Peter Shapiro has been a linchpin of the East Coast live-music scene since 1996, when he purchased Manhattan's Wetlands Preserve from Larry Bloch. He began producing the Jammy Awards in 2000 and in May led a group of investors in relaunchingRelix magazine. During the past few years he produced the films U2 3D, Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Nightclub, and the HBO live presentation, "We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial." He's also been on HeadCount's board of directors since its inception.
One of our favorite enlightened entrepreneurs, Pete discusses his most recent project, Brooklyn Bowl, which opened this summer in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.
Richard Gehr: How did you get into the club business?
Peter Shapiro: I was a film student at Northwestern University, where I made two films about Deadhead culture. I directed A Mile to Go and produced Tie-Dyed. Then during the summer of ’95 I made a film called American Road, where I went to every state country and made a 7 minute film of imagery from my road trip with Phish's "You Enjoy Myself" as the soundtrack. After I graduated, I became an intern at New Line Cinema.
Then I heard that Wetlands was for sale and that the owner was going to close the club unless he could find someone who would continue the club's mission. I was 23 and knew nothing about clubs, nothing about the live-music business. But I was interested in being involved with Wetlands. I didn’t have the money, really, or the background, but I raised my hand. Larry structured the deal so I could pay him over time. That was in 1996. I was a little idealistic and naïve. He was looking for someone who was single because his family life was destroyed by the club. I had a background with the Dead, had spent time with [writer Ken] Kesey, I was from New York, I had been on tour, knew some things about music, had my shit on pretty straight, and I was dumb or smart enough to say to him, "What’s the rent? It’s a world-famous rock club, let’s see if we can make it work." I was single, living in a small one-bedroom apartment, and I didn’t need much of a profit because I was so young. And there wasn’t much. And that’s why it worked for me. Also, the lease was only for seven years. They weren’t going to renew the lease, they were going to sell the building for condos after that, so the big players didn’t want to get involved. I said, "Let’s go, where do I sign up?"
RG: I imagine your decision to start Brooklyn Bowl was a little less spontaneous.
PS: I was involved in another club called the Slipper Room, but it wasn’t the same as having your own place and doing live music, so I wanted to come back and do it again. I looked for places in the city, and I did it without an agent. I found this space in Brooklyn with my partner Charley Ryan. We were just walking around Williamsburg several years ago and just walked in. It was a huge barn, no electricity, barely any plumbing. We just said, "This is it." You don't often find barns like that, even in the outer boroughs.
RG: How would you say Brooklyn Bowl is an extension and evolution of Wetlands?
PS: The original Wetlands was not ideal. This building was designed by someone – me – who was excited about building stuff from scratch. One of the things I like best about Brooklyn Bowl is that it has the energy and feel of Wetlands. There’s a lot of wood and brick, a lot of warmth. But it’s very unlike wetlands in that it’s huge. The ceiling is 33 feet high, the sight lines are perfect, everything’s brand new, and it’s LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified green.
RG: What have you done to green up Brooklyn Bowl?
PS: LEED sets pretty specific guidelines. It’s one thing to adhere to them with a brand-new building, but it’s difficult when your updating all the electricity, plumbing, flooring, lighting, and air conditioning. All the electronics equipment has to be Energy Star rated. We’re 100% wind-powered. We’ve put in a lot of natural light, sensors turn the lights off when there’s daylight in the place. The sinks and toilets are al all low-flow. The stage is made of recycled tires. We’re not selling any bottled beers. We’ve installed bike slots. We use local labor. We use recycled materials in our furniture. It’s very significant stuff. It’s not easy, but we’ll save in the long term.
RG: How did you become involved with HeadCount?
PS: I've been involved with HeadCount from the beginning. As the guy who owned Wetlands and did Jammys, you meet a lot of people in the live-music scene. And I grew up in that scene with Andy Bernstein and Marc Brownstein. I like to think that I'm pretty politically activity, so I was onboard from the beginning.