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.
"These guys hated each other," Delsener says of the other promoters. "They didn't want to give up their secrets."
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."