While most proms are filled with cheesy ballads, sparkling dresses and awkward boys in ill-fitting suits; Emo Nite’s prom has a mosh pit to System of a Down, a guest appearance from Travie McCoy (formerly of Gym Class Heroes) and a tombstone mascot affectionately known as “Graveboy.”
The event, held on May 6 at the Avalon with a live room upstairs at Bardot, was one of many parties Emo Nite has thrown over the years dedicated to the genre. Emo Nite founders T.J. Petracca and Morgan Freed created the event in 2014 to give adults a nightlife option that played music other than what was popular at the time — and reveled in the alternative bands they grew up on.
“I had gone to a friend’s birthday party, and she had a karaoke night,” explains Petracca. “I sang Dashboard Confessional and had so much fun just being able to go out and sing along to music that I actually like to listen to, instead of every bar I go to in L.A. where they just play Top 40, EDM or hip-hop. Why don’t any of the bars play the music I listen to at home?”
Petracca and Freed had previously bonded over emo and pop-punk while working in the same office building. “I would just come in and do my job and Morgan forced me to be his friend,” Petracca says, echoing the inception of countless great friendships in history. Petracca told Freed about his “Dashboard Confessional” epiphany. Freed, coincidentally, had a friend bartending at the Short Stop in Echo Park and convinced them to take over the music on a random Tuesday night.
They created a Facebook event, invited all their friends and accidentally doubled the bar’s capacity, leaving a line around the block. “Neither of us had any idea how to DJ, we had never thrown parties or events before,” says Petracca. “We showed up and plugged in my iPad and just started picking music.” Clearly, they had struck a nerve, but didn’t think much of it. According to Freed, “at that time we thought it was a fun party with our friends and were like ‘Shit, we made $200,’” which they used to buy pizza for the line the next month.
By their third event, they had already moved to the Echoplex, where they were able to add a second room and start programming it with live bands. “That was one of the biggest, most amazing steps that we could take,” says Petracca, who recalls working in the music industry and being disappointed with the culture. “I was really trying to go out there and go to shows and find new, cool up-and-coming bands.”
Unfortunately, industry showcases and residencies didn’t always lend the good time he’d expect. “I felt like they just weren’t really that fun and I also grew up playing in bands and was like, this can’t be fun for them either.” Emo Nite provides a built-in crowd of fans that are a bit more attentive and excited to have live, new artists in front of them. “We had to seek it out. Now we get to curate all these artists that we really like and put them in front of people who also really like them,” adds Freed.
Along with their expansion to the Echoplex came a slew of emo and pop-punk royalty making guest appearances, the first of which was Mark Hoppus, who had a guest DJ set their first night in the new venue. “We just shot for the stars and asked. Mark understood the vision. He saw the writing on the wall, and he was like this is something I want to get involved with.” They also had Mikey Way of My Chemical Romance and Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional at their one-year anniversary.
Being genuine fans of the music, Petracca and Freed’s authenticity seemed to be the selling point when booking artists. When it came to getting Carrabba on board, Petracca says he wrote him a heartfelt email. “I was like this is what this is, this is what your music means to me, this is why this would be super special for me and for the community as a whole.”
Freed and Petracca’s motivation has always been pushed by an authentic love for the genre and the community, one that fuels the Emo Nite business. In 2020, they were set to play their biggest stage yet, Coachella. The pandemic may have had other plans, but that didn’t stop them from bringing the party to the desert earlier this year. Their set was a giant sing-along that included guest performances from Forrest Kline of Hellogoodbye, Tom Higgenson of Plain White T’s, 3OH!3, and Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach.
“When we had done other festivals in the past, we just kind of hopped up there and picked songs and jumped around for like an hour,” explains Petracca. Going into Coachella, they realized that wasn’t going to work and sought to create an epic stage show to up the ante.
“We had this vision of creating this 45 to 50-minute set that is completely time-coded to lights and visuals and we’re going to work with the best music producers, the best visual artists, lighting designers and have this stage show that we can bring to any festival, but debut it at Coachella.” Freed adds, “You step out into a sea of people like, alright, how is this going to play out? They could literally throw rocks at us or boo us, and it just didn’t happen that way. It’s going to be one of those things that’s just ingrained in us forever.”
In a full circle moment after their set, Petracca’s dad sent him a picture of a signed Plain White T’s poster from their basement. “That picture hung in my room from age 15 to 18,” Petracca says. He then texted the photo to the Plain White T’s frontman thanking him for “making it super special.”
The festival circuit is only part of Emo Nite’s reach. Fairly early on, they also started throwing parties in other cities. Petracca, Freed and former partner Babs Szabo would travel to other cities and set up parties on their own on Tuesday nights. This would serve as a catapult to ditch their day jobs and focus on their passion full-time.
Throughout their first few years of touring, they trained locals in other cities on how to handle the Emo Nite ropes and guidelines for the brand. Flash forward to today: they now have roughly 15 regional reps in other markets running local shows. They’ve also added live rooms outside of L.A. in cities all across the country. “We pull these bands from the local scene and give them a built-in crowd that they wouldn’t normally have and people that are passionate about the music no matter what,” says Petracca.
It’s important to note that at any Emo Nite event, Freed and Petracca don’t cheapen the music down to eyeliner, swoopy hair and studded belts. There is a dark aesthetic and some “Sad as Fuck” balloons of course, but it’s clear that this is a party thrown by a fellow fan, not a record label or marketing company trying to target a demographic. To them, and to the many people that Emo Nite serves, the success of the event is all part of the plan to bust down the doors for emo. After all, My Chemical Romance’s “Welcome to the Black Parade” is to millennial alternative fans what Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is to Gen Xers.
“The past seven or eight years, I feel like we’ve been fighting to get some respect for the genre. At one time emo was a fucking joke. It was a bad word. None of these bands wanted to be called emo,” says Petracca.
At the height of its popularity in the 2000s, fans would never refer to themselves as “emo kids” and were usually tormented for their musical taste and fashion choices. “Emo” was a designation thrust upon bands and fans alike by record labels, media outlets, concerned parents and high school bullies.
Now, emo and pop-punk are seeing a massive resurgence, but left the negative stigmas that coincided with the subgenres back in the early aughts. You can hear emo’s influence in mainstream artists like Post Malone and Halsey, whose Gen Z fans wear their emo hearts with a badge of honor. The term “elder emo” has now been birthed to describe those who are just barely old enough to start getting back pain at shows.
The multigenerational embrace of pop-punk and emo is reflected at Emo Nite parties and their festival sets alike. You’ll see weathered millennials who witnessed 9/11, entered the workforce with crippling student loan debt in a recession and have fallen forever financially behind jumping around alongside their Gen Z counterparts, who have been riddled with mass shootings and came of age during a modern-day plague. Although this music never really disappeared for those in the scene, with these tragedies paralleled by the very good news of My Chemical Romance touring and releasing new music again, it’s no wonder the genre is seeping back into the mainstream.
And where there’s certainly some nostalgia involved in Emo Nite, new music discovery and keeping the brand current is important not only to Petracca and Freed, but to the community as well. Or as Freed puts it, “this music is awesome shit. We’re going to listen to it forever; we have been listening to it forever, but also, what’s happening now? What’s a party you want to go to in 2022?”
Community and friendship lay at the ultimate core of the company, and that is the underlying secret to its success. One of the most powerful things people can bond over is music, and Emo Nite perpetuates that idea and incorporates it organically into their identity. Petracca explains that “it’s such a big part of our events. Nobody is supposed to be the star. We get these guest DJs, but they’re not announced. And everybody is allowed on stage, whether you’re Mark Hoppus, or MGK, or some 21-year-old from Echo Park; you can get on the stage at Emo Nite if you want.” Freed chimes in, “It feels like home. It feels like everybody is your family.” It’s a place where you can look a stranger dead in the eye and sing along to “I’m Not Okay” or “Hands Down” and feel as if you’ve known each other your entire lives.
Like many in the pandemic, Emo Nite faced its share of hurdles. Petracca says, “We started doing those streams and just making sure that everybody was alright. Everybody was still able to have some sort of interaction.” This led to another Emo Nite idea – Emo Nite vacations. At this point, they have this larger online community and they thought, “How do we get all these people that have become friends online from all across the country into one spot, so they can actually meet and hang out and party together?”
Because providing a venue and a party for their community is what Emo Nite does best, they teamed up with Pollen to create a traveling three-day event experience called Las Vegas Vacation. It featured Avril Lavigne, Machine Gun Kelly, Sleeping With Sirens, and newer artists like Royal and the Serpent, The Maine, Carolesdaughter, and more. After the success of their Vegas Vacation, they’ve recently announced a New Orleans vacation headlined by Bring Me the Horizon and the All-American Rejects.
But even their own vacation packages, events all over the country, festival slots, a merch line, a radio show and more, there is still room to grow. “I think there is a next level for Emo Nite,” says Petracca. “There’s a lot of things that we think could happen and could be the right next move for us.” Freed adds with a smile, “and there’s a good chance we’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way.”
Up to this point, Emo Nite has been built through trial and error. As music fans turned CEOs, the duo are just learning and going for it. Petracca states that one of the things they’re working on this year is launching a record label, Graveboy Records. After seeing so many up-and-coming artists come through Emo Nite, Petracca thinks “it’s the logical next step for us to have more of a helping hand in developing the careers of these bands.”
The idea of two music fans going from hitting play on an iPad to starting their own record label might seem like a fairytale, but in reality, Petracca and Freed built this business up step-by-step. They genuinely wanted to create these experiences for those who felt rejected by mainstream culture. As the duo always say to each other in those pinch-me moments, “we’re a long way from The Short Stop.”