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How a Top Promoter Is Envisioning a Future for Live Music After COVID-19

Peter Shapiro has navigated some major challenges in his career — but nothing like this

Victor Llorente for Rolling Stone

This is the 12th installment of Rolling Stone’s Music in Crisis series, which looks at how people all across the music industry are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. This edition features Peter Shapiro — renowned concert promoter and owner of Brooklyn Bowl, the Capitol Theatre, and Relix Magazine — who’s doing his best to envision the future of live music. 

In the 25 years since he took over New York’s Nineties jam-band haven Wetlands, Peter Shapiro has become known for pulling off impossible stunts. The concert promoter once approached Robert Plant backstage with a brown bag containing $50,000 in cash to play a midnight show at his tiny Brooklyn Bowl. (Plant accepted.) In 2015, Shapiro helped smooth over decades of bad blood in the various Grateful Dead camps to bring the band back together for their Fare Thee Well concerts.

Now, he’s dealing with his biggest challenge yet: What happens when you shut down an entire jam-band empire, with venues in Las Vegas and New York, due to a pandemic. “No one really knows anything,” Shapiro says. “I’m trying to think obsessively about the future, and you have to be ready for multiple different paths.”

After the cancellations of major events in March like Phil Lesh’s 80th-birthday concerts and the opening of a new Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, Shapiro switched gears to try to get his employees paid with the Paycheck Protection Program (“It’s … complex,” he says), rescheduling dates, and trying to pivot to livestreaming. His Rock and Roll Playhouse music school broadcasts concerts for kids every day at 3 p.m., and he recently streamed a crowd-free Jason Isbell show. “You’re moving on lots of fronts simultaneously,” he says.

Shapiro thinks there’s only one safe way venues can open up again: rapid testing. “That’s the key,” he says. “You take a test to come in.” He imagines a system at Brooklyn Bowl where the venue opens early, and cuts back capacity. “At Brooklyn Bowl we open at 6 p.m. now — we push it up to 5 p.m., so the line won’t be crazy. You go in early, and you can have a meal.” (He sees this as a better alternative to stadiums and arenas: “How many people are going to want to stand in line at 5:30 for three hours before the show?”)

Shapiro thinks a rapid-testing scenario may even be possible at Lock’n, his huge jam-band extravaganza in Virginia that has drawn members of the Dead, the Allman Brothers, the String Cheese Incident, and others. Shapiro has pushed the festival, originally scheduled for June, back to October. “I’m not giving that up yet,” he says. “I think it would only happen if you took a test to get in,” he says. “Do I think we could administer that to people who come for a three- or four-day festival? Yeah, I do. You might have to wait several hours. Once you’re in, you might have a mask on inside. We may do reduced capacity, more camping areas. We’re going to figure out all those different kinds of things.”

Shapiro says the pandemic has changed his life in ways he would have never imagined. He’s spending a lot of time playing hockey on his roof with his kids. He hasn’t gone this long without seeing a show since he was 16. “That part has been kind of nice,” he says. “But there’s also the stress of figuring everything out. We’re moving shows a lot.” He’s trying to find a way to make digital concerts more communal. “We’re trying to work with technology and enable stuff like home dancing. If you’re dancing at home, we put you in the stream. Solo acoustic in a living room is nice, but a concert by a band in a club is better.”