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Meet the Man Behind the Curtain at Outside Lands

This month, 70,000 revelers will flock to the 10th anniversary of Outside Lands—the brainchild of an exceedingly modest 65-year-old in dad sneakers.

SLIDESHOW

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Gregg Perloff is all smiles in his Berkeley office, decorated with photos and memorabilia from a lifetime in rock ’n’ roll.

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Perloff’s path has crossed with many of rock’s biggest names, including Neil Young.

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Perloff and David Bowie.

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It’s June 17, the second day of the 50th-anniversary edition of the Monterey International Pop Festival, and Gregg Perloff 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 festivalgoers 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.”

Still, finding the best bands and booking them in the best venues is only part of the music impresario’s job. Where Perloff distinguishes himself from even the giants of his industry is in his ability to sail through the oceans of municipal red tape that drown many other would-be promoters in this region, especially those trying to put on shows in high-maintenance, bureaucracy-heavy San Francisco. Using a rare combination of political savvy, business chops, and music-industry bona fides—and comfortable walking shoes—Perloff pulls off concerts at a scale and complexity that few can match.


Though Perloff
may not look the part of the leather-jacketed, gold-chained promoter, his background makes him innately suited for the role. His mother, Mimi Perloff, was a concert pianist who booked and promoted shows in Los Angeles. His father, Harvey Perloff, served as dean of UCLA’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning. 

Still, despite the favorable genetics, 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.”

Graham’s wild demeanor was a feature of his shows, and even offstage he played the part. Perloff recalls his boss going “nuclear” on some poor schlub on the phone. “He was screaming,” Perloff recalls. “You could see the veins in his neck turning red. We really thought he was going to have a heart attack.” Then Graham slammed the receiver down, smiled, and asked, “How’d I do?”

Perloff does not treat people this way. Sherry Wasserman, the president of Another Planet, began working under Graham at age 15 and has worked with Perloff for 41 years. “People like to be treated well,” she says. “I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I want to be treated like shit.’”

With the passage of time—and especially since his death in 1991 in a helicopter crash—much of Graham’s sharp-elbowed behavior has come to be viewed through a rose-colored mist. Perloff remembers being a bit jolted by the tributes that rolled in after his death. “When did Bill become a saint?” he says. “I used to field calls when he was alive: ‘I’m never working with Bill Graham again! I can’t believe what he did!’ And now everyone had a Bill Graham story: ‘He threw me out of the Winterland. It was a badge of honor!’”

Perloff and a consortium of 13 former employees ultimately bought the company. But it wasn’t long before a sea 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. Wasserman says of working under the Clear Channel yoke, “It was miserable. We never realized how miserable it could be.” Marching orders came from on high; one such dictum was to distribute thousands of pins reading, “How many ways has Clear Channel touched you today?” to concertgoers. (Employees taped over some of the pins, replacing “touched” with “fucked.”)

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.


Like Perloff's
sartorial choices, the rock ’n’ roll life isn’t as wild as it once was. Perloff has lived through the acid years, the coke years, and, now, the Molly years. It’s easy for fans—especially at events like this summer’s anniversary tribute to Monterey Pop, one of rock’s most seminal concerts—to grow nostalgic. In 1967, everyone wore flowers in their hair. In 2017, everyone’s Snapchatting. In 1967, Jimi Hendrix took the stage. In 2017, Jack Johnson—the guy who did the soundtrack to the Curious George movie—covered Hendrix. But Perloff is not nostalgic. “Everything’s better now,” he says. People used to get electrocuted onstage. Bands used to cancel shows, knowing the real money was in record sales. Now that doesn’t happen. “The production is better, the sound is better, the venues are better, the light is better. Everything.”

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.”

The irresponsible people who were once attracted to a promotion career promising sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll have, by and large, crashed and burned. It’s the professionals who endure. “Let’s just do it and be legends” was the rallying cry for the charlatans behind the disastrous Fyre Festival earlier this year. That won’t cut it here in San Francisco. This is a town that loves a party. But it’s also, Perloff says, “a city of process. A lot of people who don’t live here have trouble with how slow everything can be.”

Another Planet, by design, has worked its way into the marrow of San Francisco, ensuring that it can do shows in its venues of 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.

That cash influx gives Another Planet the latitude to dream up ever more ambitious plans. For June’s Colossal Clusterfest, the company’s first-ever foray into promoting a comedy festival (produced by Comedy Central and Superfly and including headliners Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, and Sarah Silverman), organizers fenced off multiple blocks around the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and Civic Center Plaza to construct two music stages, a South Park–inspired “village,” and rows of food trucks and vendors. It figured to be a bureaucratic nightmare. Luckily for Perloff, his permit hawk, Mary Conde, is already the general manager of the auditorium. Another Planet has operated the venue, in the heart of San Francisco, since 2010. Another Planet’s people know whom to call to get things done in this city because they have insinuated themselves into its day-to-day operations.

Still, even that pales in comparison to the amount of preparation that goes into Outside Lands each year, which falls somewhere between a political campaign and a military occupation. In June, Perloff’s team was already figuring out the talent lineup for 2018.

In the weeks leading up to the festival, Another Planet will, at the behest of the city, mail out 18,000 flyers to neighborhood residents giving the heads-up in multiple languages about the oncoming disturbance to their peace and quiet. It will monitor decibel levels around San Francisco and make real-time changes to the audio system during the festival to ensure relative tranquility. It will erect fencing with gaps wide enough to allow for the comings and goings of feral cats—as per the request of neighborhood feral-cat advocates. This is a level of arcana one just didn’t see 40 years ago, when, if Graham wasn’t flinging you out of the Winterland, the Hells Angels were.

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. (See “cats, feral.”) “But if you’re organized, and you deliver, it’s a simple city to work with.” He pauses, then adds, “But not fast.”

Booking Monterey Pop, however? At just six weeks, that was fast. So far, things seem to be going off without a hitch. As Saturday night’s headliner, Jack Johnson, takes the stage, Perloff suddenly dashes away: Some manner of issue with the photographers’ riser needs to be dealt with, and though he’ll later describe it as more of a tomorrow problem than a tonight problem, Perloff is the kind of person who needs to solve it now. His attention to detail makes it hard for him to enjoy shows in the traditional sense, even the shows he’s not producing. “We went to see Hamilton,” he says. “And it was a wonderful show. But I was just focused on every detail.”

Johnson eventually finishes his set and retreats offstage. Perloff, having fixed the riser problem, walks into a bear hug from Lou Adler, the rock legend who promoted the original Monterey Pop. “You’re so good,” Adler gushes. “You’re so charming.” Perloff hugs him back and offers that tight grin: “We’ll do it again tomorrow.”

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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