Bringing feuding promoters, aging rock stars, Rugrats, tractor pulls, and Ragtime into his big tent has made Bob Sillerman the biggest mogul in the concert biz. To his partners, his acts, and his sponsors, he has the golden touch. But should fans be picking up the tab?
(New York, November 15, 1999.)
BLACK THUNDERCLOUDS come rolling over Bob Sillerman’s catered beach bash, threatening to scatter the 100 friends gathered below the dunes of his $6 million Southampton estate. For several minutes, his annual “Bobecue,” with its bow-tied waiters and Billy Joel soundtrack, seems a bust. But Sillerman, 51, the tanned and athletic founder of SFX Entertainment, the world’s largest live-event promoter, scoffs at the worried looks of new arrivals. “What’s a little rain?” he says, flashing a toothy grin beneath an Uncle Sam top hat, his American-flag pants billowing in the gale.
Sillerman bounds across the beach, biting potato chips out of one man’s mouth, lifting a shrieking woman into his arms, posing beach-boy-style in the sand. He looks more the triathlete he is than the shrewd billionaire who made a killing flipping radio stations in the eighties and now controls a dizzy-making chunk of the live-entertainment business. Bench-press buff, a terror on the basketball court, charming to friends and prone to corny jokes, he has spent $2 billion snapping up a string of promotion houses, music halls, sports-marketing firms, and Broadway-theater outfits. Several awestruck bankers recently lent him $1.1 billion to take his act to Europe. “The guy is an absolute genius,” says one. “He’s making people rich.”
He is also cornering the market on the season’s biggest rock spectacles (or at least the ones playing to the boomer crowd willing to shell out $100 and more for the choicest tickets), buying up the tours of every aging superstar act from Tom Petty and Rod Stewart to Cher and the odd coupling of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, which he personally brokered. “I’m very much a product of the sixties,” he tells me, “and these two artists, to me, represent the heart and soul of that time.”
But Sillerman’s aims aren’t exclusively about feeling groovy. A brash deal-maker (he once told a blustery banker, “Don’t waste my time telling me how great you are”), he is scaring the patchouli off the very mavericks who built the industry. Conjured into being during the free-for-all sixties, the rock-concert business was ruled for years by fierce regional chieftains like the late Bill Graham, who battled over turf and talent. Now a huge chunk of that once-balkanized trade is suddenly under one man’s thumb. Critics accuse Sillerman of using his market dominance (in some cities, he controls every concert venue) to dictate artist contracts, drive booking agents out of business, and inflate everything from ticket prices to the costs of T-shirts, parking, and popcorn. “There’s no question that he’s doing all this on a monopolistic model,” says one stalwart competitor, Woodstock producer and veteran New York concert promoter John Scher. “It’s amazing that the government is letting him get away with it.”
Sillerman’s buying spree has, in fact, drawn Justice Department attention to possible anti-competitive practices. When SFX considered buying Seagram’s Universal Concerts in July, the Justice Department made it clear to SFX that DOJ would look long and hard at the deal. Seagram, eager to put through a quickie deal to pay off debt, eventually sold instead to House of Blues for $190 million. “It flatters me that they think I might be a Bill Gates,” says Sillerman calmly. “But what we do hardly approaches that scale. It’s not our plan to own everything. Nor would we want to.”
What he does want, Sillerman says, is to be the Sam Walton of pop music, bringing rival promoters — from New York’s godfather of gigs, Ron Delsener, to San Francisco’s famed Bill Graham Productions — into his big tent. Of course, Wal-Mart is about selling low-cost goods to the masses. SFX, on the other hand, provides high-end one-stop shopping for the 90-decibel-minstrel set. If you’re a touring band, Sillerman wants to book you, market you, promote you, and merchandise you. If you’re a fan, he wants to sell you the ticket, the T-shirt, the sixteen-ounce beer. And if you’re an advertiser, he wants you to know all those fans are there for the picking.
“Bob’s got the star-power charisma of a Harrison Ford and the smarts to pull this entire fucked-up industry together,” says Arnold Stiefel, who manages Rod Stewart, the first mega-act to sign with SFX. “He’s making it all work where it used to be lazy and unfocused.” Stewart himself praises Sillerman’s marketing genius. “I’ll pay him the highest compliment I can,” says the rocker. “He’s my kind of geezer.”
With this summer’s $110 million-plus buyout of bankrupt Broadway producer Livent, Sillerman’s begun flexing his muscles in the live theater, as well. SFX took over Livent’s houses in Chicago, Toronto, and New York, where Ragtime is coming to the end of its two-year run. SFX’s Pace touring unit, a road-show powerhouse, is bringing shows like Jekyll & Hyde to the heartland, titillating tots with Rugrats, revving up motorheads with monster-truck rallies. All of which Sillerman wants to sponsor with monster ad deals.
While Sillerman’s star rises over countless stages, he’s managed to stay true to his roots — even if those roots now spread determinedly through the smooth Southampton sand. As the chancellor and chief benefactor of Southampton College, he has raised more than $7 million for the campus with his annual “All for the Sea” benefits, featuring SFX acts such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Sillerman’s private beach blowout, on the other hand, with its filet mignon, grilled tuna steaks, vodka-heavy bar, and swaying Japanese lanterns, is one of the East End’s most exclusive. Not because it features studio moguls and arriviste rappers, but because it doesn’t. Barefoot electricians mingle with grocers’ wives in Gap dresses. Fast-food franchisers hug the children of pool cleaners. Sillerman, a self-made billionaire, weaves through them all, a jockish roustabout and the life of the party. “It’s like this all-American picnic in somebody’s backyard,” says Jane Finalborgo, whose husband, Vic, owns the local gourmet food shop Catena’s Market. “Not only do they invite me, but all my relatives and their kids. They just want real friends. A real life. That’s not what you expect from a guy who’s been doing what he’s doing.”
Entering his sleekly modern midtown office, Sillerman stops next to a crinkly aluminum Bill King sculpture, a leggy hip-jutting colossus with spindly arms akimbo and a defiant barrel chest that easily serves as Sillerman’s personal calling card. “We call him ‘Peckerman,’ ” he jokes.
As always, Sillerman looks cool and controlled in a charcoal suit and a silk floral-print tie. For a man in the midst of negotiating the takeover of Europe’s biggest concert promoters, he is remarkably calm. His office, with its fresh spray of Cymbidium orchids, black-and-white photos of his wife breast-feeding their baby daughter, and a steel wedge of desk the size of a grand piano, is new-man macho. “I know what I want,” he says, sitting beneath a life-size portrait of himself with his daughter on the beach at sunset, “and I try to get it.”
Sillerman began his latest buying in an unlikely place, on an empty football field a few miles from his house, where he accidentally stumbled on a marketing gold mine. He was planning the “All for the Sea” benefit with Ron Delsener when he noted something odd about the rock trade: It rarely attracted national advertising. “For its size,” he says, “it was incredibly inefficient. If you were Bill Graham in San Francisco, you might have a great venue like the Fillmore, but you weren’t getting big sponsors. It’s one event in one place with a few thousand people. But what if you owned dozens of venues?”
Sillerman thought that if he could unite the promoters, cluster their amphitheaters, centralize bookings, and sell the total package to national sponsors, he’d create an unstoppable league of live entertainment. Easier said, of course, than done. Years earlier, Delsener had tried the same thing, only to see his efforts crumble amid bickering and suspicion. “These guys hated each other,” says Delsener. “They didn’t want to give up their secrets. And no one had the type of money Bob had to just buy them out.”
Indeed, he had the money — and a second motive. At the time, his company, then called SFX Broadcasting, was a chain of 72 mid- and large-market radio stations that often sponsored local concerts but missed out on the lucrative ticket and concession sales that went to promoters. He wanted a piece of that action. “Bob saw this great opportunity for all kinds of cross-promotion,” says Mitch Slater, the other half of DelsenerSlater Enterprises. “He’s clearly a visionary, a guy who sees things other people don’t and then seizes it.”
Sillerman’s opportunity came in 1996, when Delsener and Slater complained that they didn’t like their partnership deal with Houston-based Pace Entertainment. The two companies had teamed up to buy the Garden State Arts Center, but DelsenerSlater was getting only a third of the venue’s proceeds. “Bob said to us, ‘Why didn’t you come to me?’ ” recalls Slater. Over lunch at a midtown Italian restaurant, Sillerman agreed to buy DelsenerSlater for $27 million in cash. He brought on Slater, 38, and Delsener, 63, to jump-start the concert division. He moved their staff of eighteen from a cramped brownstone into his spacious offices. The two men then began introducing Sillerman around the insular concert world, opening doors long closed to outsiders. Most promoters vowed never to sell — at first. But armed with fistfuls of cash, and promises of big earnings, he preached a gospel that was hard to resist. “Every one of these guys could be bought,” says Don Fox, owner of New Orleans’s Beaver Productions and a rabid SFX critic. “He’s like Santa Claus. He gave them the biggest payday of their lives. These people? They just took the money.”
Sillerman quickly snatched up dozens of outfits in San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., among other cities. He targeted those with a stable of amphitheaters, which the promoters had built a decade ago to steal business from stadium owners. Sillerman kept each business intact, drawing its seasoned chiefs into SFX with blocks of stock options. Finally, in the spring of last year, he assembled his unruly bunch in a Nashville hotel to deliver his marching orders. “He walks in wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and the first thing he tells us is ‘We’re all gonna make a lot of money. We’re gonna have a lot of fun. But most important, we’re gonna have a lot of fun making a lot of money,’ ” recalls Gary Becker, CEO of Pace Motor Sports.
The Becker family had sold Pace’s three successful units, including its concert business and Broadway touring outfit, for $190 million in cash, stock, and debt just a month earlier. The family liked Sillerman’s get-rich bravado but feared a corporate culture would destroy their chummy club. Sillerman set them straight. He works well with entrepreneurs because he’s one of them — he speaks their language and has no problem spreading credit along with cash. “Most of the business things we’ve achieved,” he says, “have been other people’s ideas that I’ve been able to embellish a little.”
In his buying spree, Sillerman had forked over hefty goodwill payments — money given above a business’s tangible bricks-and-mortar assets. In several cases, it equaled two thirds of the selling price. In the end, the goodwill run-up was over $1 billion. And Delsener, who had sold first — and relatively cheap — was reportedly furious. “He was Sillerman’s consigliere, his ace in the hole,” says one veteran promoter. “And then he got the least money. He practically gave the business away.”
Delsener denies this, insisting he could have retired rich “long before Bob Sillerman showed up.” When I ask him about the inflated payouts, he turns humorously gruff. “He tells us what he pays after the fact,” says Delsener. “We say, ‘How much? You could have got it for half that, you stupid fuck.’ He says, ‘I know.’ Tell him I said that.”
“Could we have paid less?” Sillerman says. “In some cases, maybe. Definitionally, when something is auctioned off, it means you’re paying more than someone else. If you think it’s worth ten, we think it’s worth eleven. Somebody has to think we’re paying too much.”
Most everybody thinks Sillerman is paying too much, including the very promoters who have grown rich on lavish SFX buyouts. “They overpaid for us and they overpaid for everybody,” says one promoter with Bill Graham Presents, which sold to Sillerman for $68 million in cash and stock, or seven times cash flow. “I’ll tell you flat-out I sold for the money. When was I ever going to get a golden opportunity like this again?”
For Sillerman, it was worth it to sew up the industry quickly rather than dicker with doubters. Today his 120 stages form a rock-and-roll Super Bowl for advertisers. With 25,000 events in 1998, he delivered 58 million demographically desirable consumers with a single contract. “These are people voting with their feet and their wallets,” says Sillerman. “If you go see Tom Petty or the Spice Girls, you’ve chosen to do it. You’re excited. You’re not doing this passively — like watching TV at home. You’re spending money, and you’re very receptive to hear direct or subliminal messages.” Indeed, SFX’s ads in trade magazines aimed at advertisers read, “Remember that magical moment when your daughter’s eyes widened to meet her favorite characters live on stage? . . . It’s exciting, it’s magical, it’s completely engrossing. And we found a way to package it.”
In a business that still has its share of sixties-style idealists, Sillerman’s hard-sell tactics have many competitors cringing. “It’s all we can do to keep sponsorship off the stage,” says Scott Welch, who manages Alanis Morissette, one of the few artists bypassing SFX promotion. “It’s a corporate mentality. The act becomes the reason to sell beer, the reason to sell parking.”
Such hand-wringing hasn’t stopped major brands from diving into the mosh pit. In quick order, Sillerman has locked up $70 million in sponsorships. His music halls are turning into marketing malls, from Kendall-Jackson (wine-tasting tents), Smirnoff vodka (banner ads), and Johnson’s Kids Hair Care (shampoo samples) to its biggest catch, Levi’s, which zipped up the rights to an entire second stage in most of SFX’s amphitheaters for $15 million over three years.
“If you want to reach the entertainment buyer, we’ve got the only national model,” says Irv Zuckerman, who founded the St. Louis-based Contemporary Group concert-promotion company in 1968 and sold to Sillerman for $92 million in cash and stock. Zuckerman himself had tried to reach national advertisers years earlier, but with limited success. “Bob has delivered on every one of his promises to us. He’s a great jockey. He’s the one you want to ride this horse.”
Taking a cue from sports marketing, Sillerman is shrewdly selling the million-dollar naming rights to such venerable houses as the Garden State Arts Center (now PNC Bank Arts Center), and he wouldn’t mind re-tagging Jones Beach Theater, Irving Plaza, and the Beacon Theatre, the core of his New York inventory. To pack these places with fans (and, critics say, to squelch competition), Sillerman is slipping rockers the equivalent of backstage coke: the biggest paychecks of their lives. According to insiders (Sillerman won’t divulge the sums), he’s given Rod Stewart $350,000 per gig, twice what he was getting two years ago. Sillerman juiced up Dylan and Simon, who several promoters say dislike each other, with a combined $500,000. On his own, Dylan pulls in one fifth that amount.
So how does Sillerman pay for it all?
He doesn’t. You do.
Top seats for Stewart now cost $80; for Dylan-Simon, they were $125. If you think those sound like scalper prices, you’re not alone. Critics call it the back-alley trade moving to the front office. Sillerman calls it tiered ticket pricing. It’s based on the Broadway and sports model, where the closer to the stage (or game) you are, the more you pay. Artists, who get up to 70 to 85 percent of the gate, are singing all the way to the bank.
It’s a brilliant strategy. If Joe Wall Street can fork over $300 to feel Mick Jagger’s spittle, then clearly the market will bear the front-row increases. The problem is that the “inventory” on cheap seats is meager. For next spring’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion at Madison Square Garden, for example, ticket prices range from $30.50 to $201. But if you buy a cheap seat, you’d better bring oxygen — even in the fourth tier, tickets are $76. Moreover, wealthy concertgoers tend to be conservative concertgoers — leaving up-and-coming bands and the younger concertgoers who support them out in the cold, according to Sillerman’s critics.
“The middle-income consumer is getting bitten in all this,” says Jules Belkin of Cleveland’s Belkin Productions. “A guy who makes $32,000 a year and wants to go to four or five shows with his girlfriend, he can’t do it. So then he goes to just one. How is that benefiting anybody?” And John Scher, who held his three-day Woodstock tickets to $150, retorts, “We are cannibalizing our own business.”
Why would Sillerman, a brilliant strategist, do something so shortsighted? “The leopard doesn’t change his spots,” says Morisette’s manager, Welch. “Look at this guy’s history. Look at what he does. They keep trying to color it something else. Let’s just cut the bullshit and call it what it is. A stock play.”
According to SFX’s most recent, third-quarter report, cash flow was up 123 percent for the first nine months of this year over last, to $169.3 million. But when interest on the $1 billion-plus debt is factored in, along with depreciation, amortization, and other charges, SFX shows a net loss of $15 million. Though Sillerman is closing the debt gap, investors have bailed in a big way on his stock, which is down 30 percent from a high of $51 just three months ago. It doesn’t help that some key insiders, including the Beckers, cashed in huge stock blocks at their first opportunity.
And while his play dates climbed 13 percent this season, attendance rose just 2 percent, which means fewer people on average are coming to his shows. No surprise, then, that Sillerman prefers to talk about his slate of acquisitions and long-term goals. “I believe at the end of the year we will report a profit,” he says. “But that is not the way I’m managing the company. We’re managing toward free cash flow and we’re managing toward growth. We’re not managing to increase revenue.”
New York theater insiders can’t help pointing out a weird echo in all this of Garth Drabinsky, the free-spending producer whose remains Sillerman just picked up at a Broadway fire sale. The Toronto-based entrepreneur created Livent, built theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and got the Ford Motor Company to buy the marquees. Pleading fiscal prudence, Drabinsky took Livent public while producing musicals like Ragtime and Show Boat, spending enormous sums of other people’s money — until he finally ran out of investors and drowned in a sea of red ink.
Sillerman hardly seems cut from the same cloth. But at some point, SFX’s investors will want results. So far, Sillerman has left every promotion house intact, missing out on the cost-cutting benefits of unifying various marketing, accounting, and merchandising staff. He continues to accumulate debt, having bought up several European promotion houses this fall. “The people in our industry know he’s wasting millions of dollars that he doesn’t need to,” says one SFX promoter. “They throw ridiculous amounts of money away. His only concern is driving up stock prices with a new press release every day.”
When I ask Sillerman if that’s his game, to push the stock until he can sell the whole calliope to a willing buyer for one flash-point payday, he gives me a textbook answer. “I have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders of this company,” he says. “It would be irresponsible of me not to consider any and all options, not to look out for their interests.” In other words, Sillerman is for sale. And not for the first time.
In the woodsy Riverdale section of the Bronx where Robert F. X. Sillerman grew up, he learned early how to put capital to work. While selling greeting cards door-to-door in middle school, he wasn’t satisfied with the slim margins. So he started his own company, buying in bulk and marshaling an army of friends as a commissioned sales force. But it wasn’t until his father’s bankruptcy in the pioneering Keystone Radio Network, when Sillerman was 13, that the business bug gripped his entire outlook.
“He was the consummate salesman,” says Sillerman. “Good salespeople are optimistic. That’s what I got from the whole thing. When you’re in your sixties and you go bankrupt, it can be debilitating. But my father, the very next day, had an idea on how he was going to make his next million. He never did. But he never lost his optimism.”
Neither did his son. At Brandeis University, where Sillerman majored in political science, he launched Youth Market Consultants in 1966, offering fellow students discount magazine subscriptions while advising marketers on how to target the teen set. He sold the company in 1972 to Boston’s Ingalls ad firm, though he won’t say for how much. While making the deal, he met a bright and passionate copywriter named Laura Baudo. At first, she was put off by his swagger. “Bob had hordes of women surrounding him, and I thought, ‘Oh, get over your cheap self,’ ” Laura says with a laugh. “I wanted nothing to do with that.” She pauses and adds, “That was moth to flame, wasn’t it?”
When Laura sought his help in developing a musical greeting card, she learned what a lot of people learn if they listen to Sillerman closely. “Bob is very much a self-determinist,” she says. “That’s one thing I liked about him. And he likes conversation. That’s not a usual male trait, is it? Other people might think he was attractive because of what was attached to him. He was successful. He dressed well. But I think it was that he really liked to talk and listen. He loves ideas.”
In 1978, Sillerman joined forces with oldies D.J. Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow to buy two tiny stations in upstate New York for $1.875 million.
“Bob can take a dollar bill and in 25 minutes it’s a hundred dollars,” says Morrow. “You don’t ask how; you just appreciate it. It’s really this talent to assemble the right people. I want to call it charm, but it’s actually quite frightening. He has this ability to absorb and master any skill. Thank God he never became Cousin Bob.” On the first day they hit the air, Sillerman cried. Over time, the pair amassed a string of scrappy radio and TV outlets. But Sillerman’s frat-boy humor (pretending to steal paper supplies during a crucial contract deal, awarding gold sales pins with the letters sls for “Sell Like Shit”) and his tough deal-making earned him a reputation as cocky but dependable.
“Deep down, Bob enjoys his celebrity and financial power,” Morrow tells me. “But he knows people gun for you. He’s a sweet guy in his personal life. In business, watch your gloves.” By 1993, Sillerman had fought his way into an even bigger arena. That year, he teamed with radio-industry honcho Steve Hicks to take several stations public under SFX Broadcasting. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the way for ownership of multiple stations in single markets, they devoured dozens of properties to become the nation’s seventh-largest chain. That year, Hicks left to become president of Capstar Broadcasting. With backing from his brother Tom at Texas buyout firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, Steve Hicks bought SFX Broadcasting for $2.1 billion. The transaction netted Sillerman $250 million — and set the stage for his latest takeover.
The sale further increased his reputation in Southampton, where he had arrived in the mid-seventies with Laura after following some friends out for a weekend. They quickly began spending every summer weekend, camping out on living-room floors, with Bob dominating the local volleyball nets. As his star rose, he bought nine acres of property and began building two houses. Sillerman imported hundreds of Alaskan clear cedar logs, which were planed in town and assembled onsite. He ruled over every inch of the design, from the living room’s vaulted ceilings and the 40-foot indoor pool and basketball court — where a glass wall reveals swimmers, like fish in an aquarium — to the private disco, where the stairs light up as you step down to the dance floor.
In his guest house, tons of timber were joined, without a single nail, by a Japanese temple builder using pegboards as a guide instead of blueprints. “These things are not monuments to money,” he insists, in a reflective monologue shot through with moments of mysticism. “But in them, you feel this spirituality of the hands that have been laid on the wood to do this. I know this sounds sort of Shirley MacLaine, but there’s something about the peacefulness of the men who built it. Every piece of wood supports the other.”
In 1992, when Southampton College lost its chancellor — the blue blood Angier Biddle Duke, ambassador to Spain under Lyndon Johnson — Sillerman took over the post at the behest of his old friend Tim Bishop, the school’s provost. Sillerman laid out two conditions for taking on the job: that the college scrap several ill-defined liberal-arts programs and focus on its major strengths — marine science and creative writing. As in his business dealings, he also infused the college with his quirky humor. In a blatant publicity stunt that troubled old-guard administrators, he named Kermit the Frog as the 1996 commencement speaker. Thirty-one newspapers picked up the story, a free marketing bonanza that raised the college’s profile and drew hundreds of new admissions.
“I thought right away this is a good marriage,” says Roger Rosenblatt, editor-at-large for Time Inc. and professor of writing in the newly formed MFA program that was one of Sillerman’s pet projects. “When you have a chancellor who is generous with his own money and his own time, it means so much more here.”
Sillerman and his wife, who dreamed up the “All for the Sea” benefits, personally oversee every concert. They set up chairs, decorate tents with hanging fish cutouts, pick the area’s top caterers. In other words, they roll up their sleeves. “Let’s face it,” says one administrator, “Bob is a rich guy who jets all over the place. He could just give us this money.”
That’s undoubtedly true. Sillerman owns a resort on Anguilla. He vacations in Paris and Cuernavaca. He recently flew several friends to Ireland on his ten-seat Challenger jet, then rerouted the whole group to London for a Rolling Stones concert. In truth, Sillerman is unquestionably generous with his friends, paying the college tuition of several of their children.
And he is generous, too, with strangers. In a touching tribute to his marriage, he gathered his friends at Irving Plaza for a twenty-fifth-wedding-anniversary party last February. Before the evening’s headlining act, Willie Nelson, took the stage, Sillerman stepped under the bright lights and presented Laura with $100 million to launch the Tomorrow Foundation, a charity to be run by her. “Bob is usually Mr. Entertainment, the Milton Berle of my life,” says Irwin Kruger, a McDonald’s franchiser who has known Sillerman for nearly 40 years. “Here he was giving this lovely speech, saying, ‘We’ve been so lucky, and we’re not just giving back but thanking everybody.’ “
“I think Bob, more than anything, has changed from somebody who was looking outward and is now able to look inward,” says Laura, who notes that the birth of their daughter, late in their lives, has “mellowed” her husband. “Bob has become extremely conscious of wanting other people to get the first helping, of attention, joy, even credit. That’s a good thing to know about yourself, that there’s enough to go around.”
Tom Petty is wearing a grungy green army jacket, wandering around backstage with a willowy blonde young enough to be up past her bedtime. It’s a hot night. Sillerman is making believe it’s no big deal, but he wants to meet Petty. He’s circled the field at Southampton College three times, even changing out of his Petty T-shirt because that might not look cool. His buttery cowboy boots are losing their shine in the dust. And the roadie patch on his faded-to-white Levis isn’t getting him anywhere.
He flips open a Motorola cell phone and tells the housekeeping staff to prepare a room in case Petty wants to stay the night. Snapping the phone shut, he sidesteps a caterer lugging buckets of chilled Thai calamari and exits the VIP tent onto the field. An eardrum-rattling organ is punching out the hypnotic riffs of Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” testing the sound system of his Arabian-themed stage set. “Isn’t this amazing?” says Sillerman, gazing — like a flower child finally seeing Woodstock — at the velvet draperies and rococo set. “This place was absolutely empty this morning. I watched them raise the roof.”
Although it’s a benefit, this event could serve as the blueprint for Sillerman’s grand plan. The show is heavily sponsored. Hundreds of Revlon gift bags line the entrance to the VIP tents, packed with Iced Mocha nail polish, Tom Petty T-shirts emblazoned with eab logos, show books thick with Dean Witter ads. There’s plenty of tiered seating. The VIP tent, closest to the stage, costs $300 per person. A seat in the VVIP tent costs $600 and up. It includes a fully stocked bar and lavish table settings. Lawn seats, 100 yards from the stage, cost $40.
When Sillerman finally gets to a backstage tent where Petty sits at a littered table with his band, he greets the rocker like an old friend. “So we got a house for you to stay in,” says Sillerman, throwing an arm around Petty’s shoulder. After some coaxing from his girlfriend, Petty accepts. Sillerman claps his back and says he’ll be sitting down front during the show. “So,” says Petty with a crooked smile, “we’ll be seeing a lot of you tonight.” Sillerman tells the grizzled rocker that “people who paid a lot of money are in the front seats.” Petty, road-weary and bored, in skinny yellow shades, just nods. He hates tiered seating. And he’ll gladly fight about it. But not at a benefit show. Sensing Petty’s lack of enthusiasm, Sillerman assures him that after a few songs, “we open the VIP section” and the crowd moves up front. “Great,” says Petty, “so we won’t just be playing to the rich all night.”
When Petty takes the stage in a long velvet coat and white ruffled shirt, he surveys the VIP area, choked with lawn chairs and coolers tripping up dozens of cheap-seat fans who are already breaking ranks. “Everybody that sees a folding chair,” says Petty, “let’s stomp it to death.” The crowd cheers — and stomps — as Petty launches into “I Won’t Back Down.” Sillerman, front-row center, remains seated as the dancers surge and bump around him, nodding in time to the music with a satisfied grin.