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Behind the Scene: Charley Ryan

Bradley Tucker | February 03, 2017
“The lead singer blew a big wad of spit into the audience, and it landed on this girl’s shoulder. Her boyfriend became enraged like a bull and, instantaneously, he leapt onto the stage and went flying through the air, horizontally, toward the lead singer. It was not an act. It was absolutely not planned at all, and the band looked at each other like, ‘What do we do?’

“I was standing right there and said, ‘I don’t care what you do—this is rock-and-roll!’ Those are the kinds of things that are just so much more fun, besides just having unbelievably great performances, because they are live and you don’t expect them to happen.”

That memory comes from Charley Ryan as he reflects on his time as general manager of New York’s Wetlands Preserve. More recently, he co-founded Brooklyn Bowl, partnering with Relix publisher and former Wetlands owner Peter Shapiro.

“Nothing makes you feel more alive than the unexpected,” says Ryan. “We had Elvis Costello and The Roots perform their album at the club. Fantastic show, but it lifted into the stratosphere when Elvis and The Roots’ Captain Kirk got into an epic guitar battle on Elvis’ song, ‘I Want You.’ Afterward, Kirk told me, ‘I had no idea he could do that!’”

How did you start working in music venues?

Growing up in Michigan, I DJ’d all the dances as a freshman in high school. Then, some friends put a band together, and I managed them. My proudest moment was getting them two gigs in one night, each paying $400. $800 was a fortune in the late ‘60s. I seemed to know more than other kids because I probably cared more about what was going on with music. In the summer of ‘69, I couldn’t persuade anyone to hitchhike to New York for a music festival. They all thought I was crazy, but when I stumbled home all mud-splattered, I was a local celebrity. Everyone wanted to know what Woodstock was really like.

I finished high school in New Jersey and started at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the fall of 1970. They asked me to be on the booking committee. That didn’t last a month because the first decision was between a package of two horn bands—If and Ten Wheel Drive—and a single rock band. I pleaded for the rock band, the Allman Brothers Band, but was outvoted. I told the committee, “Sorry, I can’t do this anymore.” Eventually, I withdrew from college and went to California. I worked in music clubs in Marin County and for Bill Graham at Winterland.

You eventually went back and finished school at Dartmouth, moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in finance and, ultimately, wound up in New York working at Wetlands. How did that happen?

Yes, I was a stockbroker for Dean Witter in San Francisco, but that’s just glorified sales and was a little boring. And New York was calling my name. So I came to New York and worked at the insane commodities exchange, trading precious metals futures at the World Trade Center. That was 5,000 people altogether, open outcry. It was exciting, and I did well. Then I left and started a physical commodities trading firm, buying and moving actual gold and silver from Africa and South America to North America.

Now that is a long story, but, ultimately, I realized that life was counterfeit for me. So I quit and started over, first in restaurants and bars. I became a partner in a couple of places, but the live music component was lacking. I had to get back into that. One night, I made a vow to get work in a music club. The following night, I was introduced, by chance, to Otis Read, who was GM of Wetlands at the time. It turned out that he was looking for a manager. It was 1994. I interviewed with the owner, Larry Bloch, and, shortly after, I got the gig.

It’s important to say that there was just one manager per night at Wetlands. Maybe the place could’ve used two. I don’t know, but there was just one person really leading the production and coordinating everything that needed to be coordinated. That included paying the bands, making sure there was ice—which there usually wasn’t—and making sure there was change, which, at the beginning of the night, there usually wasn’t. Wetlands was a wonderful place, but it was wonderfully disorganized and it was always a challenge to make the pieces fit during the night because of that.

What was an early influence on your career?

A lot of it is actually trial by fire—getting into situations where a lot of advance tickets had been sold, but the money hasn’t been held through payment and you need to somehow sell enough booze or sell enough extra tickets that you can pay the artist at the end of the night. Basically, doing whatever you need to do in order to get that done and keep everybody as happy as you can.

In terms of influence , Bill Graham and Larry Bloch taught me a lot, mostly indirectly. Damn, wouldn’t Larry love being mentioned with Bill Graham? [Laughs.] But I also learned from [talent buyers] Chris Zahn and Jake Szufnarowski, and, of course, Peter Shapiro, too. Once I started to work at Wetlands, I was around Larry, and I had an interesting relationship with him, but I really loved and liked Larry, and I thought the two-headed monster in his mind of joining music equally with social activism and environmental concerns was a brilliant thing. It was the quintessential business that means something in a world where most businesses make money and they don’t have roots; they don’t do anything outside of making money. They’re not actually connected with the community except for the fact that they’re there.

I learned that it doesn’t matter what others think, and, mostly, they don’t care that much anyway. I was never a jock, in terms of a straight mentality, but I was a very serious competitive swimmer and my coaches taught me how to focus and constantly improve. Never be complacent—that’s still central for me. My brother instilled that, too. And my dad treated everyone like his best friend, with total dignity and respect.

Wetlands closed in 2001 and, eventually, you and Pete opened Brooklyn Bowl together. How did you come up with that concept?

The genesis of Brooklyn Bowl came out of a Wetlands staff party. In 2000, Pete and I took the staff out to a bowling alley, and when we got together the next day and shared comments on what had happened, we agreed that it was weirdly expensive, but everybody had a great time and really became childlike and dropped their guard. It was a beautiful thing to see and the magic ingredient was bowling.

We started to brainstorm because the place where we had been, in our estimation, had terrible food and terrible service. It wasn’t clean; there wasn’t live music and the sound quality of the recorded music was atrocious. Really, everything about it was not good at all, yet everybody had a great time because of the bowling, and we thought, “Well, let’s see if we can come up with a design where we can fuse great food and drink and live music and video and bowling into a place of wonder.”

Wetlands closed as 9/11 happened. Peter had all kinds of other projects of his own, and so did I. For my part, I was shook by 9/11 and wanted to do community and charitable work. Still, every few months, one of us would call the other to say, “Let’s get back together and go look for a location for our idea.” That idea became Brooklyn Bowl, but it took years because our search was so sporadic. [Ed Note: The original Brooklyn Bowl eventually opened in 2009. The club also launched outposts in London and Las Vegas in 2014.] But the time allowed us to realize some possibilities in the concept and design, which made the result much better.

How has your role changed from then to now?

In the process of coming up with the plan and building out the space, we had some frustrations with the architects that we were trying to use and they didn’t think as environmentally as we needed them to. I had started to draw up what I wanted and they still didn’t get it; so, almost by default, I ended up being the person who designed these spaces. I got into the décor and the look and the feel and what kind of pin spotters and what kind of energy devices we were going to use. I even studied HVAC systems for a while. That became my specialty, and I’m proud of the places that we built in Las Vegas and London in subsequent years, which are fundamentally my designs, in terms of the physical layout of the place [and] in terms of how they function.

You need people who are doing the nuts and bolts work of the operations, but you also need people who are looking at it from a little bit higher of an elevation— and have the opportunity to make things a little bit better or a little bit different. You can’t expect people who are doing the everyday business to come up with that kind of thing so, really, what’s happened over time is Pete does that and I do that and occasionally other people do that, too.

Has your job changed from when you started?

Everything has changed, and nothing has changed. If we start my timeline in 1994 with Wetlands to today, then the music business has morphed into something almost unimaginable from just 20 years ago. But we are in the live music and entertainment business, and everything still revolves around great relationships with people: the agents, managers, the musicians, our guests and our employees. Without all these people, we have nothing; and with them, everything is possible. That’s something I’m aware of each and every day. I guess my job is to help make everyone in our world feel valued and part of our community—something that transcends being just another business.

In the old days, acts did live shows as a way of promoting their recorded product. Now, they make a recorded product so they can make more money on the road. If we bring it to focus with Brooklyn Bowl, then I think we’ve gotten better in terms of what programming works in each location. We are more aware of which places are more conducive to multi-night runs, and how to make those really sing and appeal to people who are into that particular act. Recently, someone showed me some statistics from Pandora and Spotify—what the college-age demographic is listening to right now—and it’s fundamentally different. It’s not just electronic dance music or that kind of shift. What does that mean for the future? We try to think about that and not to pander to anything that’s a trip or a blip momentarily, but to think about how we adapt and change places and build places that are really appealing for people to come to.