Meet the Man Behind the Curtain at Outside Lands
By Joe Eskenazi
8 August 2017
Photo courtesy of The SF Chronicle
It’s June 17, the second day of the 50th-anniversary edition of the Monterey International Pop Festival, and Gregg Perloff (Masters in City & Regional Planning, 1976) isn’t looking very rock ’n’ roll. The CEO of Another Planet Entertainment and promoter of this and thousands of other Bay Area concerts and festivals is wearing the untucked plaid button-down and Ecco walking shoes of a 65-year-old out for a day in the park.
Over the course of the three-day festival, he’ll put his sturdy ensemble to good use: Perloff is seemingly everywhere at once, constantly ambling around the Monterey County Fairgrounds to monitor the countless moving parts that go into staging a 19,500-person musical event. He’s checking on the Meyer Leopard sound system, which uses micro-delays to ensure uniformity of sound throughout the 28,800-square-foot Pattee Arena. He’s peering up at the lighting array perched above the 1940s-era stage. He’s taste-testing the espresso from the coffee cart. A pair of festival goers spot him making the rounds and approach him to profusely offer thanks. “This is so real, man!” one of them says. Perloff offers a tight smile, nods a few times, and pulls several $12 meal tickets out of his hip pocket.
Perloff is, like his former boss, the legendary San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, a perfectionist. But the similarities between the two end there. Where Graham was meticulous and mercurial, Perloff is meticulous and, for the most part, mellow. According to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, a longtime friend, Perloff is more likely to wind himself into a frenzy over a tennis match than a rock show. “For a man in his position, he’s probably one of the most relaxed and chilled-out people I know,” Ulrich says.
Clearly, Perloff’s style—as vigilant as Graham, but without the Napoleonic bombast or titanic temper—has served him well. Since its inception 14 years ago, APE has grown into one of the largest independent concert promoters in the nation, staging shows for the likes of Paul McCartney, Radiohead, Elton John, Lana Del Rey, and Kanye West. As the exclusive operator for many of the Bay Area’s best venues and events—from the 500-person-capacity Independent to the Outside Lands festival, which expects a crowd of 70,000 when it hails its 10th anniversary this month—it has become a de facto gatekeeper of the Northern California music scene. “They have the proverbial vertical integration,” says agent Tom Chauncey, who represents Jack Johnson, Manu Chao, local funk band Con Brio, and others. “They can play you at every level. There is no other promoter in the country that has the buildings and the ability to develop an artist at every level within their real estate.”
Big-city concert promoting wasn’t Perloff’s initial career plan. After he graduated with a master’s degree in city planning from UC Berkeley, he planned to take a job in Washington, D.C., with the National Endowment for the Arts. But after getting a taste of the sweltering mid-Atlantic heat, and hearing what his pay was going to be, he flew back to California.
Instead he started putting on shows, as he’d been doing since he was an undergraduate at UCLA. (His first, in 1972, was a double bill at the university’s 1,800-seat Royce Hall featuring up-and-comers Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.) Perloff struck a deal with the head of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, Betty Connors. He asked for $350 a month or 50 percent of his concerts’ haul to book jazz shows. “She said, ‘You’ll starve,’” Perloff recalls. “I said, ‘Let me take that risk.’” Soon he was booking Oscar Peterson, Eubie Blake, and other jazz legends, flying by the seat of his pants. He didn’t starve.
It was after booking Boz Scaggs into four consecutive sold-out nights at Cal’s Greek Theatre in ’77 that Perloff received two phone calls that would change his life. The first was from University of California HR, curtly informing him that his pay would have to be reduced. “I went, ‘Why? I make money, you make money! Why do this?’” he says, loudly, four decades later. “She said, ‘Well, at the rate you’re going, you’ll be the highest-paid employee in the UC system. It’s just not right.’”
That left him far more receptive to the next call: the inevitable invitation for a powwow with Graham, the hustler and impresario who had promoted the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane shows at the Fillmore and the Winterland Ballroom that have come to epitomize San Francisco’s 1960s and ’70s rock scene. He was a living legend. But he was also a legendarily rough guy to spar with. “Bill didn’t like competition,” Perloff says. “I knew at some point he’d either run me out of town or hire me.” Graham brought Perloff in for a 50-minute interview, during which Perloff estimates he spoke for about three. “I don’t remember much beyond that. The next day, he offered me a job.”
Perloff and a consortium of 13 former employees ultimately bought Bill Graham Presents after Graham’s death in 1991. But it wasn’t long before a sea of change in the industry sent them in yet another direction. Back in the primordial days of rock ’n’ roll, there was a Bill Graham type in every town: the anointed regional promoter of Frank Barsalona’s Premier Talent Agency, the New York Yankees of talent representation, which repped all the biggest acts. But by the 1990s, the biggest regional promoters were being scooped up by the Canadian company SFX; Bill Graham Presents, by then operated by Perloff and others, sold for $65 million to SFX in 1995. In 1997, Clear Channel bought SFX for an astonishing $3 billion, later refashioning it into Live Nation, now one of the globe’s largest promoters.
It was a bad marriage from the start. Sherry Wasserman, the president of Another Planet who began working under Graham at age 15, says of working under the Clear Channel yoke, “It was miserable. We never realized how miserable it could be.”
Wasserman and Perloff were routinely derided by Clear Channel higher-ups as inhabiting “another planet.” So in 2003, Perloff decided to take up full-time residence there. He and a core group of Bill Graham Presents veterans jumped ship to form Another Planet Entertainment; Perloff sank a seven-figure sum into the nascent operation. “I risked everything,” he recalls.
Salvation, however, came quickly. Within hours of the split, representatives from the San Francisco Giants’ entertainment wing phoned Perloff to ask about having the new group promote a Bruce Springsteen show at AT&T Park. Another Planet Entertainment didn’t have a line of credit, or even a phone. But, working out of Wasserman’s kitchen, they managed to put on a rock show for more than 40,000 fans. They didn’t starve.
There are remnants of the old days in Perloff’s Berkeley office, which could double as a museum or shrine or, at the very least, a Hard Rock Cafe. There are posters from a lifetime’s worth of rock shows and snapshots of Perloff and just about every figure in rock ’n’ roll—Bowie, Metallica, and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir aging through the years. There are even candids of Perloff with Presidents Obama and Clinton. This, clearly, is no longer a bootstrap operation. Mike Kappus, an agent who represented John Lee Hooker, George Thorogood, and J.J. Cale, recalls concert promotion in rock’s earlier years as “a younger industry with more fly-by-night people.” Perloff and his ilk “are the opposite of that.”
Another Planet, by design, has worked its way into the marrow of San Francisco, ensuring that it can do shows in venues of its choice. In 2007, it was Perloff’s pedigree as Graham’s right-hand man and his decades-long reputation that got his foot in the door for the then-wild idea of holding an amplified nighttime event at Golden Gate Park and charging money for it. Now Outside Lands has become not only a tradition, but an essential source of revenue for a city in which too much is never enough. The pact Another Planet inked with San Francisco, unlike those secured by the Super Bowl or the America’s Cup, compensates the SFPD, Muni, and other departments for their employees’ extra work hours. On top of that, last year Rec and Park received $3.1 million from Outside Lands, the majority of which came from 11 percent of ticket sales—“a big part of balancing our budget,” says department director Phil Ginsburg.
Perloff offers a Zen-like smile when asked about the difficulties of working here. “There are a lot of honorable people in City Hall,” he says. “If you respect what they do, they’ll respect what you do.” Still, he admits, this city tends to ask more of him than others. “But if you’re organized, and you deliver, it’s a simple city to work with.” He pauses, then adds, “But not fast.”