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Peter Shapiro, Co-Producer of the Grateful Dead’s Reunion Concerts, Reveals How He Got the Band Back Together

How did Shapiro succeed where so many failed? "I wouldn't give up."

Peter Shapiro — co-producer of The Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago and California, owner of the Brooklyn Bowl franchise and more — isn’t just a Deadhead. He dates the beginning of his career to a 1993 show in Chicago that inspired him to produce two documentaries on the group while still a film student at Northwestern University. After a brief stint as a filmmaker, Shapiro entered the live-music business as owner and operator of the jam-band mecca Wetlands in Lower Manhattan in 1996. After rising real estate costs forced the club to shutter in 2001, Shapiro set his sights across the river, and opened the first Brooklyn Bowl, a sprawling venue with great sightlines and sound, food and, yes, bowling. The franchise has since expanded to Las Vegas and London, with Chicago next on tap.

Shapiro, whose business interests fall under the DayGlo Ventures umbrella, grew his venue portfolio by reopening the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., in 2012. A year later, he launched Lockn’, a four-day, jam-centric festival in Arrington, Va. Along the way, he bought Relix magazine, executive-produced seven Jammy Awards shows and co-founded 3D tech company 3ality Digital. He also was a producer of the 2007 U2 concert film U23D.

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But Shapiro’s crowing glory to date is uniting The Dead’s “core four” (Phil Lesh, 75; Bob Weir, 68; Mickey Hart, 71; and Bill Kreutzmann, 68) with Phish’s Trey Anastasio, 50, for 50th-anniversary shows in Santa Clara, Calif. (June 27-28) and Chicago (July 3-5). The 210,000 Chicago tickets sold out in minutes — with requests in the millions — prompting the addition of another 130,000 for the California dates, along with simulcasts in theaters and live streams on TV and Internet pay-per-view. All told, Fare Thee Well could be the highest-grossing live event in history: The five sold-out shows will earn an estimated $50 million in ticket sales, coupled with as much as $8 million to $10 million in merchandise sales, the global streaming and theater presentations, and the robust secondary market for both merch and tickets, the reunion could be worth $150 million or more in total revenue generated.

The New York-raised Shapiro, 42, who lives in Manhattan with wife Rebecca (a publicist for Shore Fire Media) and their young children Roxy and Simon, talked to Billboard about his own long, strange trip.

What were some of the challenges in putting The Dead back together?

We all know about the magic and challenges of dealing with family, and with The Dead, you’ve got four family members of 50 years — and now the newest one. We spent a lot of time working with each of them to make sure this event met what they wanted.

Peter Shapiro From the Desk of bb20 2015
Peter Shapiro's framed posters photographed on Jan. 22, 2015 at Relix Magazine in New York. Sasha Maslov

People have been trying to reunite them for years — how did you succeed where so many failed?

I wouldn’t give up. And I had this idea about how to do it: July 4 weekend, in the middle of the country at Soldier Field, the last venue the band played [with late bandleader Jerry Garcia in 1995]. Judging by the response, people wanted to go back to another era — people missed it.

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What was your relationship with the Dead prior to Fare Thee Well?

I worked with all of them. I had Bob Weir do the 10th anniversary of Wetlands in 1999, and I have an exclusive relationship with Phil Lesh. I’ve had all four of the guys in different years at the Jammies, they’ve each headlined the Capitol Theatre and the Brooklyn Bowl in their own bands. The truth is, I listen to the Grateful Dead. I go to shows by different bands, but when I’m in the shower, I want to listen to Jerry. That passion is inside me, and I think that helped me get the [Fare Thee Well] gig. When they’re all the together, something’s going to happen, there’s an incredible power there.

Peter Shapiro From the Desk of bb20 2015
Peter Shapiro's framed photos and Gumby clock photographed on Jan. 22, 2015 at Relix Magazine in New York. Sasha Maslov

Fans have been celebrating but also complaining, about everything from scalping to locations. You’ve gone out of your way to engage them. Why?

It’s important to do the right thing. One of the benefits of message boards and blogs is the instant feedback. I follow the feedback that rises to the top and, if they make a good point, I take that to heart and change my plans and actions accordingly.

Why Trey Anastasio?

I’m 42, so I’m between the Dead era and the Phish era. The first time Trey played with one of the [Dead] members was in 1999 at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco. I was there, because I’m a fan, I saw what happened when they dropped Trey into this, so I know what’s gonna happen.

The time has come to bring these two spiritual things together. And I’m not sure all these Deadheads give Phish a shot, you go to a Phish show, it’s all people that have seen Phish 30 times and younger. A lot of the older Deadheads don’t go see Phish, so it’s a great moment to bring it together. Everyone thought it would be a great thing, but I don’t think anyone could have told us that it would be the biggest concert ever by one band.

What’s an example of that?

When we did ticketing via an online lottery for the California shows. Everyone had four days to enter to buy tickets, and an equal chance, regardless of when during those four days they submitted their information. That is different than a traditional Ticketmaster on-sale that can sell out in a minute.

Peter Shapiro From the Desk of bb20 2015
A framed photograph of Peter Shapiro with BB King andTrey Anastasio photographed on Jan. 22, 2015 at Relix Magazine in New York. Sasha Maslov

Tell me as much as you can about the production of these shows.

I believe that when people see the production, they’ll believe it is what a Grateful Dead production should be 20 years later. I do believe that we’re pushing some knobs up, in terms of what we’re doing with sound, lighting and video, and we’re trying to do it in a way where the music leads. People will have to remember to pick their brain up off the floor and put it back in their head after the show. And that’s on me to do that, and do it in the right way, with the right touch, in the spirit of the Dead, but still push it. The Dead were at the forefront then, they’ll be at the forefront now.

What led you to take over Wetlands?

The owner, Larry Bloch, was a Deadhead, and he passed it on to me. I paid him on a note — I didn’t have the money. My parents said, “You’re crazy, what are you doing?” I was 23, but I thought, “If I can do a good job owning this club, in 20 years I’ll be a veteran, but I’ll still be young.”

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With Brooklyn Bowl, why have bowling at a rock club?

A normal music venue is a tough business — it opens at 8 p.m., then the concert’s over and people leave. I had to bring something new to the table: You can bowl, eat and listen to music. And on Saturdays we do kids’ bowling from noon to 6 p.m. Because of the other revenue streams, we can keep the ticket price down, and every weekend I do a late show. I’m doing 10 shows [across] seven days a week. It has been a great run. We’ve had Roger Waters, Guns N’ Roses, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello.

How does the operation work in Las Vegas and London?

In Vegas, it’s the only major venue not tied to a casino or hotel property: It’s a stand-alone 2,500-capacity building. The partner is Madison Square Garden, and Caesars [Palace] is the landlord. The London Brooklyn Bowl is at the O2 [Arena], partnered with AEG. I’m independent but I partner with bigger guys when appropriate: Bowery Presents helps me book in New York and at the Capitol Theatre, which is killing it as a rock palace.

What are your plans for July 6, after the Dead shows are over?

I’ll probably be doing another interview with Billboard, then I’ll be in bed all day.

This article first appeared in the July 4 issue of Billboard