SF Weekly
March 10, 2004

Independent Thinking
Two new high-class local venues. Bruce Springsteen concerts. Sounds like the work of Clear Channel. But it's not.
BY ANDREW STRICKMAN

Kevin Arnold remembers the Kennel Club as a venue of immeasurable importance in his development as a music fan. "I saw everyone there in the late '80s and early '90s," he says. "Superchunk, Galaxie 500, Dinosaur Jr., the Flaming Lips." It was Arnold's favorite club in San Francisco. He even hosted the first Noise Pop there, 12 years ago.

The Kennel Club, at 628 Divisadero, became the Justice League in the late '90s, its gritty interior mirroring the underground nature of the hip hop and indie rock artists who graced its stage. Its walls were adorned with Barry McGee murals, the bathrooms were always a few shades from disgusting, and the concrete floor did a number on patrons' knees when they stood on it for more than a couple of hours. The club, which was "closed for renovations" more than a year ago, reopened for Noise Pop this year, with a new name, a new look, and a burgeoning new company putting on its shows.

Another Planet Entertainment, the nascent concert production and promotion team that barreled onto the music scene last August with the 40,000-seat Bruce Springsteen sellout at Pac Bell Park, opened the Independent while the paint was still drying on the walls, with a performance by spacey avant-gardists I Am Spoonbender. The outfit's approach to live music and the combined experience of its founders are bringing a new level of attention to the local live music scene, offering the strongest alternative to Clear Channel Entertainment's oft-derided regional and national dominance.

Another Planet's owners, Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman, are proteges of legendary Bay Area promoter Bill Graham, and honed their chops over 25 years running Bill Graham Presents before it became a Clear Channel company in 2000. Soon after the Bruce Springsteen concert, Perloff and Wasserman approached Mystery Machine Productions head Allen Scott about joining forces. The young promoter had, in only a few years, built a strong reputation for putting on quality shows with emerging artists at midlevel clubs around the city (Soulive, Princess Superstar, Robert Walter's 20th Congress, Northern State, to name a few). Scott was already in talks with a group of investors to reopen the Divisadero space, and found Another Planet's proposal to become the club's exclusive booker and promoter -- and in the process give him a full-time job -- appealing.

"The name 'The Independent' came up through some discussions with music industry friends," Scott says, sitting in Another Planet's Berkeley offices. "The whole idea of the Wal-Marting of America applies to the music industry as well. We wanted to stand alone: independent thinking, independent music. We're an independent company. Of course, it was also an elbow in the side of the corporate giant out there."

Although Perloff's departure from Clear Channel was acrimonious -- the massive company is suing him, accusing him of lining up the Springsteen show before he left -- he says he's not out to undermine CC. "Last year I was in charge of a 12-state area for a company, where we did over 1,500 events. This year, I'm in charge of a company where I'm hoping to do 100 events. That's a big difference.

"People would talk about Bill Graham having a monopoly," Perloff continues. "It's so funny to look back on that now, because he was a tiny speck in the overall world of music. He was very important in terms of what he accomplished, but we grew up in a tradition of trying to keep ticket prices down. And trying to keep it a healthy concert market where everyone could enjoy music."

Another Planet is producing shows across the west -- Sarah McLachlan in Denver, Phish in Las Vegas, Shania Twain in Sacramento -- but its primary focus is the Bay Area. The company has already opened both the Independent and the Grand Ballroom in the Regency Building on Van Ness, where the Jaguares will play on March 26 and 27, and for the first time since the 1970s a promoter other than BGP/Clear Channel will be booking and operating the concert series at the Greek Theater on UC Berkeley's campus. "The concert business -- it's almost like 'think globally, act locally,'" Perloff says. "Even though the music industry is a worldwide business, you have to operate locally. You have to tell people when a show is happening, you have to understand which days are not good days to present a certain concert. You have to have a sense for what kind of music people want to hear."

It's that acute ear for good music, and appreciation for the elements of a great show, that allowed Scott to turn a profit on the first 30 shows he produced at Mystery Machine, a track record that Perloff finds amazing, but not surprising. "Allen is an entrepreneur," he says. "One of the things about Clear Channel: Everyone's in a tight little box. You're a booker, an advertiser, a sponsorship person. That keeps you from having an overall perspective, as Allen has, on what it takes to produce an event."

That 360-degree perspective for putting on great shows pushed Scott out of the venues where he'd promoted in the past. After years of respectfully playing by the rules of the venues that hosted his concerts, Scott developed an interest in having complete control over the experience, which drove him toward opening the Independent. "At the end of the day, when I went into these rooms, the bar staff and the security wasn't reporting to me," he says. "I remember one venue in town, where the staff were really jerks. It would be 1:30 or 2 in the morning, and the staff would be kicking the band out of the venue. These are the people who are bringing patrons into your establishment to drink. It was incredibly frustrating."

Scott's awareness of and respect for the audience and the artists, coupled with Perloff and Wasserman's deep understanding of the complexity behind producing shows (more than 1,200 people were employed to run the Springsteen event), enables Another Planet to rise to Clear Channel's level, while remaining steadfastly independent.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry's weekly bible Pollstar, is familiar with Perloff and Wasserman. Perloff was awarded Promoter of the Year at the 2004 Pollstar Awards (a title he wouldn't have earned without the votes of his former colleagues at Clear Channel -- an irony he jokingly pointed out when accepting the award in Los Angeles this February). "Because [Another Planet is] doing a much lower volume of shows," says Bongiovanni, "they're going to do everything in their power to bring a great concert-going experience to each and every show, whereas if you're doing 50 dates on a tour it's less important to you whether Des Moines wasn't that great a show."

"Most people work very hard for their discretionary income," says Perloff. "When they choose to spend their money with you and go to see a concert, hopefully you can give them as good an experience as possible."

For concertgoers at the Independent, that enhanced experience includes a new wooden dance floor in front of the stage, carpeting in the rest of the club, upgraded bathrooms, and a sound and light system that rivals every other club of its size in the country. The karmic vibe of the place is phenomenal -- a 180-degree shift from its tenure as the Justice League. It's now not only about the music itself, but the experience as a whole. "The Independent is a box, so the sightlines are perfect," adds Scott. "I was up on the stage the other day and realized, if I'm the lead singer, I can make eye contact with every single person in that room if I wanted to. That's pretty special."

Since Clear Channel doesn't entirely monopolize the promotion of live music in San Francisco as it does in other markets, Another Planet has entered an environment that includes a number of players. But from Perloff's perspective, the new company is bringing more than increased competition to the Bay Area. It is also refocusing local attention on what makes San Francisco such a welcoming music city. "We can do more different types of acts here than probably anywhere in the world outside of New York," he says. "There's so much diversity in the Bay Area, and so much cause for celebration as a result.

"When we open up two more rooms, there aren't too many club owners who are thrilled by that," he continues. "But on another level, they can be: They know that by having a thriving music scene, everyone will do better business."

Bongiovanni agrees. "The industry as a whole has been transformed from a mom-and-pop business model, which had companies dominating their regional markets, to one that now has become corporatized," he says. "Though the landscape has changed dramatically, there's always room for a good independent."

sfweekly.com | originally published: March 10, 2004

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