Since the Grateful Dead’s three-decade journey came to a sudden, sad end following Jerry Garcia’s death in the summer of 1995, their hippie-wizard reputation has undergone an unexpected renovation. The Dead, much to the surviving members’ surprise, have become, of all things, business role models. One young hippie intuited this lesson–that the Dead’s grassroots business model might have lessons to teach in an age of increasing cultural fragmentation–earlier than most. Peter Shapiro got his mind blown when he saw the Dead as a college student in the early 1990s and decided to make a movie about the traveling circus of fans that followed the group from show to show. Not long after, he took over ownership of Wetlands, a storied hippie-leaning rock club in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood that hosted everyone from Pearl Jam and Phish to the Roots and the Dave Matthews Band, before it closed in the wake of September 11th.
Since then, the 42-year-old Shapiro–shaggy haired, unstoppably chatty–has transformed himself into something of an entertainment mogul. He is the publisher of jam-band-focused Relix magazine, a venue owner (of the Capitol Theatre, in Port Chester, New York, and the Brooklyn Bowl clubs, in New York, London, and Las Vegas), and a top concert promoter (of events including the annual Lockn’ festival in Virginia).
And this weekend, his journey comes full circle. Shapiro is the mastermind behind the Grateful Dead’s “Fare Thee Well” 50th anniversary shows in Santa Clara, California, and Chicago, with Phish’s Trey Anastasio filling in for the late Garcia. Tickets are moving for huge sums online as Deadheads young and old desperately seek one more taste (they can also stream the shows on YouTube). “I like working with Pete,” says Dead bassist Phil Lesh, who performs frequently at the Capitol Theatre. “Because he thinks like a musician and understands the spirit of the music I’m trying to make; because he wants to create situations for that music that enhance the experience on many levels; because his venues are among the coolest I’ve had the good fortune to play.”
Shapiro runs his empire from a large Manhattan space lined from floor to ceiling with rock memorabilia and psychedelic poster art. A steady soundtrack of classic Dead shows and bands like the National and My Morning Jacket plays over the office soundsystem. We talked to him about how he created his mini empire and how he approaches his unusual business.
Can we start by quickly running through some of the things you do from this office?
Yeah, sure. There’s a Brooklyn Bowl here, in Las Vegas, and London, and we’re starting to develop the next one. I own the Capitol Theatre, Relix magazine. I have a thing called the Hoodie Shop: It’s a shop that just sells hoodies. Everyone loves hoodies but there’s nowhere just for hoodies. I’m a partner with my sister-in-law in a business called Stone Fox Bride. It’s a bridal thing for a rock & roll kind of person that doesn’t want to go to Saks. It’s done really well. I produced the 40th anniversary of Earth Day at the National Mall with Sting and the Roots and John Legend. It all kind of comes from the Grateful Dead.
In what way?
Because it all comes out of Wetlands, which I owned from ’96 to 2001. That place was really rooted in the music of the Grateful Dead. When Garcia passed on in ’95 the scene splintered. The jazz guys got into Medeski, Martin, and Wood, the blues guys got into String Cheese Incident, and the ones that loved electronica got into Disco Biscuits or Sound Tribe Sector 9. I was in the middle of all it.
How did you end up with that club? You were barely out of college.
When I was 20, I made a documentary film about the Dead. No money, I just did it. How about that? [laughs] The band wouldn’t even participate, but I got Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary and did a thing about that whole scene. The owner of Wetlands, Larry Bloch, basically gave me the club. He had seen the film and knew that I understood the scene. He was like, “I’m going to give you this and you can pay me over time. You’re young and you don’t have a family.” The important thing was I didn’t need a lot of money to live on, because if you’re trying to pull money out of a business, you’ll run it differently than if you don’t really have to. Having a venue is a really powerful, intoxicating thing to get into–just putting on shows, you get to be friends with the bands. Brooklyn Bowl came after Wetlands had to close after 9/11.
How many people work for you now?
Nearly a thousand, probably. The Brooklyn Bowl in Vegas is 80,000 square feet. It’s the largest club in the city. The one in London is 35,000. It’s the largest club in London by square footage. The size, the fact that these are big venues, are one of the reasons they work. It’s like a social network–it needs a lot of gas, it needs a lot of people. The same way Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest work–because all the people are there. For venues, when people are there, more people want to come.
Do you think music your businesses are rooted in particularly benefited from the rise of the Internet?
Yeah, those communities got in very early. The Internet community really started with The Well. And that was all Dead people. I mean, look at the announcement that band did for the Fare Thee Well shows! It was crazy, because that’s a band with a very strong community fan base. Nothing had really happened with them in 20 years, and in those 20 years Facebook happened, Twitter happened. So when we announced the shows it was a global boom.
A lot of fans seemed frustrated with the process of buying tickets online and having them sell out in seconds.
It was my idea to also do the mail-order thing, which is kind of an anti-Internet thing, and it was cool to see how giant that got. You had to go to the post office and fill out a form and get a money order, and I think it shows also that, yeah, the Internet is great to facilitate community, but people also want to go back to how it was before.
How stressed do you get when things aren’t going quite right?
I try to never get too up or too down. People are always like, “You’re pretty steady.” Like right now, I know I’m dealing with something from this morning that’s fucked, but you probably can’t tell. And if there’s something awesome? I just try not to buy into the awesome too much.
How much sleep do you get?
Not a lot! On the weekends I have a venue open 24 hours a day. London opens at noon, and then it’s like 4:00 am in Vegas, when that club is closing. I can’t be everywhere. We’ve tried to kind of build in a vibe … train the staff to be evocative, to represent this vibe and I think we do a pretty good job. But it’s hard. These are different cultures, the crowds are different. You’ve just got to keep your head down and not get thrown off being an entrepreneur.
How did you get Trey Anastasio to do the shows? It always felt like he went out of his way to make sure people understood that he’s not Jerry.
I think the band and myself knew he was the right fit for this moment. I think we all felt that power this moment would have, and a molding of these two generations felt like the appropriate thing for this moment.
What are you working on next?
I’m not ready to announce, but I can hint. Where do these people who are into music go to commune about the shows? Obviously it’s Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, but those platforms weren’t conceived of to fulfill that functionality. Instagram is about your whole life, sharing photos. Facebook is about connecting with your friends and family and they do work for that. But I thought about what would happen if you built something specifically for rock fans. My whole thing is live-music based. Like, we went into Vegas, a town that’s driven by EDM music, and we did a live-music venue. And now we’re bringing bands that never bothered to play in Vegas to Vegas.
How happy are you that the Dead shows took off the way they did?
Like 10 years ago I was so positive that the Dead were the next band that indie kids were going to embrace, but it didn’t quite happen then. Now, it’s kind of cool! It’s hard to do shit the right way. People in this scene are very vocal and opinionated, so you have to be careful. But I think we did good. I feel good.