The story of the founding and ensuing success of Blue Skies Turn Black (BSTB), a Montreal-based concert promotion agency, is inspirational. Originally just two guys posting band-advertising flyers for friends, BSTB has become one of the city’s most prominent promotion companies and is a testament to the benefits of working obsessively.
Disappointed by the absence of their favourite, more low-profile bands in Montreal, Concordia students Meyer Billurcu and Brian Neuman founded BSTB in 1999. “We were music guys,” explains Billurcu. “We liked sort of ‘alt-punk’ and ‘post-hardcore punk.’ Bands too hard to be ‘indie,’ but not enough to be punk. The tours of most bands we were interested in either didn’t stop in Montreal or seemed to skip it while they were in the area.”
Billurcu and Neuman decided to channel their frustration into a risky, yet ultimately successful project – their own concert promotion company (and a now-defunct record label). The process began at CJLO, Concordia’s radio station, where the two used connections to contact several labels and bands. Although few actually responded to their inquiries, they did receive permission from the independent record label Dischord to screen Instrument, a documentary about popular punk band Fugazi. The pair impressed Dischord, drawing an audience of over 250 people to the screening. With this, Billurcu and Neuman were on their way to forming their own company.
Since its establishment, BSTB has shifted its methods of promotion, largely due to the creation of popular networking web sites. Discussing his “old-school” approaches, Billurcu explains that “We started by postering, flyering, and sending emails. We had a web site that originally had a message board and show listings, but now it just has the listings.” Today, BSTB primarily promotes online, through Facebook and other web pages; however, not all promotion is done in cyberspace. “We still place ads in papers like the Mirror,” Billurcu notes.
Just as BSTB’s promotion strategies have changed, so too have the venues at which concerts are held. “Initially there weren’t many venues. We held shows at Barfly, because they had no rental fee, but eventually we began to hold shows at other venues. Today, we have shows at about 10 venues – The National, Tulipe, Metroplis, The Green Room, Metropolis, Eastern Bloc, Friendship Cove, Casa del Popolo, and a few others,” explained Billurcu.
Among other things, Montreal is known for its lively music scene, and BSTB has had to compete for performers with many concert promotion agencies. One would expect this competition to create an air of rivalry, but Billurcu describes BSTB’s relationship with other agencies as “good,” due to mutual respect they have for one another. “Sometimes you will have a show that goes well, but when the band returns to Montreal, they will go with another agency, and you’re left thinking ‘Why would they do that?’” Billurcu said. “But I always remember something a friend told me, which is, basically, that there is always going to be a new band, and in six months, this band will be popular, just as popular as whoever chose someone else.”
At the end of our interview, Billurcu provided some advice for those who might be interested in concert promotion. “[Neuman and I] both had 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. jobs, worked a show after that, got home at 3 a.m., and then woke up for our [morning] jobs again,” he said. “You have to really want to do it, not for the money, but because you really want to. There are also many risks involved. The Arcade Fire concert, our co-production with Pop Montreal, brought in 12,000 people. Modest Mouse, TV on the Radio, and Wolf Parade were big too. About 2,000 attended each concert. But when we promoted a concert for a widely hyped rapper, Moka Only, about 23 people showed up. A lot of hot shots come along, lose money, and say they will never promote again. There are a lot of risks involved.”
Simultaneously dealing with the possibility of money loss, constant competition from other agencies, and workdays that sometimes exceeded 18 hours, BSTB’s effort has been admirable, if not astounding. With an employee count of just eight, they have accomplished extraordinary things. Their achievements exemplify the message of the poster on your grade seven English teacher’s wall – the one with the picture of Spandex-clad Lance Armstrong, leaping from a bike, arms triumphantly raised in the air, exclaiming, “Hard work can achieve anything! GO FOR THE GOLD!!!”