Concert promoter Peter Shapiro found his way into the music industry in 1993 with a little help from a horde of Deadheads in the parking lot of the Rosemont Horizon Arena. A firm believer that one thing leads to another, Shapiro explains that the passion he saw that night in Chicago changed everything for him.
“Pretty much had one of those life-changing moments people talk about at a show, where you go ‘Holy shit. I feel a little differently,'” Shapiro told Amplify.
From there, he made two films about the Grateful Dead and Deadhead culture that included an appearance from the infamous Timothy Leary. As the death of Jerry Garcia left a hole for Deadheads in 1995, the jam band scene was created with Shapiro at the forefront. He struck a deal with the owner of Wetlands Preserve, an iconic jam band venue in New York, and took over the space in 1996 at just 23 years old.
Shapiro explained that the Wetlands was niche and never had the best sightlines, but he learned from his predecessor that a successful venue was all about the way you treated the people who came through, both fans and artists.
Since then, Shapiro has opened several locations of Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling and music venue, and owns New York’s historic Capitol Theatre in Port Chester. He has helped establish a jam band favorite, the Lockn’ Festival, and launched Fans.com, an online community where music lovers like Shapiro can go to continue to celebrate their favorite bands and concerts after the show is over. Amplify recently sat down with Shapiro to talk about everything from his Relix Live Music Conference to how being a concert promoter in 2017 means cutting through the constant barrage of news.
How did you get started in music?
I ended up making a couple of films on the road with the Grateful Dead that led me to meeting the owner of Wetlands. He built Wetlands as the home of the Grateful Dead scene in New York. When Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995, a lot of the jam band scene got created. All the people who would go on the Dead tours had to find new things to listen to, music to go see. When I started out at Wetlands in ’96, it was in the middle of that whole jam scene.
The owner of Wetlands kind of passed the club onto me because I had done these films of the Dead and I really believed in the whole scene. I was young and still naive and believed in it and was idealistic. He and I worked out a deal where I could pay him over time and he passed on Wetlands to me. That was in ’96 and I’ve been owning venues and putting on shows and trying new and interesting things since then.
How did you end up making films with the Grateful Dead?
I first went off on my own to see them on tour. I got a van, found a friend in film school who wanted to go on the road with me. We went for a month in the summer of 1993. We just went on the road and filmed the whole scene of fans in the parking lot. None of the members of the band were even in it. Which is ironic because 20 years later I ended up putting on their fiftieth anniversary concert. I learned a lot about taking care of fans and putting on shows in a fan-friendly way from going on tour with the Dead. I saw the passion firsthand in that crowd. That was the most passionate audience. People weren’t just going to shows, but living through the shows. Ever since then with my venues, the Brooklyn Bowl, the Capitol Theatre, and Lockn’ Festival, I try to keep that vibe while integrating new technology and sound or lighting.
Who were your mentors?
Larry Bloch, who was the founder of Wetlands Preserve. He started it in 1989 and I took over in 1996. He had a real strong belief and vision for how to put on a live music show. He knew how to treat the audience and the band. He created the atmosphere like going to see a show in the comfort of your own home, but not your home with friends. He did a lot of things to create that setting.
I’ve known Coran Capshaw for 20 years.
I’ve worked with a lot of bands like String Cheese Incident, Disco Biscuit, and Phish for 20 years now. Now when I do shows with them there’s a friendship. We’ve done so much together that enables you to be creative and do things because we know each other so well and there is a comfort. If I have a new venue and I say ‘Let’s try this idea,’ it’s pretty cool because we’ve done so much and a lot of it has worked out.
The Roots played for a year every Sunday night at Wetlands in 1998. So when I opened Brooklyn Bowl I went to Questlove and was like ‘will you DJ here?’ At first he said he wasn’t sure, but since we had that relationship he’s DJed every Thursday pretty much ever since. People and trust and relationships are really important. It’s business 101. Especially if you are not one of the big companies that can make a tour deal where money is more important.
It’s easier for me now because I have great venues and Relix is helpful. Everyday a different musician comes to Relix to do a live performance. Just seeing them and being with them is really important.
Is it becoming easier or harder to be an independent promoter in 2017?
Both. It is easier and harder. There are more tour deals and there are two really big empires in the business. When they can offer this many shows in this many towns. Tour deals are coming to the club level now, not just stadiums and arenas, so that way it is harder. I work with everyone: AEG, MSG, Live Nation. But I have kept my independence and I think there is a value to that with bands. Technology is also an equalizer. With email and social media, it enables someone smaller not to have to spend a fortune on advertising. Indies can compete now by leveraging things like social media, emails, and other technology. Technology helps the little guys, but the big guys are bigger than ever. So in some ways it is easier and some ways it is harder.
What is one thing you wish you could change about music business right now?
You know, if you’re the promoter and you win, you make a $100 but if you lose you lose $1,000. Or you could multiply that. That difference in what you can make versus what you can lose is a big swing. You can lose a lot more than you can make as a promoter. That’s why I try to have my own venues so I can have more revenue streams. Bands want bigger guarantees and if you don’t cover it, you lose a lot. But if you do and you nail it, you can make a little. That then favors the bigger guys because they are leveraging a lot on their network to get sponsors and they can make deals. When you have 20 or 50 venues for talent, it’s less per show than the guy who makes a one night offer for one venue. It’s those resources that work out for the big guys. But the little guy can be nimble, more flexible, can do shit.
What challenges do you see the industry facing in the next five years?
I think people are going to see shows more than ever given the political world. It’s a challenge getting the word out with what has been happening in America in the last year. Stuff that is going on politically is eating up a lot of the air. If you’re launching a new venue or a tour, it is hard to compete with that. One tweet comes out and that’s what all the news is about. That’s a challenge. If things calm down a bit, it would be easier to cut through it. I’m glad I launched Brooklyn Bowl in the quiet era of 2009 versus now. There was less shit flying around. Everyone has Instagram and Snapchat and there’s a lot of information flying around. There are pros and cons to that.
When did you start going to shows? Who were you seeing?
My first real show was Madonna at Madison Square Garden in 1985. With my friends in high school, we were really into Jane’s Addiction and My Bloody Valentine. Jane’s Addiction was really big in high school and it’s cool because I’ve gotten to do a lot of shows with them recently. We went to Lollapalooza in ’91 and saw Red Hot Chili Peppers.
I didn’t get into the Dead scene until college. I had a moment at a show at Rosemont Horizon Arena in Chicago in 1993. Pretty much had one of those life-changing moments people talk about at a show, where you go, ‘Holy shit. I feel a little differently.’ That happened to me, but it happened in the parking lot and it was snowing out. I just saw shit I had never seen before growing up in New York City. There were all these kids drumming and going on tour with the band.
If you could see any artist at any concert in time, what show would that be?
I’d probably go to Woodstock. I’ve been fortunate to go to a lot of great festivals. I’ve been to Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, and Lollapalooza so I know how to navigate festivals. I think I’d be ready to go checkout Woodstock and be able to navigate it really well.
Who are you listening to now?
I just saw the Avett Brothers last week at the Capitol Theatre. We had them for three nights. I thought they were awesome. They blend the traditional bluegrass vibe, but play it in a pretty rocking way. They are almost doing an arena rock version of bluegrass. They’ve gotten used to playing arenas and festivals. That’s a pretty cool thing.
Is there someone who haven’t worked with yet that you would like to?
I’ve never done an Aerosmith show. I’d love to work with Steven Tyler and those guys. I’ve come close a couple of times to getting Paul McCartney to do something at Brooklyn Bowl. I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of people. I got to put on the show of my dreams with Fare Thee Well: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead shows.
If you didn’t work in music, what would you be doing?
Hopefully I would have come up with something, but I don’t even know what it is. I would have come up with something cool and I would have been good at that.
Is there a business leader outside of music that you look up to?
I read the Steve Jobs book. A really cool lesson out of that book is from when they were making the iPad. They were saying we have to test this and test that and he said you can’t ask someone what they think about something they’ve never seen and they don’t even realize what it is. He would follow his own vision. It’s good to get the response and the feedback from the customers, but he was making something new. Brooklyn Bowl, before it was open everyone was like ‘That’s not going to work. A bowling alley with music in it.’ Then it worked better than anyone thought. You don’t know until you try it. If you get a chance to try something, do that. Luckily, my career is in a position now where I can try more. You just have to follow your instincts and believe in it, but also listen a little.
How was the first Relix Live Music Conference?
It was great. It sold out in advance. We were pleasantly surprised how well it did and how many cool people showed up in both the audience and the speakers. Ron Delsener came to speak with me. We had Don Strasburg from Colorado. We had John Moore and Jim Glancy of Bowery Present. We had great managers and agents. We had a huge turnout. We were able to keep a really good vibe like we have at Wetlands. I’ve been to a lot of conferences and doing it all day at Brooklyn Bowl is different than doing it at a hotel ballroom. I thought that was really important for talking about the live music experience. It was awesome and we’re going to continue it in the future.
Are you feeling any effects from the opening of Brooklyn Steel?
I think Terminal 5 is probably feeling the effects of Brooklyn Steel the most. It’s a bigger venue in Manhattan. We have a lot of venues in New York right now when you add Steel to it, but Brooklyn Bowl is having the best year it’s ever had. It’s been steady. We have our niche, our thing. I don’t love competition, but you just have to keep your head down and do what you do well. Treat people well, fans and bands. Focus on that. If you start looking around, you’ll just see shadows and that’s not helpful.
How is Fans.com going?
It’s growing. I’m not looking to blow it out in a minute. It will take some time, but as a venue owner and a music fan I felt there could not be a better place to be a fan. It’s a place to talk about the shows you’ve been to and the bands you love. It’s those memories and planning what you’re going to do as a fan in the future. People revert to using Facebook and Instagram which is great, but they weren’t built to be fan platforms. It’s a place to celebrate your history as a fan. When you take 31 photos at a Phish show or a Slayer show, you may not want to put that on Facebook where your mom is watching or your kids. There should be a place where you can geek out and share that feeling that you have when you’re not at the show. I don’t think Facebook is supposed to be that, so that’s what we’re trying to do with fans.com.
What’s happening with Lockn Festival?
We’re going into our fifth year and I feel really good that we’ve been able to invoke the spirit of Wetlands. It’s not easy to do in central Virginia on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but we have done Petty, Robert Plant, Willie Nelson, and Wilco. Those are my favorite bands. You won’t see many DJs or pop music or hip-hop, but there’s room for this one great festival just like I think there’s room for Fans.com. There are a lot of festivals doing great things, but Lockn is trying to be what Wetlands was 25 years ago. The feeling that you get when you are there is the same as the Capitol Theatre and hopefully similar to the vibe we had at Wetlands. That’s what I try to do – always deliver that energy.