
"With Clear Channel, any type of talking back was seen as dissent," Wasserman said. "You could convince Bill. He'd say, 'Oh yeah, prove it.' It gave you a backbone, it inspired a passion and a mania. Clear Channel saw it as insubordination. I hadn't been treated like that since kindergarten, not even in kindergarten."
In July of 2003, after a two-week vacation, Perloff resigned from Clear Channel and Wasserman followed, along with production chief Mary Conde and a few others. Clear Channel was provoking similar responses all over the country, recalled producer Rick Farman of the New Orleans-based event promotion company Superfly Productions, a key producer of Bonnaroo and Another Planet's partner in Outside Lands. "A lot of those buyouts put the best and brightest on the golf course," Farman said.
But Perloff and crew persisted. They organized their first independent show from Wasserman's kitchen. "It was like we were kids, 'Hey, let's all put on a show,'" Conde said. "Except it was Bruce Springsteen for 40,000 people at Pac Bell Park."
When Another Planet formed in 2003, Clear Channel filed a lawsuit alleging that Perloff had planned the Springsteen show while employed at Clear Channel. The suit was eventually dismissed. Still, it was as if the Empire had its Rebel Alliance, although Perloff dismisses that type of metaphor.
"We don't compete that way," he said. "It's really funny, I don't think about that. One of the things that is different is we're not trying to conquer the world. Most companies want to conquer the world. It doesn't matter if you are a Google, or you're Clear Channel, or you're Microsoft, or whoever you are. We're just trying to do a quality job at what we do. Lifestyle is very important. We're really focusing on what we're going to do for lunch Wednesday."
Another Planet would be a special company for a region with special needs. It would exploit ground-level intelligence of one of the world's most complex promoting environments to begin executing its strategy. "Part of that," Perloff recalled, "was getting a club, a theater, and a festival."
On a recent Thursday night, the marquee outside the Independent read "Sold Out." A lot began for Another Planet at the Independent, the venerable San Francisco club once known as the Justice League. For the last four and half years, the Independent has been the company's research lab, where it takes any performers it thinks can draw five hundred fans and strives to, as Allen Scott put it, "give them the best possible performing environment at that level."
Inside the club, under the bright house lights, the space buzzes with staff and talent setting up ticketing, sound, lights, and the bar. Trombone Shorty soundchecks on time at 7:45 p.m. The day started with Scott checking his BlackBerry in bed and will continue late into the night. He handles it with lots of coffee, he said.
In all seriousness, Scott says promoting is a 24-7 lifestyle. "You put the music first, and the fun comes later." Now thirty and married, with a one-year-old girl, Scott said the personal highlights have been matched by his success in the Bay Area. After growing up in Virginia, Scott moved to the Bay Area in 1997. "I wanted to promote concerts," he said. "This is where Bill Graham did it and I thought that would be a good place to do it ... naively."
Along with several partners, Scott's Mystery Machine promotions booked Sound Tribe Sector 9 and the Black Eyed Peas into the Independent's building back when it was the Justice League. When that club folded, Scott and his peers made a bid for the place. Perloff called him out of the blue and proposed that the two companies go in together.
Scott jumped at the opportunity. "I think there's, number one, a core appreciation of music and live concerts, and two, I could learn so much from him and Sherry," he said. "Before, I was making it up as I went along and I'd burn myself. Here, they can say, 'The stove is hot; don't touch it.'"
With Perloff's help, Scott and his partners navigated the city's notoriously slow planning department and other bureaucracies. They moved the club's bar to the back, and added new sound, lighting, backstage, office, and egress. The Indy also road-tested Another Planet's customer-service ethos.
"I really want a warm and welcoming place with nice security, no bartenders with attitude, people that want to work here and like the music that's here and welcome the patrons in," Scott said. "It seems like an easy philosophy, but it's not. It's the exception rather than a rule in a lot of places."
Shows rarely cost more than $20, and the Indy books everything from punk to funk to folk and movie nights. "We just don't want to be pigeonholed," Scott added. "We want every member of the audience to feel like, 'This is our home.'"
The Indy books 220 of Another Planet's 400 annual shows, and sells out enough of them to make the middle of the pack in Pollstar magazine's top fifty US venues by ticket sales every year.
Scott also got to book bigger and bigger shows and learn the Bill Graham touch, said Johanna Vater, former head of Another Planet marketing. Vater recalled that she saw the change at a rare, intimate Nine Inch Nails show at UC Davis in 2005.
During a routine security meeting, Scott heard about a rabid NIN fan who had waited for three days to be the first in line for the show. Every night, campus police followed school policy and ejected him for sleeping. "Every morning, he would be the first one back," Vater said. "Doors were at 6 p.m. and Allen said, 'I want you to open doors at 5:55, and let that kid have any seat in the house.' And that's when I knew, Gregg had got to him. Every individual is taken care of."
On a recent evening backstage at the Greek Theatre, Another Planet tried to make the road feel like home. The 103-year-old Berkeley venue felt like a garden party at the home of William Randolph Hearst. Chinese lamps and candles illuminated low-hanging eucalyptus trees, a stocked bar, and the Greek's personal chef. The manager of Mötley Crüe enjoyed some fresh guacamole with the lighting man for Daft Punk and Kanye West, although neither of those acts was performing that night. Mary Conde of Another Planet reclined in a plush, velvet-covered couch, half-listening to a walkie-talkie as she talked about the 16th-century stone relief decorating the stairwell to the dressing room occupied by the Stone Temple Pilots. Nearby, a framed lithograph of a busty, female nude bordered by words "Stone Temple Pilots, July 25, 2008, the Greek Theatre" immortalized the evening.
The Greek is Perloff's old stomping ground and Another Planet's de facto summer clubhouse. Because Perloff and Wasserman value multitaskers, their employees work "the front and the back," the office and the shows, to get a feel for what everyone else does. Everyone agrees that this prevents cliques.
In 2003, UC Berkeley put the management of the facility up for bid and in 2004 Another Planet won it away from Clear Channel by promising some TLC. But before Perloff and company could turn the Greek into a jewel, they needed a roof. The aging facility's stage lacked a proper roof, and without one, bands with expensive lighting equipment had no place to hang their lights. "It was all ground-stack and scaffolding," Conde recalled.
The new stage roof unlocked the option for top-tier acts. Conde and crew then juiced up the aging venue with extra power, gave the backstage a chic makeover, and went hard-core green with compostables, recycling, and carbon offsets. The rehab helped spread the word around the industry that Another Planet was special.
In 2007, the company took a risk and booked the French techno duo Daft Punk. "We didn't know if it would sell," Perloff said. But the "youngies" like Scott thought the company and Daft Punk shared the same crowd-first ethic. "We had heard that they didn't make any money; that they had plowed it all back into their light show," said Scott's colleague Bryan Duquette. "When we saw them at Coachella, we just knew."
Ten years after rave culture had choked and died on its own glowstick, the Berkeley hills shuddered under the weight of 9,000 people moving in freaky unison to "Around the World." Mike Lieberman, a one-time Another Planet intern, said the 2007 show transcended entertainment, and entered that rarefied realm of a genuine happening. "Whenever I wear my Daft Punk shirt from the show, people stop me in the street and ask if I was there," Lieberman said. "Everyone knows that show was legendary."
Lieberman's reverence provides a glimpse of the special power that Another Planet has over its employees, who often came up from the bottom to places of major responsibility. He moved on from his internship to greening Outside Lands and landing a full-time job. Conde started taking tickets for BGP at a Journey show in the '80s and counts helping to bring Linkin Park to Jakarta as one of her career highlights. It's easy to understand the attraction.
From the side stage at the Greek on that July night, the crowd looked like a beery sea of arms and faces. All eyes were on veteran rocker Scott Weiland, who strutted on top of the side stage's speaker stack. He was singing - rather appropriately - I'm half the man I used to be to Another Planet marketing manager Danielle Madeira and her new intern. The rest of the side stage sang back to Weiland, while the meaty chorus behind him joined in. Little hairs stood up on everyone's neck as Madeira flashed back to her days as a Tulsa, Oklahoma teenager and fan of the band. Her intern had nothing else to compare the experience to.
Back in Room 416 at San Francisco City Hall, the proposed Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival was facing real hurdles.
"I certainly love the money, but we're talking about amplified music until 10 p.m.," Commissioner Gloria Bonilla said. "It does seem like an awful long time."
Ron Miguel, who represented nearby home-owners as president of the Planning Association for the Richmond district, was somewhat wordier. In fact, he was eventually gonged after two minutes of complaining about late liquor sales, cars parking in driveways ("we wanted to damage some of those vehicles"), and the 10 p.m. end time on Sunday. "Music is not something we want in a residential area," he said.
Between concerns about parking, traffic, liquor, and late sound, the commission wanted to know what the event would cost it.
Perloff seemed calm. After all, his company had already honed its pitch with residents of the Richmond, as well as transit, police, and fire officials. And last year, Another Planet and Noise Pop solved the logistical Mt. Everest of reopening Treasure Island to pop music.
Along with Jordan Kurland and the Noise Pop team, Another Planet had sensed a sea change at city hall and convinced authorities to let them throw an indie garden party for 10,000 fans a day. The catch? The city and CalTrans didn't want anyone clogging the Bay Bridge by driving to the island. Coordination with CalTrans and the promoters' giant fleet of rental buses made this hurdle a non-issue. The promoters said they got 10,000 people off of Treasure Island in 42 minutes. Perloff himself directed buses.
Perloff laid out his plans for Outside Lands' transportation and liquor sales, but held off on talking about sound. "Somebody parking in their driveway is totally unacceptable to me," he said. "What we have offered to do was have on-site the appropriate four tow trucks, two on each side of the park, and we're willing to do whatever's needed with a number for the neighbors to call. If any inappropriate behavior occurs, we would have an immediate response."
At the same time, Muni's N Judah and 5 Folsom lines would increase their capacity to handle the crowds. And as for alcohol, he said, "I totally agree we should cut off liquor sales like the 7th inning in the ballpark. It also depends on the show. I'm not sure we will have a very heavy drinking crowd."
Perloff also assuaged the commission's worries about extra costs, assuring the members that it would cost the department nothing. "We will also pay for additional police and additional fire for the city," he said.
Finally, he turned to the issue of amplified sound. No one can remember the last time that amplified sound was permitted in Golden Gate Park after sundown.
"Ten p.m. would be the earliest curfew of any comparable urban festival in the United States," Perloff said. "However, one of the things we talked about has to do with when sunset is on August 23. Sun sets at 7:52 p.m. and it gets dark by 8:19 p.m., so this is why we set the time at 10 p.m. A certain reality of dealing with world-class entertainment - one of the realities - is that headline bands just insist on playing in darkness at least a portion of their set."
Again, Perloff sounded humble, yet direct and utterly guileless.
"I was hoping again, like I said, 9:30 would give us an hour and ten minutes. ... It's more important. ... I don't wanna, like, mess this whole thing up over one issue, uh, ummm, could we, I know it's a weird time, but, could we say 9:20? And get an hour in darkness on the Sunday?"
"Is it that critical?" asked Commissioner Jim Lazarus. "I mean, you got people living there, you got kids going to school the next morning. If it was Saturday, I'd go later on Saturday; it's not a problem."
"You would?" Perloff said, deftly seizing on the opening. The crowd erupted in laughter.
Then Lazarus and Perloff got into an unheard-of live auction. Perloff said he hoped for 9:30. Lazarus went from 9 to 9:15. Perloff: 9:30. Lazarus: 9:18. Perloff: 9:20.
Sitting behind Perloff, his lieutenant Duquette was in awe. In an industry that's loath to write down anything, where the deal is always done before anyone even hears about it, Duquette said he thought to himself, "He's negotiating on an open floor."
All in favor?
"Aye," the commission said in unison.
"The amendment passes."
Duquette was stunned. The team ducked out into the hallway to start making calls.
In the end, desired headliner Radiohead ended up preferring Friday, August 22 due to a date at the Hollywood Bowl, and Perloff went back to the Recreation and Park Department in January 2008 to ask for a third day. More money was floated, bringing the total to $1.2 million, but this time there was little dissent. Commissioners openly pleaded to be let in on the secret headliner in the hallways. Other commissioners simply wanted to make sure they could buy tickets online.
The New School of Rock is nearing its final exam.
Out above the wide, grassy fields of Speedway Meadow, the Polo Fields, and Lindley Meadows, swallows cruise in the fog. Red-tailed hawks protect breeding territory and children play pickup games of football. Soon, Radiohead will tear the sky apart.
"When the opportunity to book my number one favorite pick of all time came up - and this is where I get in trouble during interviews, but it's true - we had to try," Perloff said. "Their songwriting and their live performances are unparalleled."
Every fan has their own favorites, but among the rest of the lineup, Beck and Manu Chao will join Radiohead on Friday; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, and Primus will hold down Saturday; and Wilco and Widespread Panic will join Jack Johnson on Sunday. The Cold War Kids will debut some long-awaited new material, and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings put on a live show like no other.
Conde is on-site and the requisitions are arriving: almost ten miles of chain-link fence, more than a thousand staffers, five hundred security officers, plus police, mounted police, two huge screens for "video reinforcement" of the main stage, and world-class technicians from Meyers Sound for the audio. Cowgirl Creamery will highlight their fresh, local, organic food market. Whole Foods will run backstage dining. Six stages. Seventy bands. Bike valet. Five hundred Porta-Potties.
The park department required that everything must be delivered using special forklifts with oversize tires that don't squish the turf. Only two exist on the West Coast, and Conde said they're old. "One will break down." She plans on shipping in another.
Interestingly enough, Perloff and Noise Pop's Kurland think that most people won't know or care who throws the party. "People would go to a Radiohead and Beck date by Live Nation, the same as anyone else," Kurland said.
But Superfly's Farman sees it differently. People vote with their dollars, he said, and they want to vote for independence, intimacy, and expertise. "Another Planet does have a certain cachet to it, and a lot of that does radiate from Bill Graham's philosophy of giving the posters out or having the apple at the Fillmore - those little extras really do stick with fans," he said. "When Superfly first started, we picked up on that. I'd like to think the people that are like myself - the new people in the industry - are looking toward the really positive parts about the original generation of big promoters and adapting it for the current environment.
"When you look at the emergence of the festival scene - Bonnaroo, Pitchfork, Treasure Island, Outside Lands - it is mostly people of our ilk. And the ones that are going to be successful come from that ethos."