“It feels like New York is starting to come back,” says veteran live-music promoter and venue owner Peter Shapiro, speaking from his Manhattan office on a mid-September afternoon. “There’s a lot of activity on the street right now,” he says, glancing out his window. “People on the sidewalk, cars on the street, some buzz in the air. People are wearing masks, but we’re starting to get used to it.
“Obviously, it’s not where it was, pre-pandemic,” he concludes. “But it’s also nowhere near as empty as it was early in the summer.”
Over the past 25 years, Shapiro, 48, has become a New York live-entertainment institution as established and recognizable as some of the city’s biggest venues. In the mid-’90s at the ripe old age of 23, he took over ownership of the legendary downtown jam-band mecca Wetlands — where Pearl Jam, Phish, Oasis and the Dave Matthews Band all played early in their careers. Over the intervening years he’s become a serial entrepreneur with a showman’s instincts and a flair for emerging technologies, and not just in the New York area.
In 2009, Shapiro and former Wetlands GM Charley Ryan founded the Brooklyn Bowl franchise, which combines live music with bowling and a restaurant in a surprisingly symbiotic mix (he’s opened locations in Las Vegas and Nashville too). Three years later, he acquired and renovated the historic 2,000-capacity Capitol Theater in Port Chester — the New York suburb about 30 miles north of Manhattan — which hosted legendary concerts by the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd in the early 1970s.
Outside the metropolitan area, he co-founded the annual Lockn’ festival in Virginia and, perhaps most illustriously, orchestrated the Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” concerts in Santa Clara, Calif., and Chicago, which united the group’s surviving founders for five nights, each with a different set list. Not only did the concerts gross an estimated $52 million, but some 400,000 people paid between $20 and just over $100 for livestreams or pay-per-views of the shows. Along the way he co-founded the 3D tech company 3eality Digital, worked as a filmmaker (co-producing “Tie-Died: Rock ’n Roll’s Most Deadicated Fans” and U2’s 2007 film “U2 3D”), and even purchased the New York-based jam-band magazine Relix. (Something of a serial joiner, he’s also the chairman of music-based voter-registration nonprofit HeadCount and serves on the boards of New York Public Radio and the City Parks Foundation.)
As with virtually everyone else in live entertainment, Shapiro’s businesses have been dealt a crushing blow by the COVID-19 pandemic. And like so many others, he’s facing it with a combination of optimism, resilience and innovation, acknowledging the rapidly rising river without obsessing over it, all while furiously bailing water.
“We’ve pivoted,” he says. “Our venues are all wired, so we’re doing livestreams [with artists performing in the venues with no audience], particularly from the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville: We’ve had Jason Isbell there, Margo Price, Larkin Poe, Billy Strings. About six weeks ago we started selling tickets for them; we sold a couple thousand for Margo Price, and if you put, say, a $10 minimum on them, a lot of people choose to pay more, just to help out. We’re selling merch; we’re broadcasting archived livestreams of past concerts. We’re adjusting and trying to stay flexible. Obviously, it’s not the same as what it was — at all. But it’s meaningful.”
Similar scenarios, of course, are playing out all across the country and the world. The live-music industry that was the engine of the music business came to a screeching halt in March, as every tour was postponed or canceled and virtually every venue shut its doors.
A business that Pollstar projected to bring in $12.2 billion in ticket sales alone — a fraction of the massive business ecosystem around concerts and live events — is instead looking at $9 billion less and mass layoffs and furloughs. In a summer survey by the newly formed National Independent Venues Assn., which rapidly grew to more than 2,800 members, some 90% of the independent venues in the U.S. said they would be forced to close within months without federal aid. NIVA has shown impressive Capitol Hill savvy, hiring top lobbying firm Akin Gump to promote the Save Our Stages Act, authored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and which the House passed last week as part of the Heroes Act. Save Our Stages aims to bring $10 billion in relief funds to venues. It’s unclear if the Senate will pass the Heroes Act on to the White House. NIVA is one of countless industry organizations clamoring for federal aid in a divided and seemingly deadlocked Washington, where legislation has taken a backseat to the chaos of the 2020 election.
Concert venues were among the first businesses to close due to the coronavirus and will be among the last to return. And while there’s vague talk of venues opening with social distancing and 25% capacity, that’s not a sustainable business model. The Paycheck Protection Program and rent moratoriums are the only reason more haven’t closed permanently.
“This isn’t just about art and keeping a nightclub going — independent venues are economic drivers for their communities,” says NIVA’s Audrey Fix Schaefer. “For every dollar spent on a ticket, there’s $12 of economic activity generated for restaurants and parking lots and other businesses.” Government funding “would allow us to hold on until the reopening, and we will be major economic drivers of renewal.”
Despite his unflagging optimism, Shapiro is aware of the uncertain road ahead. “Do I think a lot of people are teetering? Yes,” he says. “PPP did help, but we need another round of government support or you’ll see a lot of places close soon.”
Like nearly every other business owner in his industry, he’s had to furlough some staffers (he declines to say how many). “Furloughing people at each of the venues has been difficult, especially since most of our staff have been with us for so long. That said, we have been burning the candle to make sure we can keep as many people working for as long as possible,” he says. “Every day and week we’re having to adjust to our new reality in real time. Now, we’re about to head into fall and winter, and although that makes it even more challenging in some ways, it will probably create more opportunity for bands playing ticketed livestreamed shows in venues.”
The greatest challenge is that even though full tours are being rescheduled for 2021, there’s no solid timetable for recovery. “I wish I could answer that, bro, but no one really knows, and no one can tell you they know for sure,” Shapiro says. “And it makes me wanna cry.
“But,” he continues, “do I think everyone’s bullish that this isn’t going to last for three years? Yes. Could we have concerts outside next summer because people will have figured out how to live en masse? Maybe — if people adhere to the rules. But the problem is when they don’t,” which has been the case at every recent mass gathering in the U.S., from outdoor concerts in Arkansas and South Dakota to presidential rallies. “So maybe it’ll be next spring or summer, because I don’t see concerts starting up in the middle of the winter.”
When the stage lights are turned on again, Shapiro is hoping — and expecting — to be one of the survivors, welcoming fans back to his venues. “I’m doing my best to hold on tight, whatever it takes. A lot of people are leaving or have left New York, and a lot of businesses aren’t reopening. But I want to do whatever I can to make it to the other side.”