Babs Szabo: Co-Founder of Emo Nite and Ride or Cry

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This week we spoke the swiss-army knife woman that is Babs Szabo. She’s had more jobs than we can count, and is the co-founder of not one, but two successful businesses. One is the powerhouse called Emo Nite, a live event that started in Los Angeles where Babs and the other two founders, T.J. and Morgan play music, people dance and sing-along, and are at times are joined by musicians of all sorts, including A-list performers like Demi Lovato, Post Malone, Noah Cyrus, and more. The other is the creative agency Ride or Cry that has done all sorts of innovative work for Universal, The Lumineers, and more. But enough from me—I’m sure you’re dying to hear how Babs has created all this opportunity for herself.  

What is your official job title?
My official job title is co-founder of Emo Nite and Ride or Cry.

What is the story of your career so far?
I've had a job ever since I was 16. My first job was at a pizza place called Tony Maroni's. While I was in community college, I worked at American Apparel, The Closet and Hardtail in visual merchandising, which is what I thought I would pursue as a career at the time. I also wrote for a couple of music blogs. I then moved to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University for journalism and global peace and human rights studies. While there, I worked at Marc Jacobs as a sales associate but had to quit because they wouldn't let me work part time, and it was then that I got a job at Sony Music as a College Marketing Rep while working part time at Anthropologie and interning at Noise Pop.

Working at Sony Music meant being on the street team—I’d go to the shows, take photos, and write up a recap of how it went and how people responded. Through that, when I graduated, I got a job at CAA (Creative Artists Agency, one of the top talent agencies globally) as an assistant in Digital Strategy for about a year, then I moved over to Touring at CAA. I worked for younger music agents, and one of them was really heavily booking emo and pop punk stuff, so I got really into it. One of the tours I worked on was the Taking Back Sunday and The Used tour that they did together. That was the coolest thing ever. Even collecting ticket counts was so exciting.

I was there for about two years. I met T.J. (Petracca), who’s one of the other founders of Emo Nite and Ride or Cry, while I was at CAA. He was working at a company called Versus Digital doing social media digital strategy. I met him at a friend’s birthday and he said they were hiring. The same night that I met TJ, we sang Dashboard Confessional at karaoke together at this birthday party, and that sparked the idea for Emo Nite. I worked at Versus Digital for about a year. We did a bunch of really cool stuff there on social media for Coachella—we were the first company they ever brought in to actually run social media.

A few months into working at Versus we started Emo Nite. Morgan (Freed), who’s the third founder [of Emo Nite], worked in that same building, but not at the same company. We brought him in to start Emo Nite, which was supposed to be a one-time event at a bar, but four years later has turned into this crazy thing. A year into working at Versus we had to quit because we were spending so much time on Emo Nite. One time we had to leave [work] to go to KROQ (an LA radio station) to do an interview on Stryker. We quit our jobs on the same day, which was really scary, and we started Ride or Cry, a year into doing Emo Nite.

Emo Nite has been incredibly successful. Do you think it has revived emo culture?
I think it started off as tapping into the nostalgia of this music. When T.J. and I did Dashboard karaoke together, the next day we said, “There aren’t any bars in LA that play pop punk and emo.” That’s the kind of music we’d go home and listen to. In LA, it’s mostly EDM or hip hop or Top 40—all things I love—but we wanted to create a space where we could play the exact songs we’d play at home. The first event we did was at a dive bar called The Short Stop: it was a rainy Tuesday, but there was a line down the block. We didn’t do anything to promote it; we made a Facebook event. There were so many people out there that wanted to also get together and listen to this music.

We realized that yes, there’s a nostalgic element to what we do, but there were so many newer acts that were doing different things with this genre of music. I don’t know if you know Captain Cuts—they produce all the songs that are on the radio (I Got You, Shut Up and Dance, Tongue Tied) but they started mashing up pop-punk, hip-hop, and pop songs, and they made a mixtape they performed at Emo Nite. It was EDM, essentially, but pulling in these songs we grew up listening to. The SoundCloud emo rap culture is really thriving right now. There’s lil aaron, GOTHBOICLIQUE—those guys are doing really cool stuff. They’re sampling Panic (as in Panic!AtTheDisco, the popular band that actually started out in the emo music world) songs from their first album but rapping over it.

We’re trying to tap into different elements of what the genre has become or what it can be. I don’t want to say we’ve revived this culture because for us, especially, it never went away. But we’ve tapped into really interesting subgenres of this whole culture.

What’s one myth you’d like to debunk about emos?
The number one thing that isn’t true about emo people is that they’re sad. I realize we have a shirt that says “Sad as fuck,” and we’ve gotten a lot of hate on that because some say it’s glorifying depression or sadness. But then you look at our photos from Emo Nite and see someone in the crowd wearing a “Sad as fuck” shirt, smiling ear-to-ear. Emo music is more about owning your feelings and processing your emotions through this music and culture.

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What does your day-to-day work life look like?
It’s so, so all over the place. Last week (mid-February) I did an Emo Nite in Philly, so I flew out. We’re training local teams in different cities to run them so we don’t have to travel to all of them, so I went out to train our east coast rep, essentially. Tuesday we had our big LA event, our really big monthly one.

Even this week was super crazy because it was Pollstar (a conference about live entertainment created by the magazine of the same name), so yesterday I was on a panel with Kevin Lyman (owner of Kevin Lyman Group, his live event production company and brand strategy firm)—which is insane—about what the touring business has been like after Warped Tour (an annual rock festival started in 1995 that ended in 2018). I went to some Pollstar events. A lot of it is networking and meeting people who are in the same field that we are.

But normal weeks, which I feel are less frequent, I come to the office at 9:30 and I’m here ‘till 6. I spend most of my day emailing people. We design our merch, do inventory, book artists for different Emo Nites, talk to our agents about routing. On the Ride or Cry side of things, I’m overseeing 4 to 5 projects at a time, so coordinating with our social media coordinator, our graphic designers, our video guys, to make sure that these projects are managed efficiently.

In an interview you did for Nylon, you mentioned the problematic lyrics you’ve noticed in emo music regarding women. Do you think the trend persists today?
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any lyrical content that’s come out recently that’s as questionable as some of the songs from the past. I think that has changed. But maybe I don’t listen to a band that’s newer that does still write lyrics like that. But I think it’s less of a thing.

Why do you think there was this attitude towards women in emo lyrics?
I really do think it has a lot to do with the fact that a really, really large percentage of the musicians in this genre are men. It’s coming from that perspective. I think about this a lot. I don’t know if I am the right person to really dissect this because I’m not a man. I don’t know if those lyrics really spoke true to them—it must have if they put them out—at the time.

I think our society has evolved so much, especially through the #MeToo movement, and there’s a lot of educating out there to be done, to educate men on how to better express themselves and behave better. We’ve come a really long way. I almost wonder if they didn’t know better then, and now there’s a total shift in the mindset of men in society in general. There are quite a few emo or pop-punk bands with females in them. Within the music industry itself there are a ton of really cool women that I look up to and work with who are changing so many things.

Can you give an example of a change that might have impacted the industry?
At the end of last year Jenny [Reader] became the vice president of Fearless Records. It’s kind of sad that something like that stands out as being unusual, but when I saw that I was like, “Yes! That’s awesome!” She’s kicking ass. She worked really hard to get there. They’re letting females take on leadership roles that they’re way more than capable of doing.

When I attended Emo Nite I saw first-hand the incredibly friendly atmosphere there. How do you foster that?
That’s really our focus, to create a community that’s really accepting and is made up of people who are there for each other. We’ve seen people meet at Emo Nite and get engaged, we’ve seen groups of friends be made. They like being in line for hours because that’s the one day a month they get to hang out because they live in San Diego or Orange County or wherever. In the four years we’ve done Emo Nite, there’s been one fight. That’s crazy. I feel like sometimes I’ll go to random shows and there’s always aggressive people. Every Emo Nite, at least once, I hear people say, “Wow, everyone here is so nice.”

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As for Ride or Cry: what experience prepared you best to run a creative agency?
Working at CAA was pretty much a crash course in doing anything. When I left, I felt ready to take over the world because it was such a crazy job. I worked fourteen-hour days, and some days I couldn’t even get up from my desk because it was so busy. I learned a lot about organizational skills, which I think come in really handy, [like] labelling my inbox. It’s all color-coded. I’ve taught a lot of people in the office how to do it because it keeps everything so organized. Staying organized is one of the most important things when you’re running two businesses.

How did you decide to expand into the creative agency world from Emo Nite?
It was a combination of the fact that T.J., Morgan, and myself have worked in that area of the music industry for a few years now and seeing what we were able to do with Emo Nite in terms of branding and digital strategy. We figured we could apply that to other brands, bands, and companies, and do the same for them. We were really confident in that we had the skills to accomplish that, so we went for it. It was really scary. We had no idea if it was going to work out!

Digital strategy seems like a new field. How do you develop an expertise in this industry?
Social media is relatively new, if you think about it. It’s a lot of trial and error. The cool thing with Emo Nite is that we can do whatever we want. For a client, we have to keep in mind their personality, their music, and the message they want to put out there. But for Emo Nite we can be like, “We’re going to hire a plane to carry a banner that says ‘Every Nite is Emo Nite’ and fly it over Emo Nite.” It’s ours, and no one is there to tell us no. Because of that, we know what will work for other people if we tweak it a little bit.

Your client roster includes Paramount, BMW, and Climate Resolve. What draws these companies to you? Do you think that your ability to sense trends and know what’s happening right now factors into a company’s choice to hire you?
We’re now in the position where we’re able to take on clients that we genuinely know we’ll enjoy working [with]. It’s about meeting the people behind these brands or companies, vibing with them, and making sure they understand that we’re here to serve their best interest. A lot of younger people who work at these companies are trying to bring in companies like us to do things that are outside of the box. Those are the things that work now.

There’s so much going on, you’re constantly looking at your Instagram and being advertised a million things a day, so it has to stand out for anyone to latch on. These companies are seeing that. It’s a pretty slow process because sometimes we pitch ideas and it’s like, “This is never going to work” because they have to run it by ten other people, and by the time it gets to the top, that person is like, “I don’t even understand what this is.” A lot of it is trying to convince people to shift their mindset a little. It’s working, but it’ll take a second to fully be there.

How do you approach a new project? Do clients tell you the result they want? Do you vary your approach for every client or do you stay constant and that’s why people come to you?
It’s a mixture of all those things. Dillon Francis, for example, we knew before we worked with him with Ride or Cry. He has an emo personality called Preston, and he DJ-ed as Preston at Emo Nite. When he came in for us to pitch him to work with Ride or Cry, we’d been following him on social media for years, so we knew exactly who he was and what we could do for him. For that we talked with him, 24-7, directly to him. But we just worked on a big project [for Universal] for Kanye West, which I think Kanye will never even see. Then it’s a lot of working with the label and with people who know what’s best for Kanye. But we’d never even speak to the client.

When a client doesn’t love an idea you propose, did you have to learn how to not take that personally?
I used to take it really personally, but then I realized that the specific way I think isn’t going to work for everybody. That’s what I think is cool—having to think outside of the way you would normally think. Now I’m at the point where if a client says, “I don’t know if I like this,” I’ll explain why I think it’s cool. Sometimes that works and they’ll say, “Oh yeah!” and we’ll post it. Two years ago, I wouldn’t do that. And obviously, that’s with clients we’ve worked with for a while that trust us—I wouldn’t do it on month one.

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What’s a rule that you’ve broken and do you think it was worth it?
I feel like we’ve broken every rule! The number one rule we break all the time is how we book artists for Emo Nite. Having worked at an agency, I know there’s a formal process of reaching out to the agent, [talking] the manager, [getting] a fee estimate… Through Emo Nite, we’ve gotten artists like Post Malone by DM-ing them on Twitter, or Demi Lovato by talking to her on Instagram. We’re getting around the normal way of booking. Some agents end up being kind of pissed off but we know someone like Post Malone would want to come and do it for fun.

What’s something people entering the creative agency world should know?
When you’re working in a creative field it’s really, really easy to never clock out. Especially [with] social media, it’s not like every artist is going to post between 9 and 5. It’s pretty much never going to be the case. There are releases, and you have to post when it’s UK time… It’s really easy to work 24-7 and let it bleed into your personal life. Really set boundaries for yourself. Otherwise your work suffers and it’s not worth doing any of this stuff because you don’t let it sink in and see how cool it is.

What’s a challenge you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?
A challenge is explaining to people what we do. We did a tour last year with 3OH!3 and lil aaron—the whole concept of it was that we were throwing a house party. It was called the WANT House Party Tour. At all our Emo Nites, we invite people from the crowd up on stage so the mentality is very much “We’re all equal.” For this tour we wanted to do the same thing, but explaining that to the venues was insane because they’d say, “We don’t have any shows, ever, where people just come on stage.” We were on the phone with every single venue saying “Everyone is really nice. You can have a security guard to regulate how many people are up there at once.” A couple of venues just didn’t let us do it, but then the vibe is completely off. If people from the crowd aren’t up on stage, then it’s not even Emo Nite.

Looking back, how would you say you felt about your career trajectory before finding a home with Emo Nite and Ride or Cry?
When I worked at CAA, I was pretty miserable. It’s really funny because I got lunch with one of my old bosses last week, and he was talking about how he knew I would never end up staying there, but he said that I really did a good job at faking being happy to be there. Looking back, I’m so glad that I did it. At that time, I thought, “Wow, is this what life is like? Being in a job that you really don’t like and that’s it?” It wasn’t until after that that I realized that you can kind of do whatever you want as long as you realize that it’s really scary. But then, that’s kind of cool, and you’re doing something that’s meaningful to you. If it all falls apart tomorrow, I’m so proud of everything that I’ve already accomplished.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

Is it just me or was that last sentence incredibly inspiring? If you’re eager to attend an Emo Nite in LA I recommend it, or keep an eyes out for their upcoming 2019 tour. And like any insightful person, Babs has so much more sage advice to offer, so check back in next week for her How To!