Reno music promoter Steve Emmerich shared his story about life during the shutdown. Photo: Anthony Postman

The coronavirus pandemic is having monumental impacts on the arts and music community. Americans for the Arts reports that $14 billion in losses were incurred nationally by arts organizations and agencies. Here in Washoe County, 78 organizations reported a loss of $8,168,717. Lost attendance is estimated at 517,639 people, and 97 percent of arts organizations report having canceled events.

With shows, events, festivals and tours on hold, artists, venue owners and the vast network of music industry support workers—stage hands, lighting techs, hotel and restaurant owners—are wondering when life may get back to normal, and what life may indeed look like whenever that day may come.

I had a chance to talk with Steve Emmerich, the founder of Fresh Bakin’, a niche promoter of electronic dance music (EDM, in its many shapes and shades), who also has ventured into more mainstream productions, bringing bands from the likes of Primus and Jane’s Addiction, to the Violent Femmes, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universes and Squirrel Nut Zippers—and the critically acclaimed storytelling podcast and live show “Risk!”—to the area.

Emmerich is an Ohio transplant who landed in the Reno/Tahoe area back in the early 2000s. Fresh Bakin’ has been one of the most consistent live music promoters in the Reno area for almost two decades, filling venues from several-hundred-seaters, to full-sized casino showrooms and convention halls. Emmerich has also been a department lead for the Electric Forest Festival in Michigan, which draws 50,000 people.

Cargo’s 2020 calendar initially included a September show by Oakland tribal fusion act Beats Antique. The show is now slated for April 2021. Photo: Anthony Postman

Whether he’s planning a small after-party show or a rollicking headliner concert, Emmerich always aims to create a culture of inclusion. 

“I always just made a conscious decision that I would never book anything that was homophobic, misogynistic, racist, violence,” Emmerich said. “I wanted everyone to be included.” He added that he made a point of hiring employees who would think along the same lines.

“I’ve also turned down and refused flyers that I felt were the wrong message,” he said. “Maybe they were misogynistic. Or I felt like it was not respectful to the person on the flyer.”

Hard times & a silver lining

For Emmerich, the time of lockdown has brought more pressing issues home to him personally. He lost his sister to cancer, while at the same time caring for parents who recently began to suffer from dementia. 

Steve Emmerich lost his sister, Pam Emmerich, to cancer this year. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Emmerich

“COVID-19 has given me a little silver lining of this—the ability to just focus on my family and not be having to put on this face of putting on these shows, creating a happy environment for people when I was so sad inside,” he said. “I also got to spend more time strengthening my five-year, long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, who lives in Portland.

“We’ve seen depressions, and overdoses and drug abuses and suicides have gone up,” he added. “Calls to suicide hotlines are up 600 percent. You see people suffering and it’s sad, and it’s all encompassing. So, I feel very grateful that I have had this time to be able to focus on my family right now.”

Missing the magic

But being away from his work has been a mixed blessing. In a normal year, Fresh Bakin’ books into most of the area’s big rooms and well-known music venues, including Montbleu, Grand Sierra, Crystal Bay Club, The Biltmore, Bluebird (through several iterations), 1Up, and Cargo. This year, Emmerich has suspended or canceled an estimated 25-plus shows—including Big Wild, Beats Antique with Red Giant Project, and the post-Burning Man multi-day festival The Great Depressurization. 

And he misses more than just the music. He misses the camaraderie of live shows—the interaction, the strangers who fast become friends, the random hugs. As he said, “to meet new people, to have a little faith in humanity.”

1Up is among the venues that Emmerich books entertainment for. Photo: Anthony Postman

Industry changes

I asked Emmerich about his sense of our local venues sustaining through the pandemic. He is optimistic to see that some venues are coming back with live ambient music. (As of a Sept. 29 mandate, Nevada’s music venues can operate at 50 percent or less of their maximum capacity. Areas of gathering, such as dance floors, remain closed.) 

He stated that streaming has been good for musicians and DJs, yet did not feel that he needed to intercede within that process, that artists have done that fine on their own. One of the artists Steve works with is thriving on streamed events. With its usual gigs—cruise ships, conventions, bar-mitzvahs, and corporate events—on hold, The Great Bingo Revival, a live bingo game with a funk and soul soundtrack, led by comedian/entertainer/caller The Reverend Rusty Reams, is still holding forth on Zoom. Steve also credits GBR for a great break in the isolation and monotony of the heavy early lockdown, something interactive. Fans responded, saying, “Thank You! We needed this so badly!”

Emmerich noted that large booking agencies and production companies like Live Nation have been furloughing and laying off large numbers of their staff. Some booking agents have created their own smaller new agencies. Emmerich hopes to see a booking environment that can foster healthy competition, and breaks free from some of the corporate monopolization that’s taken hold in the live music industry. Independent bookers with experience from the big leagues may be able to help develop live artists who have been shut out of the game.  

Meanwhile, Emmerich is grateful for his amazing team, and recognizes that while many have had to look for new work due to the pandemic, he still has a dedicated organization that will allow him to book great shows in the future. He foresees changing his own business model, moving more squarely into the role of a talent buyer. Buyers generally work with booking agents, often operating on behalf of the venue, while the booking agent operates on behalf of the artist. As a buyer, Emmerich does not lay out expenses from his company for shows. Instead, the venue assumes the roles often covered by promoters: permitting, door-people, security, stage and lighting crews, artist lodging, coat-checks, porta-potties. 

Any fan of live music can relate to the collective energy fostered by a crowd, all waiting to hear the sounds and move to the beats of our favorite bands. We have life-changing experiences. As well as making new friends at shows, we strengthen our longtime bonds and connections; some meet their future husbands or wives. We could often agree that our musical convergence is more than fanhood: it is family. 

“I miss the pack of five drunk women that want to get in for free, and they squeeze their breasts in my face to try,” Emmerich said. “And I miss the guy who can’t find his money or his wallet when he’s trying to pay at the door, and I miss the people [who] yell at my face for throwing them out for sneaking in. And I miss the smell of body odor, and sweat and all that stuff. And so [COVID-19] definitely made me more appreciative of everything.”

Anthony Postman writes about agriculture, sustainability and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.

This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.