Peter Shapiro at Brooklyn Bowl. (Courtesy Brooklyn Bowl)
The concert impresario will break down his world-class venues (and squirrels) at this year’s VenuesNow Conference
For the last two decades, promoter and venue operator Peter Shapiro has amassed one of the most formidable portfolios in the live music business. The 46-year-old began his career in the late 1990s, booking and operating jam-friendly Manhattan club Wetlands, and has since built an independent empire, from orchestrating the Grateful Dead’s highly lucrative Fare Thee Well shows in 2015 to founding left-of-center festival Lockn’ in rural Virginia.
But Shapiro’s crown jewels remain Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theatre. The former, a 1,000-capacity club in the borough’s posh Williamsburg neighborhood that includes a restaurant and bowling lanes, is celebrating its 10th anniversary and has spawned an affiliate location in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, Shapiro renovated and reopened the Capitol Theatre, the Port Chester, N.Y., room that hosted artists like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead decades ago, in 2012, making it a live music hub outside of New York City that draws fans from the tri-state area for both legacy acts and modern stars like Kacey Musgraves.
What did you and Charley Ryan, Wetlands general manager and Brooklyn Bowl co-founder, learn from operating Wetlands?
At Wetlands, the fundamentals of the venue weren’t there. It wasn’t a traditional venue with great sightlines like a Bowery (Ballroom) or an Irving (Plaza). We were challenged, so the details became more important — the other details, like how to treat people and customer service.
You’re known for your attention to detail. Why has that been important to your success?
The experience is an accumulation of a lot of little things. Things like the volume setting, the acoustics, the seating, the entry experience, the visuals, screens, the lighting, the bathroom experience. All those things are really important to what we do. You may notice and even if you don’t, I think you do and you don’t even realize you do.
What sets the Cap’s fan experience apart from other theaters?
We treat the venue as a community. The Cap, we’ve got a mascot: The squirrel is a part of what we are. We’re not sure why, but when Thomas Lamb designed the theater in 1926, he put squirrels in all over the place (a total of 271 throughout the venue). We take that and integrate it.
If you look at our house merch, we probably have 25 different shirts. We make a poster not just for runs of bands that are coming through, but sometimes for, like, the Capitol Theatre for the holidays. We have volunteer ushers. Does that make a difference in helping people? Yes.
How does Brooklyn Bowl’s integration of bowling and dining affect business?
The Bowl is a cool venue because most music venues in our size range, it’s funny, mostly they open at like 8 p.m. three days a week. They open when they have shows. They don’t open with no show going on — no one would come. The Bowl is open seven days a week.
The bowling is a mechanism: We rarely die, because the lanes don’t let you die. Because of the bowling, because of the food, there’s enough money running through the thing that it enables the staffing experience to be different. People go to shows and think, “Wow, I’ve never had service at this level.” It’s because there’s a restaurant in the venue.
Given that Williamsburg’s gentrification has more or less coincided with Brooklyn Bowl’s operation, how has the clientele changed and how has that impacted business?
Brooklyn Bowl, it just happened that we plopped it right in the heart of what became cool. We became known as cool and the epicenter of cool, but we still do the old-school stuff we would at Wetlands, which is cool but isn’t perceived as cool. There’s like four hotels within one block: the Wythe, the William Vale, the Williamsburg, and now the Hoxton. What I love is when we have a real classic Wetlands jam band like Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and now you see these hip cool people, Euro people, cool beautiful people that you wouldn’t typically see at a jam band show coming in, walking up to Brooklyn Bowl, because they’ve heard that’s cool. They like the music, but it’s Pigeons Playing Ping Pong — and it’s awesome because they would never go see that otherwise. Never.
The Cap has a smaller venue within it, Garcia’s, and you recently announced plans for a second Garcia’s in Chicago. How’d that idea come about?
I love Chicago. I went to school there, at Northwestern. I married a girl from Chicago. We like cities where it gets cold in the winter, because people go inside and go to shows. The Brooklyn Bowl business does better in the winter than in the summer. And I love the people. They’re fun, they’re outgoing, they like music, they like beer. I always wanted to do something there.
I’m looking to create an A-room for Chicago. It’s a jazz setup, seated-wise, 300 (to) 350 capacity, but hopefully we can do a broader kind of music. … And try to bring this vibe that we’ve been talking about to that.
Peter Shapiro will speak at the VenuesNow Conference Sept. 10-11 in New York City.