March 20, 2019 | Story | No Comments
A few years ago, Peter Shapiro needed a not-so-small favor from Robert Plant. Shapiro, 44, has been putting on concerts for more than 20 years—everything from intimate late-night Roots gigs to 2015's Deadhead extravaganza Fare Thee Well—and few situations drive him into a state of room-pacing, hair-futzing excitement like a last-minute booking. So when Shapiro noticed that Plant had an opening in his tour schedule, he wondered: What would it take to get the former Led Zeppelin frontman, who easily fills 3,000-seat theaters, to agree to play a last-minute, late-night show at a bowling alley in Brooklyn?
"B.B. King once told me, 'If you really want something, you bring cash,'" says Shapiro. So he showed up for his meeting with Plant carrying a brown bag stuffed with $50,000 in bills. That was the deposit. Weeks later, Plant took the stage just after midnight at Shapiro’s long-running Brooklyn Bowl venue, where he performed Zeppelin classics like "Black Dog" and "Going to California" for a crowd of about 800.
"It’s in the spirit of what we do: Fuck, let's put it together," Shapiro says on a late-fall afternoon in his midtown Manhattan office, where he oversees a live-show mini-empire—which includes three Brooklyn Bowl venues, along with the regal Capitol Theatre in nearby Westchester County—as well as his latest venture, an ambitious concert-chronicling website called Fans.com. The room is crowded with reminders of his decades-long music career: A poster commemorating Wetlands Preserve, the famed downtown-New York City venue Shapiro owned in the late '90s and early '00s; a ticket from a screening of the concert film U2 3D, which Shapiro co-produced; a photo of Questlove walking through a plane hangar in Las Vegas, where in 2014 the Roots helped open up a West Coast incarnation of Brooklyn Bowl. There’s also a framed a setlist from the multi-night, multi-city Fare Thee Well shows, which drew hundreds of thousands of Deadheads from around the world.
The space’s most vibrant attraction, though, is Shapiro himself, whose dusty voice, near-collar-length hair, prolific profanity, and sly smile reminds you of a mischievous eighth-grader you might spot smoking behind the gym. Today, Shapiro's dressed in dark jeans and a blue dress shirt, and he never quite stops moving—waving his phone around wildly mid-call, twirling a drumstick, bounding unexpectedly from one corner of the room to the next. "He appears and vanishes—that's kind of his modus operandi," says Blues Traveler’s John Popper, who’s known Shapiro since at least the early ‘90s. "And you don’t know how long he’s been there, or if he’s still around. He's kind of like Batman in that regard."
Popper, like many of Shapiro's friends and observers, compares him to Bill Graham, the legendary concert promoter who reshaped the live-music industry in the '60s with San Francisco's zeitgeist-divining Fillmore venues. But whereas Graham was a highly visible pop-culture power-broker—chronicled in the pages of Rolling Stone, sought out by TV producers as a rock-n-roll explainer—Shapiro's career has largely been defined by the fan-immersing, artist-pleasing events and spaces he's overseen since he took over Wetlands in the mid-’90s and turned it into a late-night paradise for jam bands, ska acts, and the backpack-rap cognoscenti. The first Brooklyn Bowl would follow more than a decade later, quickly becoming a location for surprise drop-in gigs by the likes of Guns N' Roses and Kanye West (Bowls in London and Las Vegas were next). And, in 2012, Shapiro revived the Capitol, a long-dormant former rock palace, with a multi-night opening stint from Bob Dylan.
Each space has earned a reputation for well-oiled spontaneity—the kind of anything-can-happen-here ethos that’s made live music a crucial source of cultural momentum (and revenue) in the post-Napster record industry. "Peter doesn't have the word 'no' in his vocabulary," says Questlove, a longtime Brooklyn Bowl performer and friend. "I've given him 11th-hour surprises, like, 'How about a practice Usher show?,' or 'Can we organize a quickie Elvis Costello performance?' Anyone else would have riddled me with bullets for taking such a grand idea and tossing it to him with seconds left to spare. [But] with him it's always, 'Oh man, I can't wait to get to it.' And it's always magic."
Fans.com is Shapiro’s attempt to teleport some of that kinetic live-show power to the web. Launched last year, the site is an ever-growing concert database that includes everything from this month's Chance the Rapper shows to, say, a 1960 Beatles gig in Hamburg, with many gigs documented via user-supplied photos and anecdotes. The goal is to build a single destination for concert lovers, who Shapiro says are often spread far across the web—either lingering on artist-specific sites like Little Monsters or Dead.net, or sharing everything via a decentralized stream of social media updates. "You go to a concert and post something about it on Facebook, and good luck finding it a year later," he says. "Besides, your whole life is on that site. You may not wanna geek out on being a fucking Slayer-head if you work at Chase bank. People have a separate identity for that."
But the biggest obstacle for Fans is convincing users to pledge allegiance to yet another community-minded music site. So far, Shapiro says, the site's growth has been encouraging; last month's traffic was the site's biggest yet. "We're not saying it's big, but we're seeing growth," he says. "And we're very much using my little world [of businesses] to lead it." The last decade has seen the heralded arrival (and subsequent flame-out) of endeavors like Turntable.fm, Twitter Music, and Whatever the Hell Justin Timberlake Is Doing With MySpace. For the last 20 years, Shapiro's been able to cajole artists and audience members to follow him wherever he goes, from basements to bowling alleys; can he get them to stick around with him online, long after the music's stopped?
Bringing the Club Experience to the Web
Shapiro's Manhattan office is just a few blocks away from the site of his first-ever concert: A 1985 Madonna show at Madison Square Garden, which he attended when he was 12 years old, tagging along with his older brother. ("I remember all the moms dressed up in black lace with their daughters," he says. "And I remember a funny smoke in the air a little bit.")
Born and raised in New York City, Shapiro spent his teen years checking out shows and putting together a public-access TV show about sports. Back then, his music tastes tilted more toward the likes of Jane’s Addiction and My Bloody Valentine; his awareness of the jam-band scene didn’t start until a few years later, when he was a sophomore at Northwestern University. “Like any college in America," he says, "there was a culture of people playing hacky sack, throwing a Frisbee, smoking something, and hanging out."
In 1992, he caught his first Grateful Dead and Phish shows within just months of each other; the performances made him a convert to the jam-band scene, and inspired him to spend his summer working on a Dead documentary, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep: On Tour with the Grateful Dead Summer 1993. More film work followed, eventually bringing Shapiro to the attention of Larry Bloch, the founder of Wetlands Preserve, a downtown Manhattan nightclub known for its late hours, dodgy sightlines, and eclectic roster. Groups like Pearl Jam and Oasis played their first New York City gigs at Wetlands, and Dave Matthews was a semi-regular in his pre-breakout days. But by 1996, Bloch wanted someone to take over the club, offering the gig to to the then-23-year-old Shapiro. "Jerry Garcia had died [the year before]," Shapiro says. "Larry told me, 'There are a lot of people in their twenties who are into this music and this culture, and the whole thing's gonna splinter.'"
For the next six years, until the club’s closing in 2001, Shapiro retained Wetlands' casual vibe, while also booking more elaborate live shows, such as a weekly Roots residency from 1997 to 2001. ("Many a legendary night at that venue," Questlove recalls. "A lot of historical performances and confrontations took place—not to mention, key songs also got created.") Shapiro maintained Bloch’s commitment to community, hosting meetings for local non-profits, while also solidifying the the venue's party-friendly atmosphere. "My favorite part of Wetlands was the basement, where the was music piped in, there were pillows everywhere, and you could just hang out and smoke pot," remembers Popper. "That felt like home to me."
After high rents shut down Wetlands in 2001, Shapiro spent the next few years pondering his next move, finally settling upon Brooklyn Bowl, a concert-venue-slash-bowling-alley that opened in Williamsburg in 2009, at the site of an century-old ironworks foundry. Unlike Wetlands, Shapiro's new venue had sightlines that allowed you to actually see the band—not to mention an upscale menu and open lanes. But it shared Wetlands' come-one-come-all ethos, and was soon attracting acts like Adele and Paul Simon, despite holding fewer than 1,000 people. "The back of the security shirts at Brooklyn Bowl say 'Welcome,'" notes Shapiro. "Lots of little shit like that makes a fucking difference. People can feel it." Adds Tom Bailey, a longtime concert-industry veteran who now serves as general manager of the Capitol: "Bill Graham used to famously walk around the venue, taste the hot dogs, and say, 'The mustard’s a little off tonight.' He looked at every single part of the entire experience. And something Shapiro thinks about a lot: 'How’s the vibe? Is something mucking it up?'"
Both Wetlands and Brooklyn Bowl required Shapiro to stay late into the night, overseeing the informal after-parties (and occasional after-after-parties). He can’t always pull those kinds of hours anymore—he has multiple venues to run, and two young kids at home—but Fans is partly an attempt to recapture that don’t-stop-the-show spirit. "You’re turned on when you’re at a concert," he says. "And you’re with people you know. Where do you go afterwards to keep that going?"
Turning Deadheads to Webheads
In some ways, Fans is the sleek continuation of a Deadhead-turned-webhead tradition that goes back to at least 1985, with the arrival of The WELL, a virtual community that soon become a gathering place for Jerry fans. It was followed in the ’90s by tape-trader sites like Live Music Archive—which quickly accumulated concert recordings by the Grateful Dead and other jam-band acts—and other Web 1.0 projects archiving everything from lyrics to set lists to guitar tablature. With the possible exception of scientists and porn enthusiasts, no group helped colonize the early internet as thoroughly, and as eagerly, as the Deadheads and their ilk.
Nowadays, though, pretty much every high-visibility artist is treated to that same level of online hyper-adulation and heightened scrutiny: You can find entire Twitter accounts dedicated to Drake lyrics and Radiohead set lists; Instagram feeds that document classic punk covers; even a YouTube page that archives more than 30 videos related to the Jacksons’ 1984 "Victory" tour. And whereas recording live shows was once considered a legally iffy, socially frowned-upon transgression, major concert moments are now captured via Instagram or YouTube, and sometimes broadcast to the world mid-performance (even the Doobie Brothers, it seems, have softened their once-harsh anti-bootleg stance).
Shapiro hopes Fans will help users collect all of these memory-making bits of ephemera in one place, while also allowing them to document their future concert-going obsessions (he spent years assembling the site’s massive live-show database, which begins with a 1949 Jerry Lee Lewis gig at a car dealership). The idea is to eventually expand it into fields like sports, and—way down the line—possibly even the art scene. Before that can happen, though, Shapiro will likely have to bring in some outside help, and has started talks with possible partners. "Facebook still dominates," he says. "And then you have Pinterest, and Twitter, and Instagram—you have to break through that inertia of people automatically going to those sites. That's the hardest thing. I've realized I'm probably going to need help to bring it to a bigger level."
For now, Shapiro has a lot of patience; it's a requirement for surviving in the concert business, which is subject to all sorts of erratic demands and rhythms, and which still relies on bare-bones promotional hustle (Shapiro says that, even in 2017, the most valuable tool for a concert promoter is a steadily growing email list). And Fans has to compete with several other projects he has in the works, including the forthcoming March for Science, which he's producing in Washington, DC. Still, he waited a few nervous years before Brooklyn Bowl's Las Vegas venue really took off, and knows that launching a successful website isn't too different from launching a hit venue: "First," he says, "people have to come—and have a great time."
* * *
On an early-winter evening, Shapiro is relaxing with a cigarette and a glass of wine in a secluded hideaway within the Capitol Theater—a cozy space filled with comfortable seating, a decently stocked bar, and a monitor that allows him to watch the show in relative peace. He only travels to the theater for big shows, but when he's here, he'll sometimes hang out in this mini-bunker with some friends and maybe even a few performers, which is why he tries to keep its exact location a secret. A giant fish tank fills the room with light; it was installed by a Primus-loving tank-expert who, desperate for a ticket, struck a trade with the theater. "Look at this urchin," Shapiro says, eyeing a particularly bright specimen. "He’s like…turned on. Sick, right?"
Not far from where he sits, about 2,000 Bon Iver fans are gathering on the main floor of the Capitol, which briefly functioned as a rock palace in the '70s before being turned into a rentable event space. For its reopening in 2010, Shapiro and his team pulled out benches, reworked the acoustics, and upgraded the location's decor (including custom-made wallpaper featuring the likenesses of Janis Joplin, David Bowie, and other past performers). As the crowd files in, a giant dome on the roof is bathed in light, shifting colors almost imperceptibly, and the room fills with loud, humming pre-show instrumental music. Even without a single performer on stage, the place looks and sounds fantastic. "The guys who play here fuckin' love it," Shapiro says. "The air is different in a room where you’ve had Pink Floyd, Bowie, the Stones, Janis. And there’s not a lot of those rooms left."
Bon Iver's set begins, accompanied by a carefully synchronized, multi-screen light show. Shapiro spends a few minutes at the bar, a few minutes at his seat, and a lot of time pacing the room—checking the scene in the lobby and in the hallways, making sure everyone's enjoying the show. Ever since the election, Shapiro's been thinking about the role of live music—which, for all its changes over the years, remains a communal experience. "We need this, even if we don't realize it," he says, as the music plays. "It's kind of like the idea behind Fans—there's a room for people who who wanna be in a different space, who wanna escape reality." He turns around from the center of the Capitol floor and eyes the attendees, all of whom are happily bathed in sharp white light. For now, nothing can muck up Peter Shapiro's vibe.CULTURE