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Peter Shapiro Discusses Phish at LOCKN’, Fare Thee Well, And Building A Music Empire

Perhaps one of the most talked about figures in the music industry today, Peter Shapiro’s business ventures know no bounds. From reuniting Grateful Dead members for the legendary Fare Thee Well concerts this past summer, to consistently running some of the most beloved and successful venues including Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theatre, to booking Phish for a rare festival appearance at this year’s LOCKN’ Festival, it’s hard to believe this guy still has time to go out and still be a live music fan.

Live For Live Music’s Kunj Shah was fortunate enough to chat with the man himself, and what an inspiring conversation it was for anyone interested in the live music scene!

Live for Live Music: So, the original Brooklyn Bowl is coming off one of its most successful years. What do you personally attribute your success to as an independent venue owner, in an age of mostly corporate-owned concert venues?

Pete Shapiro: You know, cream rises. And if something is good, over time, people notice that, and they’ll gravitate towards it. And if something’s really good, it doesn’t get old. And I think with music venues, just like Red Rocks, SPAC, The Gorge, certain great venues, they never fade. They institutionalize, and if people love their favorite venue, they’ll keep going back. But the experience has to be really good on every level – the sound, the lighting, the experience, the security – and it can never be perfect, you always want to improve, and when it’s a big operation there’s always little things you can’t fully control that you wish you could. But overall you try to create an environment that people want to come back to, and bands want to come back to.

2015 was our sixth year for Brooklyn Bowl and it was our best year. So it’s cool to see the vibe evolve. At this point I think people know it, and then word of mouth, it expands from there. And in this day and age with the importance of social media and your platforms and email lists, as you grow those grow. Brooklyn Bowl doesn’t do much traditional advertising, we have this big community of people who are on all our socials and email lists so when we get a cool show we have the ability to let them know. In the old days, at Wetlands, when we would have a big show, we’d have to run to the Xerox place and make cards and print them and stand outside shows and hand out flyers. And a lot of the good ones still do that stuff, but now you can just press a button to let people know last minute about things. So technology in many ways really augments the ability for bands and venues to get people out, much easier than I could when I started in 1996 at Wetlands. There was no Bandsintown, or Facebook.

And because I’m independent, there’s controls that I can have to do our best to create an environment. People always come up to me and say “Oh, the Capitol Theatre, I love the vibe there.” And they don’t say it, and they might not even realize it, but a reason is because it’s not like the “MetroPCS Mezzanine Bar.” It’s just a bar. And when you go to a lot of venues now it is the “MetroPCS Mezzanine Bar,” so when you go to a bar and it’s not like that, you may not even overtly notice it, but subconsciously it feels different.

Via Wetlands Archive

L4LM: Did your experience managing and running a room like The Wetlands affect your current business model with your venues, and how so?

PS: Running the Wetlands affects everything. It impacts a lot of what I do, because I was raised there basically. This was 20 years ago, I was 23. For 5-6 years I spent a lot of time there. The room itself wasn’t what you would define as a classic, awesome live music room. When it got packed it got hot as shit, and not everyone could see the stage. But I meet so many people who are like, “I met my wife there, I met my best friends there, we had the best times.” I think if you went to a traditional music venue like Bowery Ballroom, which is a great room, or Irving Plaza, you don’t have as many people saying that. Because the rooms were so good you’d just go in and watch the show.

But because you couldn’t always see the show at Wetlands you had to go back to the bar, or to the basement, and you hung out with your friends. And you could hear the music but you couldn’t see it. So that forced you to go spend time hanging out by default, whereas with Bowery Ballroom you’d just kind of see the show and leave. So when we created Brooklyn Bowl, we decided you had to have both. If you want to watch the show we have a great GA floor with great sightlines and great air quality, and it’s still built to be a bit of a village where there’s different areas to go and hang out, like the restaurant and such. So that’s one way the Wetlands formed what Brooklyn Bowl became.

L4LM: So after Brooklyn Bowl’s instantaneous success and helping to build up Williamsburg, you reopened the legendary Capitol Theatre, expanded Brooklyn Bowl to London and Las Vegas, and there’s even rumors of a Chicago Bowl. How do you decide on these locations and additional venues?

PS: We don’t really have a grand strategy. It’s more looking at opportunities that come across the transom. Like Vegas, we had this crazy opportunity to build this venue not in a casino, in the center of the strip. It was just a great opportunity, and same with the Capitol. It was just like, holy cow, this is a great opportunity, let’s go for it. It’s kind of like music, where you have to be able to pivot and move with it, and that’s kind of what we’ve done, just going with what feels like the right direction. And it’s hard when you open new things in new markets, you start at zero. Just like you with Live for Live Music.

But as you do it, as people experience it, again it has to be good. If it’s not good it ain’t gonna work, you’re dead. And if it’s good and you can get enough runway and put your head down. It sounds so obvious but you really have to work hard at first. When it’s easy it’s easy, when it’s hard it’s really hard. You’ve been there, when you have a show that’s just not doing well for example. It’s like, if you don’t know Jorma, you don’t know Jack. It’s kind of knowing when it’s there, and when it’s just not there. And adjusting, and believing. Especially with these new venues coming in, you gotta come out with a whole bunch of big shows, whether those bands are routing through or you make it happen. You get people in to experience the room, and then they come back.

L4LM: So each new venue you started basically from the ground up.

PS: We did. As you know I’m not a part of Live Nation or AEG or a big thing where I have the email lists in each market. So it’s hard! But we’re doing it. And I’ve heard the rumors of Chicago too and…I don’t want to get into the formality of confirming, but usually when there’s smoke, there’s fire.

L4LM: So you guys made headlines around the world last year with the Grateful Dead Fare Thee Well concerts, grossing over $50 million. How far in advance for something like that does a conversation with the band and management start?

PS: That one started probably a year before the event. It took six months to get everything in place and everyone to agree and come up with the plan, and then six months to make it all happen.

L4LM: Who was the first one to throw Trey Anastasio’s name into the hat as lead guitarist, or was that something that was decided on from the getgo?

PS: It was a communal thing, but it was from early on. I’m proud to have played a role in it too. It just felt like he was uniquely the right person for this moment. And I think in the end, when you look back, that was true. We made the right call, he was the right guy. So I’m glad it was Trey. It would have been awesome with other people too, but I’ve been seeing Phish for 25 years, and I saw the Phil and Friends with Trey and Page at The Warfield in ’99, which was kind of the first big collaboration between Trey and members of the Dead. And I just knew it needed to happen. When it was first announced I know there were a lot of people who doubted it. So I’m thankful that I was able to just focus on the execution of the event and not get caught up in all the “Why Trey?” “Why Chicago?” and all that. It’s hard with all that stuff going on, because there was a lot to do to make those shows happen, and we did it. But I just had to remind myself that in the end, what would be remembered was the shows. In the end, I think Chicago also ended up being uniquely special. I don’t think any other city could have done it and really embraced it like that.

When you’re in the middle of it, one of the things I’ve learned to do is not think about stuff too much. Not sit there and be like I’m putting on this or that. Cause then you’ll just be fucked. It can all go wrong really quickly. Part of the game is to never let people see the problems. So I try not to think about things too much and just do it, because if you think too much you’ll just get caught up in your brain, and either come up with reasons why things won’t work or over think something. You don’t think about the meaning of things too much – at least not till after.

L4LM: Those shows were basically a life highlight for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people around the world. What was your favorite part or takeaway from the whole experience?

PS: Just taking over the entire city. From all the afterparty shows, I think there were like 40 a night, to every hotel and restaurant. That was one of the best parts of Fare Thee Well – obviously the shows and the music, but a really big part was the vibe and the city, and walking around everywhere and seeing people in tie-dye. Every bar was hanging flags, playing music. That was a big part of it. I spent time with the Mayor of Chicago, just to make sure everyone was kind of seeing the world the same way. And that helped the vibe at the stadium, with the police and all that, which is really important. I remember right before it all started just saying a prayer, because it was so big you can’t control it. And just hoping that it would all go well. And then everything pretty much broke the right way.

One of the best parts, though, has been afterward. When I meet someone in an airport or on the street, and someone comes up to me and says “Hey, are you Peter? I just want to say thank you for the best weekend of my life. Can I hug you?” That’s a pretty rewarding experience.

 

L4LM: Pivoting to this summer, LOCKN just announced a killer lineup, on a new weekend with a lineup that seems to appeal to a slightly different demographic than previous years with bands like Phish, Ween, My Morning Jacket replacing past headliners that included many members of the Dead and Dead-related projects. Was this a conscientious decision?

PS: Me personally, after everything with Trey and Fare Thee Well, when I went to some of the Phish shows last summer I was really happy to see so many people there with Grateful Dead shirts. Every day already has a Dead thing already. We’re doing two nights of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead. I think a lot of the older Heads maybe haven’t seen Joe Russo’s Almost Dead yet, but that band is playing their music as good as anybody in the world right now. But the other guys have Dead and Company now which is doing a tour and playing around the East Coast at venues near us. The way the concert business works, if they’re already playing a pavilion in Virginia at the end of June, its hard to make sense of them headlining LOCKN’. And I love those guys, and who knows where things go. But you’re talking to a guy who’s about to do three nights of Phil this weekend in Vegas, and three nights with Phil in two weeks with Warren at the Cap. And we had all four members there last year. But we can’t just be one thing, any festival can’t.

With the music this year, do I think it’s going to feel like LOCKN’ always does? Yes. We have a lot of returning bands like Chris Robinson, Derek Trucks, Umphrey’s McGee, and Lettuce. I happen to be a huge fan of Phish, My Morning Jacket, and Ween. I’m excited for LOCKN’ old schoolers to see that Jacket set. I would encourage people to see them live before commenting on them. And I think it’s a lot like what happened with Fare Thee Well, with a lot of people commenting about Trey’s selection. But overall it’s my dream lineup. And it’s very much in the spirit of the Grateful Dead, and there will be a lot of Grateful Dead aspects there. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead is one of my favorite bands, they started at Brooklyn Bowl. Anyone who loves the music of the Grateful Dead is gonna be talking about JRAD after, that I’m sure of.

Just imagine if it was Ween>Phish>JRAD… Actually, that could be an L4LM exclusive. 

L4LM: So what is it like booking a band like Phish who usually plays only their own festivals, drew up to 100,000 people in their heyday, and is really selective about their festival plays? Is it a different process booking a band like that?

PS: Yeah, definitely. It’s not normal. They very rarely play festivals with other bands, and I don’t think they’ve ever played multiple days doing multiple sets. To get them to do that is a process. Again, you have to prove cream rises. I think LOCKN’s reputation helps, me doing Fare Thee Well helps, obviously there’s other things that help, but it’s not any one of those things. Just the money doesn’t do it, just the reputation and friendship doesn’t do it, it has to be a totality of things. Phish doesn’t do things just for money. Phish doesn’t do things just because it’s a friend. They think through things carefully, deliberately, they’ve managed their career very well, and I think the timing was right. I feel very fortunate. And doing Fare Thee Well was different for Trey. And hopefully the way that went, being received well universally, put me and LOCKN’ in a position to be able to even have that conversation.

L4LM: Last year you had a lot of tributes and specialty sets. What can we expect in terms of lineup additions, unique sets, and collaborations?

PS: There will be additional announcements, but you’re looking at the core, we’re not gonna fully telegraph everything, and we don’t even know some of the stuff that’s gonna happen yet! That’s the magic of it. Like a good jam, LOCKN’ moves around a little. I don’t think it will be the same thing every year. I think it will have the same spirit, the same feel, the same vibe, but be a little different each time. But do I think some collaborative stuff will happen? Yes. Do I think we’ll announce it all? No. Do I know what it will all be? No. But do I think some cool shit is gonna happen? Yes.

L4LM: What really sets LOCKN’ apart from other festivals in your opinion?

PS: I’m proud that we’re only in our fourth year, and it’s got a distinct vibe, core, and feel, more than any other festival. If you look at the other major festivals – and they’re great festivals, I’ve been to all of them and I love them – but if you took the name off the major festivals, and just looked at the lineups, it would be difficult to tell which one was which. I don’t think you’d be able to name which one was Outside Lands, which one was Lollapalooza, which one was ACL, which one was Bonnaroo, but you could identify LOCKN’.

L4LM: One last question… if you had to choose, what would your favorite Grateful Dead song be?

PS: Sugar Magnolia.

L4LM: Great choice. Thanks for your time Pete!