For myself and other concert promoters, the new book by Peter Shapiro is a master class. A retrospective of a legendary career through the lens of 50 specific events, The Music Never Stops: What Putting on 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me About Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Magic is filled with the kinds of lessons one can only learn through years and years of repetition, of fine-tuning, of trying, failing, and trying again.
In many ways, I was raised by the community surrounding Brooklyn Bowl, one of Shapiro’s many ventures. It led me to my best friends, my wife. It played a crucial role in my decision to found my own live music publication and concert production company, Live For Live Music, and to launch events like the Comes Alive festival series and more.
Shapiro’s legacy extends before and beyond Brooklyn Bowl, where I got on board. Prior to the Bowl’s launch in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2009 there was The Wetlands, the NYC rock club he took over in his early 20s. In the time since, the Relix publisher has bolstered his decorated résumé with events and venues like Fare Thee Well, The Capitol Theatre, LOCKN’ Festival, and countless others.
After reading The Music Never Stops, I sat down with Peter to pick his brain about the wisdom contained in its pages. The conversation, excerpted below, proved to be just as enlightening as the book. These are the most important lessons I learned:
1. The cream rises when you talk it out.
Kunj Shah: Why did you decide to write a memoir?
Peter Shapiro: I don’t want to call it a memoir. This is just the story of 50 shows. Then I figured out doing it, holy shit, I’ve done 10,000.
Kunj Shah: Coming up on 50 years, too.
Peter Shapiro: It’s the story of 50 shows, but yes, I’m turning 50 in September. I had a little health scare a couple years ago and Dean Budnick was like, “You ever written anything down?” Dean’s co-editor of Relix. He was at half the s— I’ve done. He was at Wetlands, he was at The Jammys. … That’s a big part of it, that Dean was there to help. He really wrote it, it’s all from interviews we did like this. Hundreds of calls like this, each for hours. … Dean Budnick, the guy’s the f—ing historian of basically the jam scene, had written a jam bands book, is a Harvard PhD. … That’s not going to come around a lot, the opportunity to do this with someone who was at half of it.
At first, I was hesitant. … “Do I want to do this now?” Now, I’m like, “Holy s—. Thank God I did it now.” I wouldn’t remember it in 20 years, 25 years. I barely remember it all now. I feel like a kid who just took a Physics exam. Remember in high school you take a Physics exam and you feel good when the test is done? Because you’re like, “Ugh, I can forget about everything I just learned.”
Kunj Shah: Let’s talk about one of my favorites of your creations, which you just mentioned, The Jammys. I feel the Jammys captured a moment in time when collaboration in the jam scene was kind of at its peak. You facilitated a lot of it, and I believe that helped foster a broader scene instead of people just being fans of specific bands.
Peter Shapiro: Yeah, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought [of that]. It was a peak moment of that because they hadn’t been doing it yet. Now, everyone’s done everything a little bit. A lot’s been done.
Kunj Shah: At one point, you had Bob Weir, Trey [Anastasio], John Popper, Warren Haynes, Al Schnier on one side of Roseland Ballroom. On the other side of the venue, at the same time, you had Mike Gordon, Robert Randolph, and the Tom Tom Club, all jamming with each other, with the audience in the middle of it. Who comes up with that? Is that something that the artists come up with? Is that from your own brain? I didn’t even know about this until I read it in the book.
Peter Shapiro: I come up with that s—. I did it with Dean. I’m iterative. Late-night calls, a lot of phone calls throughout the last 25 years. What do you think of this? What do you think of that? Talk it out. Everything’s talked out. I still talk it out. You go in a circle and then, cream rises, whatever it is.
2. You don’t get the magic without the work.
Kunj Shah: This book is not only the history of your life’s work up until now but also an intricate look at the making of the modern jam scene from one of its forefathers. What is it about the jam scene and improvised music that made you concentrate so much of your time and energy there, in film and in live music?
Peter Shapiro: It’s just what I like, what I love. Maybe why I’ve gotten to be pretty good at what I do is because I’ve done it a lot. I’ve put on 10,000 shows, and I put on shows that I’d want to go to. I tried to build a venue that I would want to go to. The show’s the fun part. It never fades. The live part is crazy, isn’t it? Or what about Grateful Dead music? You could listen to song after song after song and you still like it. … I feel the same every time. I’ve come to a thing, I think it might be in the book, that a good show lasts seventy-two hours.
“Since I’ve been talking about numbers, here’s another one that is important to me: seventy-two. The magic that I experience during an inspiring night of music lasts for seventy-two hours. It stays with me forever, but I can feel it directly for about three days. Then I’m chasing it again.”
–Peter Shapiro, The Music Never Stops
Kunj Shah: I thought that was the greatest line, and I don’t think that many people would know exactly what you’re talking about. But I thought about every show that I’ve thrown, and it’s true. That feeling lasts almost exactly seventy-two hours… I thought, “Is it just me that it only hits me for three, four days and then it goes away?” And then I realized, no. It’s an actual thing. Pete Shapiro said so. Seventy-two hours.
Peter Shapiro: It’s a f—ing thing, dude. I mean, it does last, and then it fades. One great thing is I do feel good. There’s something about when you put on a great show. You’ve been there, like, “I hope we just land the plane now.” So you’ve reached magic. Once people go home after an amazing show, nothing can change that memory. Nothing can change that experience.
But I’m pretty good at this and enjoy it mainly because I still… I love the live part. I love the shows. And that hasn’t faded for me at all. The daytime stuff, the morning stuff, the dealing, the coordinating, the HR of it all… that stuff is less magical [laughs]. Less fun. But you don’t get the magic without the work.
Kunj Shah: A big takeaway that I had from the book was how you handled things that didn’t work out, like not being able to produce the Inaugural Ball, the Great GoogaMooga, trying to build an actual Rock n’ Roll Playhouse, Brooklyn Bowl London—you seem to always keep going. You find the next thing. Sometimes, I feel like I’m only as good as my last project. Like you said in the book, you only get seventy-two hours of “that feeling.” What’s your trick to bounce back when things aren’t going your way?
Peter Shapiro: One problem I’ve probably created for myself is with many highs, magic moments is I have a lot of lows, you know what I mean? I’m addicted to the high of live music. If it only lasts so long, then you’re f—ed on Monday. … And it makes you want to go book more and get to the next show. But it is an issue actually of like, there’s so much adrenaline that we live off of. … When that’s over, it’s like, “What are we going to do now?” That’s why I think our scene is filled with people who are so passionate and love it and come back, and go again, and go again, and go again. I don’t know where I’m headed, but I know I’m still chasing that feeling. I’m chasing it. … You’ve got to be obsessive. You’ve got to think about it morning, noon, and night. You have to think about it in your shower.
3. Focus on how to do it, not what it means.
Kunj Shah: At the age of 24, you owned your own music venue. I know for me, at 34, I still feel a little bit unsure and young in this scene to be doing the things that I do. How long did it take you to feel comfortable in the role of owning your own music venue—and not just any venue, but a venue with such a unique activism component that was its own beast entirely?
Peter Shapiro: I’ve learned to stay focused on how to do something and not focus too much about what that thing represents or what it is… not being like, “Yo, I’m 23. I’m taking over Wetlands,” Like, holy s—. Beloved club, it’s already pretty famous, it already had had Phish, Dave [Matthews], Blues Traveler. I’m 49 now, so I made it a while. But when I made a film with U2 or I was trying to do Fare Thee Well, if you get too caught up in what it represents and what it means, or thinking like, “Yo, dude. I’m trying to reunite The Grateful Dead!” or “I’m taking over Wetlands, and I’m a kid!” I think then you’ll get hit by a car, or lightning. Especially these days, things flip so fast. I’m actually not on any socials. I can barely handle my life as it is. I just would focus on the doing of taking over Wetlands. … The key word is “think”—people will say “I don’t think this is going to work.” You don’t really know unless you get to do it, and try it, and show it.
4. The more you practice, the luckier you get.
Peter Shapiro: There’s a great quote from a golfer named Gary Player: “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” And it’s true. You got to set the table. And for it to work, just because you set the table… the weather could not work. You’ve been involved in festivals, I’ve done festival outdoors, Fare Thee Well. One of the things that worked for Fare Thee Well was the weather. I do believe my life would be different if it had rained any of those days at Soldier Field in 2015. But it was 75 degrees. It wasn’t even hot and muggy. Weather impacts things pretty dramatically at an outdoor event. At a festival, if it rains, if it’s too hot, that stuff will throw elements off. But when you have great weather, no humidity, 73 degrees, everything works better. People’s patience, the load-in for the band, everything.
Kunj Shah: All the little details were so apparent at something like Fare Thee Well. I feel like you inadvertently created an entire cultural phenomenon and resurgence around the Grateful Dead.
Peter Shapiro: That turned it back on, right?
Kunj Shah: You turned it back on. I know that weekend at Soldier Field was one of the highlights of my life, of my wife’s life. We made lifelong friends there. Did you know going into it that it was going to be as big as it became, or were you just as blown away as we were?
Peter Shapiro: Yeah. Going back to focusing and the execution part of it, I knew not think too much about what it means, how big it’s going to be. [I] more focused just on how to make it as good as possible. There are a lot of moving parts, as you remember. You just try to hold on and keep fixing problems and coming up with ideas… like how to have the security guys wear tie-dyed shirts.
Kunj Shah: What was the first moment of Fare Thee Well where you kind of felt like it was going to work out? Was it the rainbow? I know some promoters don’t feel relief until the show’s over.
Peter Shapiro: That’s a great point. If you start getting too psyched before it’s over, that’s when you get hit by lightning. You gotta be careful.
Kunj Shah: [Laughs]
Peter Shapiro: I’m serious. You gotta be careful. Never get too high or you’ll just f—ing fall. And you can fall fast and quick now. Anyone can. … But yeah, the rainbow, certainly. I was with [Jerry Garcia‘s daughter,] Trixie [Garcia], standing there. It was the end of the first set, Santa Clara, the first of the five shows.
Kunj Shah: And then, you had a lot more to go.
Peter Shapiro: Yeah, it was just the end of the first set! But the rainbow comes out. Everyone in the crowd’s going nuts. You could hear that rumble. And everyone was pointing, and it was crazy! It wasn’t raining! It was unbelievable. And I go to Trixie, “That’s your father, right?” She goes, “Yep.” I was like, “Whoa.” She’s just, no pause, “Yep.” That’s him.
[Photo: Michael Weintrob – Rainbow over Fare Thee Well in Santa Clara]
5. A good promoter is a good chef.
Peter Shapiro: I think little things matter a lot when you’re putting on a show. The scene in the bathroom or getting in the box office, the security. Obviously sound and lights, but all the elements. I think that’s true also when interfacing, meeting bands, putting things together. As you know, all the ingredients in the pie impact how the pie tastes. One little thing—putting in too much sugar, or too many apples—you can screw up the pie. Putting on live shows, if something’s off—the sound, the lights, the bathroom, the tickets, the security, the smell, whatever—you can throw the whole show off. When someone experiences something going to a show that throws them off for whatever reason, once you’re off, you’re off. When you’re on, you’re on…
Kunj Shah: I know you credit a lot of your success to Larry Bloch, the founder of the Wetlands. Do you think that some of these “recipes” are things you learned from him? Is there any particular wisdom that you got from him at an early age that you want to share?
Peter Shapiro: Yeah. I spent time with Larry in taking over Wetlands, like one-on-one time, where he would tell me how he saw the world. He always [said, if you] wanted to book a band on a weekend, [they] had to play two sets. It wasn’t just for the extra bar revenue that comes between sets, which he would say [as well], but it was an opportunity for the audience to interact and to interface. If you go to a show that’s one long set and there’s no break, you don’t have that opportunity to meet and talk to people.
That’s an example of something Larry was big on. Larry taught me, but also just owning Wetlands or being a part of a venue at that early age, you learn pretty quick. You don’t have a choice when you’re putting on a show. I tell young people or interns, “You can get a lot of the experience of putting on what we do, big shows, just with smaller shows.” Because you still have to book the venue, book the band, announce the show, put it on sale, sell the tickets, advance the show, do the sound check, do the show. All that’s true whether it’s 50 people or even 50,000.
Kunj Shah: Yeah, some of your advice you give in the book to people who are college students is to get involved in booking your college show. It’s the same thing.
Peter Shapiro: There’s a lot of similarities [when you’re] booking a show, right? Similar ingredients any time you’re cooking, whether you’re cooking right four people, or 400, or 4,000. You can get that experience, and you get better at this through doing it a lot just like anything. Getting better at being a juggler, how do you get good? You do it a lot. Being a tennis player, how do you get good? You play a lot. Stockbroker, how do you get good? Pick stocks. Nothing’s perfection, but cream rises over time.
Same with putting on a show. It’s taken me 10,000. I’ve just done it every night for more than 25 years. It doesn’t change that when I’m putting on a show now, tonight, I still got to follow up after this and make sure this is right on the guest list, or is this available? All these little things, just doing it again. Now, I’ve had the experience of doing it a lot so … I can do some of it from afar, but obviously, there’s nothing like being there.
6. You can’t see it if you’re not there.
Peter Shapiro: I didn’t have family [when I ran Wetlands] and I could lean in. When The Disco Biscuits finished at 4:15 a.m., I was there being like, “Okay, a round of tequila shots.” I was able to be there. It’d be harder for me now. I can still go see the Bisco—they end a little earlier now, too, I guess [laughs]. But I was able to be a good owner [in my] 20s because I could hang with the bands, and that’s how I met a lot of my friends and hopefully earned the respect of the staff: I was there. I could hang. Learning how to hang… never underestimate how important being able to hang is.
[Photo via The Music Never Stops – (l–r): Derek Trucks, Peter Shapiro, Oteil Burbridge, and Eric Krasno at Wetlands]
Kunj Shah: You have a chapter in your book titled “Can’t See It If You’re Not There”, like when Brownie from The Disco Biscuits convinced you to check out the band’s “new sound,” which has become so popular today.
Peter Shapiro [in his best Marc Brownstein impression]: “Shappy, you gotta stay. We got a new sound. You gotta hear it.” That happened, bro, 25 years ago. “Shappy! Stay. Trust me. You gotta stay. It’s a new thing. You gotta hear it.”
Kunj Shah: Now that I’m going to be a dad, I’m curious how you balance, you know, the “can’t see it if you’re not there” and being there for those special moments with your family.
Peter Shapiro: Red-eyes. Red-eyes help. If you do what we do, you get good at logistics, tour manager skills. Like, listen. You can take the 6:00 a.m. flight, 7:00 a.m. [ET] flight from New York to L.A. or San Fran or Denver or Vegas, and you land at f—ing 8:45 a.m. [PT]. So, I’ve done a lot where you leave that morning early, you fly west, you get in in the morning, you spend all day, you can go to the show, and then you take the last red eye at 11:45, midnight. That’s your trade. That’s going in the morning and being back the next morning. But you got the whole day in L.A. You got to see the show in Vegas.
I had figured out when I was going a lot to London, you could leave on Thursday night, New York, red-eye to London, land in the morning Friday, even go take a nap. Friday afternoon, Friday night, do a show in London. Saturday afternoon, stay. Saturday night, stay. Two nights London. Sunday morning, fly to Vegas early, and you land at noon because you gained eight hours. Hang out, see the staff, go to the show in Vegas, and then fly back on the red eye at midnight. Land at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. [ET]. You left Thursday night. You were back Monday morning. You saw two shows in London and a show in Vegas.
I don’t know if you can follow that, but you just learn how to adjust it. … I know you go to a lot [of shows], but it’s like, if you want to do it, you figure it out. But the kid’s also good because … needing to take a kid to school the next day is a good way to make sure you go home at night.
7. Learn to be there even when you’re not.
Peter Shapiro: You know what I learned? This is a good one: sound checks. If you’re involved in the show or the venue and you can get into the sound check, go into sound check. … You can get it in, say hi, get some music, and then go. But that’s become an issue for me, and these are good problems: you’re going to become friends with them. For me, I have relationships with all these bands. So they may be playing Nashville or Vegas, and they’re like, “Yo, Shapiro. Are you coming to the show?” And it’s like, I can’t always make those.
That’s a good life problem, but it is a problem because you want to be there for the show. You wanna be there to see your friends, to hang with them. … FOMO wasn’t as big of an issue without social media. When you didn’t see the photo, see the clips, you could not feel as bad about missing something. But now, you know what I do a bunch? I’ll FaceTime in to send greetings and salutations. I’ll do a virtual shot with someone. We’ll do that sometimes if you can’t be there. Isn’t that fun? FaceTime it.
Kunj Shah: And you can have someone at your venue send actual shots. I saw that when I was managing some bands and they were playing the Bowl. You’ll FaceTime in, have a waitress send the shots…
Peter Shapiro: 100%. Yeah, that’s giving away some of the f—ing secrets, but yes, 100%.
[Photo via The Music Never Stops – Peter Shapiro and Marcus King (inlay) Facetime with Rick Mitarotonda (Goose)]
8. Build a community.
Peter Shapiro: I believe the “nurture” thing. There’s nature and nurture. I learned from being around Wetlands, took it over in ’96, that’s all pre-internet. It was more of an analog place, including meetups and groups. You just didn’t have meetup.org then where it’s like, “We don’t need to go [anywhere], we’ll just go meet on the Zoom.” Wetlands was pre-internet, and the idea was downstairs we would utilize the space: Who’s getting involved in activism? Mostly young people. Where should we get the young people to meet—at the church, the school, the library, at the corner store, or the rock club? We should probably think about the rock club. That’s really where the activism center of Wetlands and the idea of utilizing the basement for meetings comes from. It’s like, create an environment where people want to go, where young people want to be.
And by the way, when something’s gone, they love it more. When Wetlands was around, people were like [tepidly], “Ah, it’s cool.” The heady people loved it, but other [people were like,] “The stage is …” Not everyone could see the stage at a sold-out show! But once it was gone, more people were like, “Love Wetlands, loved Wetlands!” You know? Whenever anything’s gone, it becomes more beloved and the memories become a little more positive, no matter what it is.
Wetlands wasn’t perfect in terms of its layout and stuff. Actually, it impacted the Brooklyn Bowl conceptualization phase. … A big part of the Wetlands was it was like a village. There were different areas, and that informed a lot of what we did at Brooklyn Bowl, myself and my partner, Charley Ryan. At Brooklyn Bowl, it’s got all the different areas, great menu, it has great sight lines in the concert area but other areas to hang, to explore, to meet people.
Kunj Shah: There’s no other venue where I’ve developed lifelong friends more than the Brooklyn Bowl. I feel like that was instrumental in me becoming who I am today. I moved to Williamsburg specifically, I s— you not, to be closer to the Brooklyn Bowl than I was in Manhattan. My future wife, Sara, also moved to Williamsburg at the same time to be closer to the music and the things. And I feel like so many of my friends came from seeing live music together in that special space, hanging out with your friends in different areas where you’re not seeing the show and you could really develop relationships.
Peter Shapiro: Yep, that’s probably the best part of this stuff. Really. Putting it together, and the bands, and the scene, the right vibe. Kunj developing Live For Live Music, Comes Alive. Everything that would come out of that world, the Bowl, what we were doing. A lot of people that went to shows at Wetlands would be like, “Yo, I met my wife at Wetlands”—because they couldn’t f—ing see the show on a sellout, so they would go to the bar or downstairs. You could hear it, but that actually caused them to meet other people. Plus, we always had set break. Bowery Ballroom has perfect sight lines. Everyone can see the stage. You don’t meet your wife there, because you’re standing there watching the show.
[Photo: Patrick Hughes – Brooklyn Comes Alive 2017 at Brooklyn Bowl]
9. Trust your gut.
Kunj Shah: You’ve created a lot of things that shouldn’t work on paper but seem to become staples of the music scene. For example, Bowlive, a multi-night Soulive extravaganza with special guests, has became a tradition across multiple Brooklyn Bowls in multiple cities. But at that first one, the band’s previous shows at Music Hall of Williamsburg down the street hadn’t even sold out. How do you know when to just trust your gut and say, “F— it”? There’s something that makes you, Pete, decide to say, “F— what the numbers say,” and go for it.
Peter Shapiro: Your instinct and your feeling. You got to go with a feeling. Everyone can do that in their own life. It doesn’t have to be putting on shows. It’s like, my gut is I want to go to this school. Or, my gut instinct is this is the right first job for me out of college. Or, my gut is I want to go to this show next weekend with this friend. Get good at trusting those instincts, and then translate that to business. You learn to have both a creative and financial kind of instinct. You need to merge all that together, as you know. It can’t just be the creative ideas. Those get expensive [laughs].
[Photo: Andrew Blackstein – Bowlive 2021 at Brooklyn Bowl]
Kunj Shah: Sometimes you could have a solid offer, a good idea, and good instincts, but you need something more. In at least one instance your instincts told you that “something more” was cold, hard cash. You talk about this in the book—you took $50,000, put it in a brown paper bag, and you handed it to Robert Plant to try to get him to play the Brooklyn Bowl the night he played the Colbert show. That’s something that could be perceived as desperate or unprofessional, especially if you’re not talking to the agent, but your gut told you that this would work, and it did. I feel like that’s just another testament of you just knowing when to do something that’s a little bit outside of the box.
Peter Shapiro: That one was like, you know that Robert Plant playing Brooklyn Bowl is just a home run. Grand slam. So it’s really like, how do you get from A to B? What’s the path? What’s the best path to have the best shot for Robert Plant to say yes—and he doesn’t need the money. It was more like just that gimmick, or something fun, so I showed up with the money in a bag. I just felt that that was the right way to do it. You got to do it with touch, right? You don’t upset anyone, offend them. And that’s why when I said it, it was like, “This is just a stipend.” I’m not trying to value him. “This is honorarium.” And he looked at it, he’s like, “50 grand? We’ll take it.”
10. Make plans. Just in case.
Peter Shapiro: I don’t think I’ll ever do anything matching [Fare Thee Well]—although I might be holding Soldier Field for GD60 in July of 2025.
Kunj Shah: That’s just three years away now.
Peter Shapiro: Less than three years.
Kunj Shah: Should we be packing our bags and booking hotels for Chicago [laughs]?
Peter Shapiro: You should maybe say a little prayer when you go to sleep tonight. We still got three years to go. If anyone can sprinkle their fairy dust on this part of the interview, that would be good.
[Photo: Michael Weintrob – Peter at Fare Thee Well soundcheck]
The Music Never Stops: What Putting On 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me About Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Magic by Peter Shapiro with Dean Budnick is now available to purchase wherever books are sold.