Pass it on
Backstage passes come predominantly from one place: Reno
Do you remember the highlight of your life? You know, when you called in to that radio show and won a backstage pass to meet your all-time idol, Jessica Simpson? Remember how that backstage pass was a ticket of golden Willy Wonkian proportions? And how you stared at it night after night in giddy anticipation for weeks on end? And though the big night actually turned out to be something of a disappointment because Jess was a moron (who knew?) and her bass player was acting really weird and creepy, you still have that pass, and now it’s in a frame next to your autographed T-shirt.
Well, next time you’re eyeing that frame sentimentally, take it down, take that glossy, flashy pass out and flip it over. Chances are, you’ll see the name of a business and a phone number with a 775 area code. Reno companies play such a key role in the production of backstage passes that Kentucky-based Otto Printing and Entertainment Graphics is the only major domestic company producing security passes that’s not in the Truckee Meadows.
Now, let’s be honest. Reno isn’t really a major concert-tour destination, and there aren’t any professional sports teams here, so it may seem odd that it is a center for an international industry that’s an integral part of every major concert and sporting event.
But the question, “Why is the international backstage pass industry based in Reno?” could be answered, “Because it grew up here.”
Some background: Backstage pass companies, working with promoters, venues, tour managers and artists, design and provide all of the necessary security credentials for a variety of large-scale events. The industry is not very old. In fact, it’s a strange testament to the mammoth growth and evolution of concert and sporting events that the industry even exists. It wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that special events became so grandiose—with sometimes hundreds of employees—that companies specializing in the design and production of security passes became necessary. It was also during this time that the design and visual appeal of these passes became an area for creative and competitive innovation.
One of the original architects of the industry was Tony Perry, whose T-Bird Entertainment was a preeminent early backstage-pass company in the 1980s. T-Bird broke new ground in the design of passes and in the way they were distributed. By the 1990s, Perry had started a new pass company, Perri Entertainment. Both of the companies were based in Reno, and, thanks to Perry’s efforts, the city became a hub of the industry.
There have been roughly half a dozen different backstage-pass companies in the area over the course of the last 20 years, usually featuring shifting configurations of some of the same key figures. One such figure is Seth Sheck.
Sheck, a former rock-band manager and nightclub owner, got his start in the industry as a moonlighting waiter, when he waited on pass-master Perry’s table. Perry let slip about what he did for a living, and Sheck was impressed and intrigued, so he finagled Perry’s phone number. “And then I called the guy every day until he hired me,” says Sheck.
Sheck worked with Perry at T-Bird Entertainment, followed him to Perri Entertainment, got fired, left the industry for a few years, and then went back to T-Bird.
“I went crawling back,” Sheck says, “The only thing they would hire me on for was to clean the toilets.”
Sheck had partially burnt his bridge with T-Bird Entertainment owner Walt Huff by leaving to work at Perri Entertainment. But eventually Sheck worked his way back into Huff’s good graces. Finally, Sheck decided he wanted to start his own company, so he started Access Pass and Design (www.accesspasses.com) in January 2002 with co-owners Frank Himler and Brad Diller.
Sheck takes blatant pride in his company, “We’re like a beacon of integrity at the top of the pyramid,” he says. And, though it is still a young company, Access is an industry leader. Access acquired Perri Entertainment and has established a formidable roster that includes such musical acts as Ben Harper, Pink, Morrissey, Scorpions, Jack Johnson and Harry Connick Jr. and sports teams such as the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco Giants. Not to mention, the passes for the American Idol television program.
Modern pass designers employ the latest in graphic technology, making highly detailed images—not just the band or team logos but actual detailed, glossy portraits of the stars. There are often flashy holograms with impressive visual effects. Access graphic artist Robert Ahnlund has won graphic design awards for his suave work on passes for crooner Enrique Iglesias.
Another local design company that specializes in passes, Cube Services, declined when asked to participate in this story. A third, Diablo Passes, could not even be reached. The Reno security pass industry, though influential, is in constant flux, with ever-changing business allegiances and creative developments, making it difficult to keep track of all the current companies.
The security-pass industry basically appeals to three markets: concerts, sports events and conventions. “For concerts, we call them ‘backstage passes,’ and for conventions we call them ‘security credentials,'” says Sheck, “but they’re exactly the same thing.”
Contemporary die-cut passes are coded both by shape and size. The graphics are highly detailed with intricate color separation. The shape often indicates the kind of pass it is ("all access” or “security"), and the color scheme often indicates what day the pass is intended for.
The backstage pass has an extended afterlife as a collectable. A quick visit to eBay reveals plethora passes awaiting purchase by frenzied fans looking to complete the shrine to their favorite bands. The purchased backstage pass is more than a mere memento; it is a badge that, once upon a time, could have been the ticket for a brief brush with greatness.
For example, a collection of five Mötley Crüe passes from different late-'80s/early-'90s tours—no doubt the former property of some very lucky young lady—had a starting bid of $49. Passes are generally made durable enough to last well beyond their brief period of active duty and strong enough to stand the rigors of cross-country shipping and the difficulties of adulation.
Not only does the backstage pass have to have its practical function and its memorabilia value, it has to look cool. It has to be something that makes a good fashion statement, something you might want to just wear around all the time because, after all, it’s what you wear when you meet your idols. And, as we all know, nobody has a better sense of fashion than Renoites.