Arnold “Arnie” Pustilnik, a concert promoter and artist manager who helped shepherd the careers of stars including Train, Carlos Santana and Joe Satriani during a decades-long tenure at Bill Graham Presents, died Aug. 20 after a long struggle with cancer, his family tells Billboard. He was 75.
“Arnie was a well educated, street smart and tenacious artist manager,” says Satriani in a statement sent to Billboard. “He had a good sense of humor and a down to earth outlook on life, and he always had creative solutions to the endless problems that come up in the music business. Arnie was a colorful and integral part of the Bill Graham Management team that nurtured my career from the start. We had some good laughs together too. He will be missed.”
“When Train was in our early San Francisco days, Arnie was the only manager in the music business willing to take a chance on us,” says Train frontman Pat Monahan in a statement sent to Billboard. “He treated us like we mattered and we will always be indebted to him for that. I hope he rests in peace knowing he helped so many of us.”
Over three decades, Pustilink worked alongside Graham to transform the promoter’s namesake company into the premier rock concert promotion outfit of the 1970s and ‘80s. He eventually rose to co-head of the management division alongside Mick Bridgen, and, following Graham’s death in a helicopter crash in 1991, helped keep the promoter’s legacy alive by continuing to steward the company’s management clients into the next decade.
Born in 1946, Pustilnik left his native New York sometime in the early 1970s for the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived as “a hippie selling sandwiches on the streets of Berkeley,” Brigden tells Billboard. Pustilnik, who is remembered for sporting a flowing ponytail around the office in his younger years, linked up with the already-established Graham around that time and began taking on low-level jobs for the promoter, including working the door at one of his Bay Area venues.
Pustilnik took a step up in the organization when he was assigned to handle the backstage setup for George Harrison’s 1974 North American tour with Ravi Shankar. Soon after the completion of that 45-date run of shows, he was assigned day-to-day management duties for Carlos Santana, who was then managed by Bill Graham Presents’ Ray Etzler. It would prove to be a pivotal training ground. “That’s where Arnie got his real eye-opening experience of what he could do,” says Brigden, who began working with Pustilnik at Bill Graham Presents in 1976.
Brigden describes his 25-year working relationship with Pustilnik as a complementary one, with Pustilnik particularly adept at the radio promotion side of the business and Brigden more inclined towards creative and touring. “The two of us formed, I think, a left brain-right brain relationship that worked very well for our acts,” he explains.
Pustilnik’s knack for radio promotion would serve his artists well over the course of his career. In the late ‘90s, after failing to procure a major-label deal for management client Train, Pustilnik independently secured radio play for the band in San Francisco and other major markets. His work resulted in increasing buzz for the group, inspiring Columbia Records – which had previously turned them down – to sign them.
Two decades prior, Columbia had been the distribution partner for Wolfgang Records, a label under the Bill Graham umbrella that was launched in the late 1970s under Pustilnik and Bridgen’s leadership. Their first signing was the then-up-and-coming artist Eddie Money, who put out his double-platinum 1977 debut album and four additional LPs on the label. After the label experienced a fallow period which started sometime the following decade, in 1995 Pustilnik and Bridgen resurrected Wolfgang and put out Money’s 1995 album Love and Money and rock band Thriving Ivory’s 2003 self-titled debut EP, among others.
Though inclined toward the management and label sides of the business, Pustilnik was tasked with some ambitious touring projects during his tenure. That included The Rolling Stones’ massive 1982 stadium tour of Europe, by far the band’s biggest tour of the continent to that point. “It went larger than they ever could have imagined,” recalls Brigden. “Arnie booked that tour and singlehandedly delivered to Bill dates and deals.”
Pustilnik’s former colleague Morty Wiggins, who started out as the self-proclaimed “office schlep” at Bill Graham Management before being promoted to manager, recalls how Pustilnik took him under his wing, paying forward the spirit of mentorship Graham had shown to him. “He was demanding, sometimes hard to work for, but extremely generous with his knowledge, a great mentor, and away from the office, a really good guy,” says Wiggins, who spent many Passovers around the Pustilnik family table. He adds, “That guy made the best freakin’ chopped liver I’ve ever had in my life.”
Two years after Graham’s tragic death in 1991, Pustilnik and Bridgen, along with 13 other of the company’s employees, purchased 90% of the promoter’s $4.75 million empire (with the other 10% being held by Graham’s sons, David and Alexander). Over the next several years, the two men continued running Bill Graham Management, including after the company’s $65 million acquisition by SFX Entertainment (now Live Nation) in 1997. Two years later, Pustilnik and Brigden purchased from SFX a controlling interest in the management business, which had been de-prioritized in the company’s quest to conquer market share in the touring arena.
In 2002, following the multi-platinum success of their sophomore album Drops of Jupiter, Train departed Bill Graham Management to work with Bruce Springsteen’s manager John Landau. Around that time, Pustilnik’s health began to deteriorate, leading he and Brigden to sell the business to former associates Jay Wilson and Kent Sorrell, who renamed the company Elevation Group (unrelated to the event management and production company of the same name formed by Denny Young and Steve Lindecke).
Following the sale, Pustilnik continued managing artist independently, though his health problems, including multiple bouts of cancer, sidelined him more and more over the years. That was undoubtedly a difficult turn of events for a man who, over the previous three decades, had become accustomed to taking the lead.
“One of the things that he always said to me was, ‘Don’t be the cheerleader, be the quarterback,’” Pustilnik’s daughter, Sarah Pustilnik, tells Billboard.
Pustlinik is survived by wife Susan Pustilnik; daughter Sarah and son Samuel Pustilnik; and sisters Iris Kozac and Lynne Tauber.