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:
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