BERKELEY — In his bare, newly rented office, concert promoter Gregg Perloff stretched out on the carpet and flashed the grin of a middle-aged businessman who has just traded in his corporate cubicle for a small business dream. Nothing in his demeanor hinted that Perloff is, depending on whom you ask, either the leader of an industry mutiny or a man walking his career off the plank.
"Everybody in the business is watching, I know that," Perloff said. "And that makes it all the more interesting." Perloff was, until two weeks ago, a major figure in the massive empire of Clear Channel Communications Inc., which dominates the concert market with more than half of the nation's ticket sales. Disenchanted with corporate strictures, Perloff stunned his employers by quitting and immediately launching an independent company. Far more shocking, just five days later he booked Bruce Springsteen for a show next Saturday at San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park -- a high-profile coup that has infuriated his old bosses and roiled the concert world.
Perloff said that in the first 48 hours after he bolted he got more than 100 phone calls from musicians (among them Neil Young, Carlos Santana and Sammy Hagar), managers and agents, some offering support, others inquiring about business prospects. Some of that is a nod to the goodwill Perloff has engendered in a 28-year career that began as a protege to the colorful Bill Graham, the Bay Area rock promoter who became an iconic pioneer in his field, and saw Perloff eventually inherit the leadership of that empire. Some of it is also attributable to the malice toward Clear Channel, a company that its critics call impersonal and conservative -- to them, the antithesis of the late Graham's style.
In the end, Perloff left Clear Channel because, to his mind, the company is bad for concerts -- it's too distracted, too unwieldy, too unhip, too corporate for the core business of creating magic music moments like the golden days of his youth at the Fillmore or Winterland ballrooms. He said that more than a lack of charm, the monolithic state of the business now also stifles variety and risk-taking for fans. "I want to have fun again," he said.
So far, it has not been all fun. "Clear Channel people are spreading the word that they want to make an example of us, to make sure no one else does what we did," said Perloff, who was joined in his defection by Sherry Wasserman, another high-ranking Clear Channel executive in the Bay Area. Their new company, Another Planet, is the target of a lawsuit by their former employer, which claims that the Springsteen stadium show and other deals were arranged while the pair were still on the Clear Channel payroll. The suit filed in San Francisco Superior Court also claims that the pair tried to lure away staffers and is guilty of taking in-house trade secrets. The upstarts deny the accusations and say the corporate giant plans to smother their fledgling business in an expensive legal battle.
Lee A. Smith is Perloff's replacement as head of concert booking for Clear Channel's western region, a turf that is more or less everything in the U.S. west of Denver and stands as the most profitable concert sector. Smith concedes that the exits of Perloff and Wasserman created emotional upheaval for the local staff and that the Springsteen booking multiplied the anxieties. He dismisses, though, the suggestion that the lawsuit is a cudgel to kill off a competitor. "It is an attempt," Smith said, "to right a wrong."
Smith also said he believes his former colleagues could not have assembled the Springsteen show solely in the time after his departure.
"People were shocked. We all know that stadium shows take a great deal of effort and time and all of that. It's pretty amazing to announce a show that soon after resigning from somewhere. 'How did they do that?' was the general reaction."
Springsteen representatives did not return calls for this story. But Pat Gallagher, president of San Francisco Giants Enterprises, the entity that seeks non-baseball events for the stadium, said he tapped Another Planet for the late-developing show at the last minute and considered Perloff the "only choice" because this is "a relationship business, and we have a relationship that has shown Gregg and Sherry are the most capable of handling this."
The defection of Perloff and Wasserman has a compelling historical subplot with the long shadow of Graham still extending over the Bay Area music scene. Graham was a tenacious maverick and true romantic when it came to the magic of live music, be it his Jefferson Airplane club bookings in the 1960s, the landmark tours by Bob Dylan and the Band he arranged in the 1970s or his labors at Live Aid in the 1980s. When Graham died in a helicopter crash in 1991, Perloff took over as president and Wasserman became the No. 3 executive at Bill Graham Presents.