NEW YORK — Everyone loves a missive from rock ’n’ roll’s dark heart rife with scandalizing tales of sex and drugs. Luckily we’ve got plenty of those already. Where’s the book for those of us who attend a three-night festival in the Virginia woods, see a show at a refurbished New York-area rock palace, or love their local club-cum-bowling alley with great fried chicken and think, “How did this all come together?” Well, Peter Shapiro, arguably the most celebrated independent concert promoter and club owner of our time, has, once again, put a little something together.
His new book, “The Music Never Stops: What Putting on 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me About Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Magic,” is a look back at an unusual career that has crowned him as something of the grand rabbi of the so-called jam band scene. Born in New York in 1972 to a family known for its leadership in righteous causes, Shapiro won an unlikely bid at age 23 to take over the hippie-ish Manhattan club Wetlands Preserves. While there, he nurtured a generation of talent and an audience dedicated to borderless music and social justice issues.
Over time, he created festivals (like the Green Apple Festivals and LOCKN’), originated an awards show (the Jammys), became publisher of the music magazine Relix, and eventually opened Brooklyn Bowl, a large venue in what has since become one of the hipper neighborhoods in New York, which has been exported to other cities. He also revived the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, a mystical place that is somehow modern but also feels like a time portal to an idealized past, and produced a number of memorable music and film events.
The feather in Shapiro’s cap is the 2015 “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago’s Soldier Field, where the “core four” living members of the Grateful Dead reunited, with Phish’s Trey Anastasio sitting in for a weekend of unforgettable music. (I streamed it from my couch.) The chapter on how he pulled that off practically reads like a thriller in “The Music Never Stopped.”
The book is cleverly divided into 50 shows, most of which Shapiro produced himself (though not the first time he saw the Grateful Dead during college). In addition to stories about how some of the artists — like members of Phish, Blues Traveler, The Roots, Disco Biscuits, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Leonard Cohen, U2, and more — act backstage, you’ll get some great answers to nitty-gritty questions. Will a club make its money back in beer if the door price is low? Is it worth throwing cash down to get a band to play an extra set they weren’t planning on? Should you fly across the country just because you might be able to get two minutes with someone in a lobby to pitch a movie idea? Should you show up to Robert Plant’s hotel with a paper bag full of cash in the hopes he’ll do a midnight show? (Obviously, the answer to all of these questions is yes.)
As one who has been personally lining Shapiro’s pockets for decades (his tastes and mine have a lot of crossover) I sank my teeth into this tome, and was also thrilled to yap about it with him on the phone. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
The Times of Israel: I would imagine that for someone who works in live entertainment, the COVID shutdown had a lot to do with getting this book written.
Peter Shapiro: Yes, plus I realized I should write it while I still remember it. My co-writer, Dean Budnick, was there for a lot of it, so we had hundreds of hours of conversations. Dean has his PhD from Harvard, but we also did the Jammy Awards together and he is the co-editor of Relix; he knows this world. And the internet helps, too, if you want to look up set lists from a specific night.
The internet is weird — I can look up old shows I know I was at, but I could’ve sworn they played something else.
The internet has pros and cons, for sure, but for this book the documentation is essential. It’s not really Pete Shapiro’s memoir, it’s the memoir of 50 shows over 30 years.
When did you have the “aha!” moment, to peg this as 50 short chapters, 50 shows?
It took a minute. And that’s a theme in the book, too, how cream rises and how ideas get better as you work at it. I’m turning 50 in September; that’s part of it, too.
I don’t have a journal, I didn’t have notes, I don’t have any personal social platforms. But now that’s all down on paper, I’m relieved that I don’t have to try to remember this stuff anymore. This business is hard — even at 10,000 shows in, it’s hard. Now, when things get rough, I can look down at my desk and see a finished copy of this book to remind me, “Hey, I’ve done this all before.”
You’ll have some people that are super into “the scene” who will challenge one another to see who has been to all of the 50 shows you highlight.
We should do a contest. They’re spread out from over the years, at different venues, not all my own.
To win all 50, though, they’d have to be at that financially clutch private show for the company NetApp, which saved your hide in Las Vegas when you were almost victim of a hostile corporate takeover.
Good point, and guess what — I wasn’t even at that one! I wrote about how it saved my ass at the last minute, but I wasn’t there. That’s good trivia.
When I picked the book up I figured I’d read fun stories about some of my favorite musicians, but it’s really a condensed business course applicable to any field. The subhead is “What Putting On 10,000 Shows Has Taught Me,” but I was thinking another could have been “How to Succeed in Business Without Being an Asshole.” Is it fair to say your philosophy says don’t always push to maximize profit at all times?
It’s just who I am. But there’s a long tail benefit — one beyond just being nice. I’m now in a position where I’m real friends with bands and managers. It gets easier as you go if you have friends.
I have one life: work and shows, it’s the same life. Luckily I love going to shows even after all this time, but these people, the musicians and managers, they are my friends. If you are going to be really good at anything, I think, you need to approach it all as one life, and be a little obsessive.
Whether it’s a club show or a stadium show, I treat it all the same way. You need the entry to be good, the sound and lights, the bathrooms and the beer lines, whether it’s 50 in a club or 50,000 in a stadium, it all has to go smoothly. That’s the challenge.
You talk about the little things. I know that I could never take my wife to a gig at [REDACTED]—
Oof, not my favorite venue either, but please don’t quote me.
But she’ll join me at Brooklyn Bowl because the security guys out front are always friendly, there’s free water stations if you get hot, and the BATHROOMS ARE CLEAN. She’ll say, “Okay, buy me a ticket, too, but only if it’s at Brooklyn Bowl.”
I like hearing this. Make sure this is in the story.
Okay, but my question is this: Why won’t the other venues just clean their damn bathrooms? Hire someone that’s fun to run the coat check? How hard is that? This is such an easy win!
It’s a good question, bro. I dunno! But we try to run our clubs so that your wife will want to be there. We just won best venue in Las Vegas by “Las Vegas Weekly,” the seventh time in eight years. Every element, all the parts, have to add up to make that happen. And it never fades — if you win it, you can’t say, “I’m done.” You gotta keep pushing. You gotta make sure you have the best sound. You gotta keep cleaning the bathroom. That’s why the book is 50 shows. Each show, each night, has to stand on its own.
The book shows how you keep moving. Not all your ventures last forever, but you don’t mourn them, you focus on the next thing.
Some things are only meant to be for a certain period of time, you know? The Jammies or the Green Apple Festival, you have your run, you make the most of it, and then you can either sit there and mourn, or you could get ready for the next one.
This interview is for The Times of Israel —
I know! My mom will be reading this one, I’m thrilled.
Right, so, your family — your father, in addition to being a noted lawyer, was president of the UJA-Federation of New York, and your grandfather was chairman of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal. So, not to get too corny, but do thoughts of “Jewish values” factor into your work?
Well, we do have our High Holidays programs, like “Bowl Hashanah,” which we put together with Relix co-editor Mike Greenhaus. But that’s a specific thing. More generally, yeah, I do consider it like a congregation. The venue is a temple, the fans are the congregation, and what we hold can be considered services, with the shows. We have our regulars who come every week.
I write about this in the book when I first saw the Grateful Dead, people seeking something out, even if they’d seen the show numerous times before. It’s clearly spiritual in nature.
There’s no question that a larger than normal percentage of Deadheads are Jewish compared to the general public. Jews are two percent of America, right? But Deadheads, jam music fans, and live music in general? Much higher, no question.
You have a theory for why this is?
Spirituality, searching, seeking. Music is a big part of Shabbat, at least it was for me. So I do treat this all as a little bit of a temple. Not overtly, other than our High Holidays shows.
More about your family: Your great-uncle was Joel Spingarn, an early activist for civil rights, and a one-time leader of the NAACP. Something that is discussed from time to time is how a lot of jam bands have their roots in Black music, but sometimes you can look around and see only white people in the crowd. I know you have a rich history with Questlove and Talib Kweli and many others, but can anything be done to further diversify the scene?
We try. As far as the musicians in the jam world, there is some diversity, with people like Karl Denson, James Casey, Robert Randolph, and plenty of others. But it can be limited. When we did Bowl Train [a recurring late-night DJ set led by Questlove of The Roots] we had a good mix in the audience among all races, a good male-female split, and also all ages.
The world is, unfortunately, set with niche communities. But at our clubs we have ska shows, hip-hop shows, punk shows, Latin shows, LGBT-focused nights, the whole range. In Vegas we have a lot of Polynesian reggae — we lead in that, for the Samoan crowd. In Nashville we do more country. I’m working on a jazz venue, too.
I do remember a week of artists exclusively from Mali in Brooklyn a few years ago, that was incredible.
We try everything. Our scene is open-minded.
Thinking back, even all the way to Wetlands, were there some bands where you thought, “Wow, these guys are so great, I love them, they are going to be HUGE,” and then they never caught on?
Absolutely. I write about Strangefolk in the book. I thought they’d be the next Dave Matthews Band or Hootie and the Blowfish. They had a national touring career, but I thought for sure they would break to the next level. Some bands, it just doesn’t happen. You put your head down and try. I quote the golfer Gary Player in the book, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” It’s so true. You have to work real hard to put everything into place, and then hope magic happens.
How about the reverse, and don’t name names if you don’t want to, but there have to be some bands in your scene that are big draws, people love them, but just on a personal taste level you are like, “Eh, I don’t get the appeal.”
Ha, well, you do want to book what makes the people happy, but usually I book shows that I like, shows that I want to go to. That’s how we got here. If I have any type of brand at all, it’s people know that I book my tastes.
I’m not on any social media at all, but I did see a little meme floating around the other day — there’s a jokey account “IHavePhishues” like “I have issues.” Anyway, they make some zingers about me from time to time. So if I’m getting teased, it also means I have enough of a brand.
You have Brooklyn Bowl now in the original location, plus Las Vegas, Nashville, and Philadelphia. London eventually closed for reasons you get into in detail in the book, but, naturally, you learned from that experience. So the big question is, when’s Brooklyn Bowl Tel Aviv? I feel like your whole life is building to this.
[Long pause.] I would be open to that. I don’t really want to do another international one, especially so far away. Plus I’m working on another Brooklyn Bowl in America, and a Garcia’s club in Chicago. But, obviously, Tel Aviv holds something very special to me. Let’s just say the thought has crossed my mind. We’ll see.
I’m still pretty young — I’m fortunate that I started all this when I was 23. I’m turning 50, that’s part of why I did the 50 shows book. So maybe Volume Two takes us to Tel Aviv.
Last question — in the book, you write that you have a hold on Soldier Field in Chicago for a Grateful Dead 60th Anniversary. Have you talked about this with the guys? Do they know you have the hold on it? It’s only three years away!
This is the one question that I cannot comment on. But we’ve got Phil Lesh at the Capitol Theatre for nine shows this fall. It’s gonna be great.
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