Greg Curtis Tooth Blackner and BreakOut West

You’ve been around this industry for 20-plus years.

You can probably say 25-plus years at this point.

So what’s your job looked like for the past 25 years?

I began as the booker for MacEwan Ballroom before MacEwan Hall was built. I was working for the students’ union. From there it kept growing and growing and growing.

When did Tooth Blackner enter the picture?

I started the company about nine years ago and that was because my day job as it were was really busy with MacEwan Hall and Ballroom and I was getting a lot of offers to do work in other venues on the side. So I started a company that would take on those duties and then contracted my work out at MacEwan Hall and Ballroom to the company.

Do you have a partner at the company?

There’s a staff but it’s me as a sole owner.

To clarify is “concert co-ordinator” — a phrase that’s used on the Tooth Blackner website — the same as a show promoter?

Yeah. The company does three tasks I suppose. There’s venue booking which is different than a concert promoter — you’re booking the venue with the promoters. Then we do concert promotion and we use any venue in town to put on shows. Then we do corporate events but we specialize in corporate events that require name entertainment particularly Canadian name entertainment. We don’t do corporate parties or anything. We supply recognizable name talent for corporate events.

Why is Calgary a good place for Tooth Blackner to reside?

MacEwan Hall and Ballroom are positioned very well in the marketplace. Those rooms do more concerts — probably four or five times more concerts — than the next university down that does concerts. They’re the busiest university concert venues in the country by far and away. That’s a product of the marketplace because the University of Calgary’s students’ union chose to make those public concert venues whereas a lot of campuses maintain their concert venues as closed to the campus.

So the marketplace required venues in that format in that size. And the vision of the students’ union at the time was to pursue that marketplace as a public concert venue. It was a natural thing that I became involved in it — then you’re dealing with bigger promoters like LiveNation and the Union Limited and everything else.

How have you seen the industry change since you’ve been in it for so long?

It’s changed radically. It’s changed in so many ways in so many facets — it’d be hard to pinpoint one. One example is that when acts used to roll through MacEwan Hall back when I first started I was choosing about 80 to 90 per cent of the support acts on those bills. And I would choose a lot of local acts and try to get them exposure and build them up so they could get audiences so I could in turn present them and make them a worthwhile effort on everybody’s part.

But now even down to the point of Ironwood and Republik shows the acts are travelling with their own openers. That’s not necessarily a good thing for local acts and not necessarily a good thing for me to help develop artists in the marketplace.

Why do you think that happened?

It became in the interest of the artists’ managers and agents to help expose their other projects so they saw that opportunity and started to pursue it more and more. And there was also scenarios where these acts would roll into town and they would have an act they didn’t want playing in front of them because the local guy has picked someone without doing a very good job of it — he picked his buddy’s band from the basement.

How did you come up with the name Tooth Blackner?

That’s from my theatrical days when I was in a Shakespearean production [ The Merry Wives of Windsor ]. We were playing these characters that were a little bit down-and-out and we had to blacken out portions of our teeth. There was a product that does this called Tooth Blackner for actors. We were sitting in the makeup mirror and someone said “pass the tooth blackner.” I thought it was a cool name and that I should use it if I ever went into the soap operas or something. I kept it in my back pocket. Originally it was a bit of a gag and I wasn’t intending to be this well-established company.

So Tooth Blackner’s helping organize BreakOut West?

Yes. Well Greg Curtis is — I suppose — as much as the company is. I’m chair of the host committee. BreakOut West travels from city to city and town to town every year. Every five years it lands in Alberta and every 10 or 15 years it lands in Calgary. It’s a moving festival and awards show. They recognize a host committee.

What kinds of things have you been doing to help organize this?

There’s a few aspects. Let’s start with the central gala awards show for awarding Western Canadian artists that are developing outside of Western Canada and achieving something in all different genres in all different categories. It’s one of the things that I really enjoy about BreakOut West by the way is that it is not a festival about a specific genre of music. It’s not a blues festival or folk festival. There’s jazz to metal to classical to folk to rock to indie rock to instrumental.

The other elements are built around the awards show. In addition to the awards show there’s a full-on industry conference which up-and-comers and people developing careers can learn more about the industry and network with people they bring in all from over the world. There’s the public element like the festival which features over 80 acts in 16 venues over two nights — $20 gets you a wristband which means you can see as much of that as you can possibly swallow.

There’s a mini-BreakOut West which is a host committee initiative — it’s a portion of the festival that takes place on the Saturday afternoon and it’s for kids like 12-and-under. Then there’s the opening street party which is a free event on the Thursday night on Stephen Avenue Mall. There’s parties that the host committee puts together for the VIPs that are in town. There’s fundraisers and day parties and all kinds of things. At any time there’s two or three things going on never mind in the evening when there’s 16 venues going at once.

So anybody that’s got any taste for music or aspiration for career music should take advantage of this. It doesn’t roll through town very often.

So what’s been your specific role?

I had to co-ordinate the host committee which breaks down into subcommittees. I’m the supervisor and co-ordinator of the larger vision of what we want to do in Calgary and how to get Calgarians excited about this. I’m also very heavily involved with the festival itself. We want to make sure all the right venues and bands are involved and make it as best an experience as possible for the bands public and venues.

Sounds like an enormous amount of work.

It’s a tremendous amount of work. I’m glad it only comes through every 10 years! I could not do this on an annual basis there’s no way.

Are there a few categories that you look to in the awards as being especially competitive?

There’s also the industry awards too which is not a general public thing and that happens on the Saturday at a brunch awards show. That’s kind of intriguing because that’s all of my peers that I get to console or pat people on the back. You have to have a broad mind and range of tastes when you go to the gala itself as you’re going to sit through awards for classical performances that you may not understand or know but it’ll be interesting to see. Then you’re going to see performances from great Western Canadian acts.

Keep in mind that these awards are not for Michael Buble and Bryan Adams. These are not the people that are doing the Juno thing. Take it down just a notch from that — these are people that are making their living playing music in various subgenres and they’re no populist artists. These are the people who are going to be the next Bryan Adams and the next Michael Buble. They’re on their way up.

Have you encountered any situations while organizing this that have come as a surprise or challenge?

Yeah much of it. You get surprised at every corner. You have this larger vision of how this thing’s going to look and how it’s going to appeal to Calgarians and musicians. And then you go to execute details and somebody will put up a surprise roadblock out of the blue. Those arise all the time. A great deal of my job is putting out those little fires and making sure that we achieve the goals.

Considering that you’ve been co-ordinating these sorts of things for so long is there a particular act that’s you’ve worked with that stands out either as the best or the worst to work with?

You want me to name names! Snow Patrol was a big pain in the ass. It’s not necessarily the band that’s the issue — sometimes it’s the people they surround them with. I’ll diss Third Eye Blind any day of the week. I hated that experience years ago. Then there’s other people I loved working with. I loved working with Spirit of the West I loved working with The Jazz Butcher. There’s some lovely people out there. Broken Social Scene were great people to work with.

Are you planning to continue in this line of work for a few years longer?

I think I’m stuck with it. It’s a little late for a career change. From the outside it must look like the best job in the world. Many times and in many scenarios it is. Without a doubt. But other times when you’re sitting on the other side of the desk it can be extremely frustrating and a tremendous amount of work. There’s times when you just want to abandon the music industry. It’s sometimes fucked and it’s sometimes the best place in the world to be.

I’ve got a million stories. I would encourage people if they see me to stop me and ask me about a band or story. I’ve got a story for every single band that’s rolled through MacEwan Hall I swear. Some of the characters like James Brown or Johnny Rotten or Flavor Flav.

Is there anything you want to add?

For the general public BreakOut West is a one-in-10-year opportunity. It’s been well over a decade. The opportunities to see 80 bands for $20 is rare and should be taken advantage of for sure. You may not recognize every name on that list but those people have all been curated and selected and a lot of them are nominees. You won’t be disappointed. I know it sounds like a bit of a pitch or sell but I genuinely believe all of this.