Independents Day: Three Promoters’ Tales

Robert Sillerman
Robin Marchant / Getty Images
– Robert Sillerman
THE ROLLUP KING: Robert Sillerman, the mastermind of a massive concert promoter consolidation in the late 1990s, rings the NASDAQ closing bell as he takes his EDM rollup public Oct. 9, 2013 in New York City. The company went bankrupt soon after.

Danny Zelisko set up a desk in the basement of Alice Cooper’stown restaurant in Phoenix when he opened Danny Zelisko Presents in 2001. Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman booked Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band to play a show at PacBell Park in San Francisco to launch Another Planet Entertainment. And Louis Messina, a rocker at heart, helped make superstars of five relatively unknown country artists when he formed The Messina Group (now Messina Touring Group).

When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “there are no second acts in American life,” he didn’t know about these entrepreneurs.

All made their comebacks in different ways but, for the most part, started out in a similar place: by selling their already successful companies to either Robert Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment, which initiated the massive wave of promoter rollups in the mid-1990s, or to radio/billboard giant Clear Channel Communications – which acquired SFX in 2000 for $4.4 billion and rebranded its live division as Clear Channel Entertainment.

Zelisko joined CCE in 2001 when he sold his Phoenix-based Evening Star Productions. Perloff and Wasserman did the same a few years earlier when SFX acquired Bill Graham Presents and was subsequently sold to CCE. Messina was rolled up – but not for long – when SFX acquired Pace Entertainment. 

Regardless of the reasons for their departures, all returned to concert promotion on their own terms. There’s a host of others who did, too: Names like Michael Cohl, John Meglen, Paul Gongaware, John Scher, Rich Engler, Lee Smith, Brian Becker, Dave Lucas and more.

Many heritage promoters, such as Ron Delsener, Don Law and Larry Magid thrived with their new partners and many continue their association today with Live Nation. 

But, for others, the desire or need to own their business combined with opportunity to bring them back for a second go as independent promoters.

For some, contracts ended and, for others, separation from a new employer was a bit more fraught. But, in most cases, starting over came with its own set of challenges and footsteps into uncharted territory.

For Perloff and Wasserman, among the group of BGP executives who acquired the company after the 1991 death of Bill Graham and in turn sold it to SFX, employment contracts expired in February 2003 and, by July, hadn’t been renewed. Perloff announced he was leaving; Wasserman joined him.
As Perloff told the San Francisco Chronicle, “There is a segment of the industry looking for an alternative, a different way to do business … What we’d like to do is put together a small boutique organization that isn’t just working to pay its overhead.”

He opened Another Planet Entertainment (“People told me I must be living on another planet to do this,” he told Pollstar at the time) in Berkeley, Calif., and within five days it was pretty clear Perloff and Wasserman weren’t going to go quietly: they announced a stadium show with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band in San Francisco’s PacBell Park (now AT&T Stadium). 

Another Planet is probably not now what its competitors would consider a “small boutique organization,” but rather one of the top independents in the land. In fact, unless you count Messina Touring Group (more on that later), APE is the top independent promoter in North America, at No. 14 on Pollstar’s Worldwide Top 100 Promoters chart with 1,528,810 tickets sold in 2018. 
Outside Lands
Rich Fury / Invision / AP
– Outside Lands
OUTSIDE THE BOX: San Francisco’s Outside Lands, one of the largest festivals in North America, is co-produced by Another Planet Entertainment. Execs Gregg Perloff and Sherry Wasserman opened the company in 2003 and are among several promoters who decided to go it alone after leaving a major promotion conglomerate.

Even in its abbreviated first year, it landed at No. 41 among the Top 50 Promoters (at a time when there were a lot more promoters competing) in 2003 – including Bruce Springsteen’s 40,702 tickets sold for a gross of $3,134,054 at PacBell Park on Aug. 16 (barely a month after APE opened its doors). The next year, Another Planet Entertainment was named Pollstar’s Promoter of the Year. 

In the years since, APE also launched a premier festival, Outside Lands, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park that is now considered one of the three biggest events in North America along with Coachella and Bonnaroo.
Another Planet is an anomaly; not every independent promoter has the good fortune of having The Boss drop in his or her lap within days of setting up shop. In fact, oftentimes a promoter planting a flag for the second time has no shop to go to.

Such was the case for Zelisko. When he parted ways with Live Nation, the contract that the company inherited from Clear Channel – which itself was inherited from SFX – was expired and Zelisko was ready to go it alone for a second time. But his old office now belonged to Live Nation and his former coworkers were now competitors.

For about two weeks, his “office” was a table and phone in the basement of Alice Cooper’stown restaurant in Phoenix. The now-defunct eatery was owned, of course, by Zelisko’s longtime friend Alice Cooper. “I couldn’t stand it,” Zelisko tells Pollstar. “The restaurant was right over my head and every time somebody dragged a table or chair across the floor upstairs, you could hear it.”

Zelisko says it didn’t matter that he’d once been the biggest promoter in his Southwest region before selling Evening Star. 

“The most ridiculous thing about starting all over was actually starting all over,” Zelisko says. 
He means that quite literally. He hadn’t had business banking or credit accounts in years and needed to open up accounts for phones and utilities, buy a fax machine and rent an office. 
“Try doing that when nobody knows who you are as a business entity and apply for credit,” he says, adding, “But it’s what you have to do.”

Danny Zelisko
– Danny Zelisko

Working for a corporation, Zelisko had talent buyers to negotiate with agents; as his own shop he had to build relationships all over again. But the one-on-one relationships are part of the life that he loves. 

“When I got out, it gave me the freedom to talk to people who sell talent for a living,” he says. “I don’t think the entrepreneur thing ever leaves. Having been in both worlds, I really prefer having to have a say in my day-to-day.

“But it’s like an animal when it sheds layers of skin or a turtle sheds a shell; it was like a rebirth. It was important for me to go back and touch the various mechanics of becoming a concert promoter.”

What Perloff and Zelisko had in common, though, was that by walking away when employment contracts expired, non-compete clauses that were included expired as well and they were able to hang their new shingles immediately.

That wasn’t the case for Messina. He sold PACE Concerts, which he co-founded with Allen Becker in 1975, to SFX for $130 million in 1998 and soon found that working for somebody else wasn’t his glass of bourbon. When he left, it was with a two-year non-compete still hanging over his head.

Messina had the foresight to negotiate an exit agreement: he could promote five artists, but they were little-known country acts. In 1998, it might have seemed like a raw deal until one considers who they became.

Louis Messina
– Louis Messina

“I had George [Strait], Tim [McGraw], Faith [Hill], Dixie Chicks, and Kenny Chesney,” Messina told Pollstar last year.

“I was working purely country for a while and then, when my non-compete was over, I tried to go back to claim my stake [in rock] and realized I didn’t really want to do that. I stayed in country and then met this little girl when she was 17 years old named Taylor Swift and she’s a country darling.

“She had one song on the radio. And her career evolved to make her the biggest artist in the world.”
Swift didn’t limit herself to country, and she helped Messina re-enter the pop world. Though he is in partnership with AEG Presents, he continues to march to his own drumbeat with Messina Touring Group.

In the end, what’s clear about the yin and yang between corporate and indie revolving doors is that entrepreneurial talent is entrepreneurial talent. And these indie-to-corporate-to-indie promoters prove that if you have the drive, you can thrive.