Two local college grads go from books to booking
Chris Pattison & Justin Remillard
Justin Remillard smiles as he pulls a battered sheet of paper from a file folder overflowing with glossy posters and flyers. “My mom found this a couple of weeks ago,” he says, spreading it flat on a table in front of Rí Rá on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace. “It’s pretty funny.”
The paper is a letter from a grade-school principal in St. Albans, glowingly informing Remillard’s parents of their son’s efforts to coordinate and execute a school dance. Ironically, its author misspelled the word “successful.” The letter is dated November 23, 1988. Remillard, now 32, was 12 years old. “I guess I was just meant to do this,” he quips.
Remillard, a.k.a. Justin R.E.M., is referring to his chosen career as a concert promoter, DJ and co-founder — with fellow DJ Chris Pattison, 33 — of Nexus Artist Management. In less than six years the company has become one of the hottest players in the highly competitive realm of electronic music. Nexus manages artists from all over the world, which means its founders spend a significant portion of their time traveling to scout talent, make new connections, and establish themselves in the music community.
How did two dudes from northern Vermont create one of the planet’s most respected artist-management companies in a genre that relies heavily on its urban underground mystique? How, furthermore, did they do it from a tiny apartment office in Burlington?
For starters, they went to college.
Remillard and Pattison met in 1998 while attending Champlain College, not imagining at the time that their shared interest in electronica would lead to an eventual partnership.
“I had just gotten back out of the military,” says Remillard. “I had been in Korea, where club music and electronic music was huge. I reconnected with [Burlington] DJ A-Dog, who I’ve known since, like, third grade. He had these turntables and had just mixed The Eurhythmics with some other stuff, and I was blown away.” He pauses at the memory. “So, I bought some turntables because of that, and was doing some DJ stuff when I was introduced to Chris.”
Prior to that auspicious meeting, Pattison had been involved in the local DJ scene for about five years. He was one of the original DJs for “Bashment,” a weekly reggae-dancehall residency with Jon Demus that still runs every Tuesday at Red Square. “From, like, 1992 to 1996, I had been playing these dancehall shows . . . opening for Buju Banton and a bunch of other Jamaican artists,” says the lanky DJ.
He and Demus had been doing DJ gigs in town for Burlington’s Flex Records, which at the time was the largest distributor of dancehall music in the country. Flex “recognized the market for techno and break-beat and started branching out, which was the first time I had ever heard that stuff,” says Pattison.
He became enamored of electronic music and sold all his dancehall records to focus on techno. “I basically stopped spinning dancehall and started booking raves, sending demos to promoters up and down the East Coast,” Pattison says. “And that’s right about when I met Justin.”
The two were introduced by mutual friends who had begun promoting raves at Higher Ground during the venue’s early days in Winooski.
“Those shows are basically the reason that I went to college,” says Pattison. “At that point we had to in-source everything. I had to design the flyers, I’m doing the posters, I’m doing everything. I got interested in graphic design because of helping to promote those first shows, and that’s what prompted me to go to Champlain.”
Remillard was originally pursuing a degree in public relations, but changed his major to business when he saw the potential in concert promotion. “I think that’s why we work so well together,” explains Pattison. “He does all of the business side, and I’m the creative side. We’re exact opposites.”
The two quickly developed a rapport through their early work putting together raves at area clubs. The term “rave” has notoriously negative connotations, but neither partner shies away from the label. “Call a spade a spade, but that’s what we were doing,” says Remillard. “We were booking shows at Higher Ground that ran until six in the morning — legally.”
In a sleepy college town known more for jam bands than city-style dance parties, those first shows did remarkably well, regularly selling out the original Higher Ground. “At that point we weren’t flying anybody in, and we had no intention of managing,” says Pattison. “We were only using local DJs.” But the success of those early shows enabled them to command larger budgets and branch out to artists all over the country. That expansion in turn gave the pair international connections, laying the groundwork for Nexus Artist Management.
“After about five years, the shows started to fizzle out,” says Pattison. Remillard joins in: “We’ve kind of seen the local audience drop off steadily, especially recently.” They gradually began booking shows at smaller venues as Vermonters’ interest in electronic music waned — from Higher Ground to 135 Pearl, to Sunday Night Mass and the Sanctuary series at Club Metronome and, finally, to “Black: Dimensions in House” and “Black: Revolver” at the tiny 1/2 Lounge.
“We saw that trend beginning, and it led us to question whether or not we wanted to stay involved in putting together these shows,” says Pattison. As it turned out, they didn’t. While Burlington was losing interest in electronic dance music, the genre was exploding in other markets around the world, and the two decided to take the music to its audience. “We realized that we had made all of these connections over the years,” says Remillard, “and it occurred to us that we could book shows for other people, easily.”
Pattison nods, but admits, “It was kind of ‘fly-by-night’ at that point, because there really weren’t a lot of people pursuing electronica booking professionally — maybe three or four big agencies — especially in New England. There wasn’t anything between Montréal and New York.”
In 2001, Pattison and Remillard began working with booking agents in those two cities to route artists between them and serve as a link to New England venues. Routing is one of the most challenging aspects of tour planning, but their extensive list of promoters and clubs served them well.
Remillard again reaches into the stuffed file folder and produces a show flyer dated September 21, 2001. Its art features a pile of textbooks. “That’s from six years ago, and those are actually all of my old textbooks from when I switched majors,” he says, smiling.
“When we first started the actual booking agency, the whole thing was pretty schwaggy,” says Pattison, provoking a look of bemusement on his partner’s face.
“It wasn’t awful,” counters Remillard almost apologetically.
“It sucked,” Pattison retorts. “We were mostly representing our friends at that point. It took about a year to figure out that it wasn’t really what we wanted to be doing.”
“Well, we also had a bunch of European artists that we couldn’t get work for because of visas,” reminds Remillard. “So we decided to streamline our roster.”
The Nexus talent pool was eclectic in those early days, representing artists from across the sub-genre spectrum of electronic music. The pair began to focus on break-beat and house, and soon they were signing bigger artists.
“Simply Jeff was the first one,” says Remillard, recalling that the West Coast DJ had grown unhappy with his representation and heard good word-of-mouth about Nexus. “That first signing was really the gateway. Within three months we started receiving requests from DJs and bands all over the world who had heard about us through Simply Jeff.”
The company’s roster soon expanded to about 20 artists.
“I think people really respected the way we do business and the fact that we’re DJs, too, so we know what it’s like,” Remillard suggests. He says artists have been receptive to Nexus in part because of the company’s “Vermont ethics” in its business dealings. If Nexus messes up a tour schedule, it pays for the mistake out of pocket. And while many management companies still charge a venue when their artist doesn’t show up for a show, Nexus returns the club’s deposit — and then severs ties with the errant DJ.
“We expect ourselves to act professionally and will only accept and work with artists who act the same,” says Remillard firmly. “We’ve fired a bunch of DJs.”
But for every artist they’re forced to let go, dozens are clamoring for the duo to represent them. “We’re even getting indie bands hitting up our MySpace page,” says Pattison, clearly exasperated. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about representing a rock band.”
Maybe not, but he and Remillard appear to know an awful lot about representing their DJs with creativity and professionalism — qualities they attribute to their college educations.
“There’s no way we could do this without what we learned in school,” asserts Remillard.
Pattison agrees. “We took our time,” he says. “I think we were both on the six- or seven-year plan. But going to school laid the foundation for what we’re doing now.”
As the conversation comes to a close, Remillard looks again at the letter from his grade-school principal, written nearly 20 years ago. “But then again,” he muses, “maybe I learned everything I needed to know in 1988.”