Interview by Camden Cassels
The founders of Emo Nite bring the house party to you. What started as an idea between three friends has sparked a nationwide tour filled with punk-rock, nostalgia, and a live show wrapped into one. No separation lies between the stage and the fans. The stage transforms into the party. T.J., Babs, and Morgan, the founders of Emo Nite, say it best: We are not a band. We are not DJ's. We throw parties for the music we love.
Emo Nite began almost four years ago when two of the three co-founders sang a Dashboard Confessional song at a karaoke night. After this catharsis, the three craved an event that embraced the spirit of Dashboard and other bands of the era. So, they created it. T.J. Petracca, Babs Szabo, and Morgan Freed have grown Emo Nite from a small party in 2014 to a nationwide tour for thousands of fans.
With more than 30 stops, The 2018 Want House Party Tour began on Halloween and ended on December 7th. This cross-country rager featured Lil’ Aaron while 3OH!3 headlined. Combining 2000’s emo and pop-punk fused with flecks of trap, Emo Nite feels like a concert wrapped up in a house party. Fans hear the likes of Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, Dashboard Confessional, Panic! At The Disco, and Green Day before Lil’ Aaron and 3OH!3 take the stage. After their Irving Plaza stop in NYC, the three founders took some time to speak with Auxoro about branding strategy, the significance of being based in L.A., creating a merchandise line, and what Emo Nite means to those who attend.
Auxoro: You have said you expected the very first Emo Nite to be a collection of a few friends, but were pleasantly surprised by a huge turnout. How did your expectations for Emo Nite change after that first success?
T.J., Babs, and Morgan: After that very first show, we immediately realized that it was not going to be a one time thing. By the third show, we knew it was going to be something bigger. It has evolved into many different things. We threw our second festival this year, we have a whole merch line that’s been in Urban Outfitters and soon to be Hot Topic, and we feel like we’ve been able to do things that we never thought possible.
Babs and TJ, you used to work for Coachella and learned about brand protection. What is one brand protection tool that you learned from Coachella and incorporated into Emo Nite?
One thing that we adopted from Coachella is that we never approve third party photographers to shoot our events. We always hire our own photographers that we know and trust. We want to make it clear that we’re 100% in control of how our event looks online. We don’t want subpar content getting out into the world.
Also, in the beginning, I don't think we had any sort of branding. The brand developed over time - things like spelling it “N-I-T-E” instead of “N-I-G-H-T” and putting our logo on as many things as possible - we protect our identity to the best of our ability.
You guys must have needed time to develop your brand before you could sell anything. Did you have a timeline goal for selling your merch?
Like many of the things we do, it starts out as a bit of a joke, or something that we're just trying to have fun with. The first piece we sold was the “Sad As Fuck” shirt, alongside another that said “Emo Nite” in block letters. We had no fucking idea that it would evolve into a full clothing line. To this day, our “Sad as Fuck” shirts are our #1 seller.
We’ve had to develop the brand on the fly. We were never like “we’re comfortable enough in our logo and in our identity, so we can start making clothes.” We’ve experimented a lot, and found things that worked along the way. At the same time, we try new things and we love giving customers a chance to come back and buy something new, even if they may have bought something at the last Emo Nite. We’re constantly reinventing ourselves while staying true to our brand.
You’ve primarily been based out of LA, and while you have toured dozens of cities, LA has always been home. How has being based in LA affected Emo Nite?
Because a lot of the music industry is in LA, we find it easier to book artists, and artists come through LA a lot more than they do other cities. So it’s not only a place where we’re comfortable, but it’s also a place where we have all these resources at our disposable. This helps us to create the best version of Emo Nite.
At this point Emo Nite has been all around the country. You had to have had a city or two on tour that you didn’t have high expectations for. What city was the best surprise?
One time, we had booked Lawrence, Kansas on the route and we were dreading going there. We were like “who the fuck is going to come out in Lawrence, Kansas?” But, it turned out to be one of the most fun shows. It also ended at midnight, which we loved.
In terms of age, it seems like the 25 to 35 range may be the sweet spot for people who relate most to Emo Nite. What demographic do you shoot for?
It’s becoming younger, probably 18-35, but that’s new for us. A lot of our shows in the past have been 21+, but we’re doing more 18+ shows. It’s cool to see these younger kids appreciating music that they didn’t necessarily grow up with.
What do you think is the youngest age a kid can be and still understand what Emo Nite is about?
It's hard to say. We have a lot of kids who are under 18 who tweet us all the time, things like, “I can't wait to be eighteen and go to Emo Nite.” But, we also never want to define that for somebody. Kids today are on their own journey, discovering music in their own way, much like we all did growing up. Nostalgia is only a small part of what we do. Yes we play music that a lot of people grew up with, but we try to remain as current and as relevant as possible, so that people of all different ages can have a great time with us.
For instance we brought Lil’ Aaron on tour with us, and his crowd is a little bit younger. They may not know some of the originals, but he samples a lot of those older songs. The punk elements are still recognizable. If fans hear something that they like, they can go back, find the sample , and discover an older song. It’s cool to help bring a new generation of kids into this era of music.
Lil’ Aaron is quite the performer. He has a ton of energy on stage and connects with fans, even those who may not be there for him. How did your relationship with Aaron start and what is that relationship like?
A couple times, we booked a guest DJ in LA and their set time was at 1am, and they would be too wasted by that time to DJ. We would see Aaron emerge out of the crowd and jump in for those drunk DJs that we won’t name. Then, we had Aaron on our podcast and that was the first time we really met him. He’s awesome. Through this experience we got to know him super well and we love him. Well, he’s OK (laughing).
What was the strategy behind making Tuesday your preferred night of the week?
When we started, the first venue said that Thursday was a really popular night, and they wouldn’t be willing to give that up to us because they didn’t think anyone would come to Emo Nite. Tuesdays turned out to be great. There’s a lot of competition for Thursdays and the weekends in LA, but Tuesdays haven’t let us down. A lot of the negatives that have happened to us have been serendipitous. “No’s” often turn out to be blessings in disguise.
Someone described Emo Nite as “Turning the saddest years of your life into the happiest day of your month.” How would you characterize how fans interact with Emo Nite?
When you listen to a song at different stages in your life, it means different things to you. When you break up with somebody, it feels like every song on the radio was written for you. And that applies to other events in your life as well, like moving, getting married, or having a kid. The same songs can have different meanings at different times in your life. A lot of these songs are reminiscent of everybody’s past, but they’re applicable to other things in their life now.
At Emo Nite, you three really focus on the music itself. Even though you’re not the headliners, you’re on stage DJing and pumping up the crowd. You tell the crowd that what you’re doing is easy. Are you intentionally downplaying your contribution to the event?
Yeah, we are very self-aware and we're really transparent. We don't really know how to DJ, we're not artists. It’s really about everybody having a good time. We want to be the ones curating that. Anybody can do what we do behind the DJ table, it’s just that we worked hard to build a community that understands what Emo Nite is about. The people in the crowd are the ones making the party happen, we’re just pressing play.
Since we started Emo Nite, we wanted to create an event that we would personally want to attend. We create merch that we would want to wear and throw events that we would enjoy. We got bored of going to traditional shows. A lot of shows start with an opener, then there's house music, then there's a second band, then more house music, and there’s a lot of time in between where everybody just stands around bored.
We wanted to create a formula where attention is consistently grabbed with no time to stand and stare. With 3OH!3 and Lil’ Aaron on this tour, this was the first time we were really able to expand on that. Even the first few days of tour we were trying to figure out the best formula. Sometimes, it seems like it’s all over the place, but it's well thought out on the back end.
In our initial conversations last year with Sean and Nat (of 3OH!3), we were on the Warped Rewind Cruise. They were performing every day and we were throwing parties at night. When 3OH!3 first considered touring with us, they said “Our roots are at these house parties. We used to DJ with an iPod shuffle in basements. That’s what we want to get back to for our 10-year tour.” What better place to do it than Emo Nite? When we started brainstorming, we came to the conclusion that we’re going to commit to this being a houseparty.
There won’t be barricades anywhere, anyone can get on the stage. We want it to feel like you’re at the party with us. We went into this tour with the houseparty mindset. We want the artist and everyone who attends Emo Nite to always be on the same level. Nobody is cooler than anyone else. We will never sell VIP tickets.
What do you hope people take away from their experience at Emo Nite?
We hope that people who come to Emo Nite can make new friends, and for everyone who is in the building to take care of each other. Rather than this being a place where people forget about what’s going on outside of Emo Nite, the fans can embrace their feelings in the moment. We hope everyone who attends Emo Nite can leave with a better understanding of who they are and what they're going through, all while having a great time.
‘OffStage Spotlight’ is a new installment of the Hustle Series that will feature interviews with executives and professionals across the industry. These conversations will not be with those who step on stage, but rather with the people who work behind the scenes in the music business. Highlighting the complexity of the industry, this series serves as a peak behind the curtain. Interviews will feature agents, bookers, artist managers, VPs, CEO’s, light technicians, festival organizers and other roles that hold a heavy responsibility in the music world. Join us as we pass the mic those who spend their careers outside of the spotlight.