For many ravenous music addicts searching for their next fix, Blue Skies Turn Black, the premier local concert promoter, has always been there for them. In fact, it’s hard to believe that there was a time in Montreal when BSTB was not around to bring in the best independent music or promote homegrown talent almost always on the verge of being the city’s next big thing. But there was such a time; in fact, the promotion company will only be turning 10 at the end of February.
Back in 1999, founders Meyer Billurcu and Brian Neuman were studying at Concordia University and were hosting a music program on CJLO, the campus radio station. Billurcu, studying fine arts, remembers being “frustrated about always not getting the bands we like playing here.” The frustration led to Billurcu and Neuman to start Blue Skies Turn Black. The name of their promotion company came from a poetic string of words that had stuck with Billurcu since high school.
Instead of starting by promoting shows the duo decided that they would contact Dischord Records and offer to host a screening of Instrument, a documentary film about the legendary Washington, D.C. post-hardcore band Fugazi, at Concordia. Billurcu admits it wasn’t exactly easy to get the label to agree.
“We reached out to the label and said “Hey we’d like to do a screening.’ They were a bit hesitant since they didn’t know who we were, but they said ok, we will give you a shot,” explained Billurcu. “Ours ended up being one of the most successful screenings.”
Following their screening, Billurcu and Neuman began working with another friend who had been in concert promoting and needed a few extra hands. They began to regularly organize shows and, on the side, began a record label of the same name. As the years passed the record label drew in a few local bands but never quite got off the ground. However, Billurcu and Neuman found the promotion side taking off.
At first it was easy to draw in local, smaller musicians but Billurcu and Neuman wanted to begin bring in larger, established bands. They ran into a particular roadblock: booking agents. Agents were cautious to work with a company relatively unknown so Billurcu and Neuman worked to gain their trust. Their first breakthrough came in 2004 when BSTB brought in alternative rock band Modest Mouse to play at the Rialto Theatre. The show brought in 1,500 spectators and from then on it was less of a challenge to bring in the bigger bands.
The company continued to expand both in employees and the amount of shows they were producing each year. But in 2006 they began to see its lowest turnout at some of their smaller shows. Billurcu believes the lower attendance rates had to do with their focus on larger promotions.
“We got caught in a weird vortex where we were spending all our energy making sure our bigger shows were ok. It was that we didn’t have the manpower or the time to make sure that the smaller shows were properly promoted. It’s hard to do smaller shows, you really got to convince people to come out and check out a band they don’t know,” said Billurcu. “With larger shows some print ads and a flyer almost do the job for you.”
The drop in numbers led BSTB in 2007 to hire AndrÃ© GuÃ©rette, who had been running his own promotion company, Mandatory Moustache, and was a member of the experimental-noise band AIDS Wolf at the time. GuÃ©rette brought in additional experience and, more importantly, an extra set of hands to help with promoting. Since bringing GuÃ©rette and a few other employees aboard, BSTB normally promotes about four shows a week, some on the same night.
Over the past decade Blue Skies Turn Black has brought in an impressive amount of talent like Bloc Party, TV on the Radio, Animal Collective, Les Savy Fav, Iron and Wine, and countless others. After an exhaustive 10-year run the anniversary, while nostalgic, is refreshing.
“We’ve been doing this for 10 years and it feels like this anniversary is almost like starting fresh. It’s rejuvenated everybody,” explained Billurcu. “The last couple of years you just keep going and going and you don’t have time to stop and look at the big picture.”
The 10-year anniversary festivities run Feb. 25-27. Il Motore will play host to the three-day bash that includes a long list of live performances, including Rockets Red Glare, Tonstartssbandht, Snailhouse, and Adam and the Amethysts.