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."
"The people in our industry know he's wasting millions of dollars," says an SFX promoter. "His only concern is driving up stock prices."
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."