By Isabelle Speerin
Justin West has established himself as a formidable force in Canada’s flourishing independent music scene, with both Secret City Records and Secret City Publishing. Born and raised in Montréal, West grew up in the music industry. He was inspired by the success of his father, Jim West, who founded independent jazz record label, Justin Time Records.
Last June, Jim West was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the Canadian music industry and for championing Canadian talent. Justin Time came to age with the release of Diana Krall’s debut album in the early 90s. The company also recorded jazz legends like Oliver Jones and the late Oscar Peterson.
“I experienced the music industry at a very young age,” Justin revealed. “My father took me to music conferences around the world and I learned the ropes from him.” West spent summers as a teenager working for his father, strumming chords, and hustling local gigs for his high school rock band, Dogs Playing Poker. “I liked music, but I was also trying to forge my own path to see what I wanted to do,” he said. “So, I went to college and later McGill [University] and tried a bit of everything.”
As it turned out, West enjoyed accountancy and graduated with honours in 2004. But West’s interest in the family business never faded and, after a short stint at Ernst and Young as an auditor, he returned to work for his father.
A chance encounter on the Montréal metro with former high school friend and singer-songwriter, Patrick Watson, proved to be the impetus for change. “Patrick was working on an album and lamenting he couldn’t get signed,” he recalled. “So, we went to check out his show and really enjoyed his performance.”
Secret City Records was born to provide a home for Watson’s first album, Close to Paradise.
It was a smart move.
Today, Watson is a global success and Secret City’s fulsome team of 14 supports a diverse and thriving roster of 32 Canadian singer-songwriters and artists.
“We keep the roster small and focused,” said West. “We are not limited by genre or format, nor by conventional thinking.”
Creators like Alexandra Stréliski, Basia Bulat, The Barr Brothers, Bibi Club, Fernie, Flore Laurentienne, Jeremy Dutcher, Jesse Mac Cormack, Klô Pelgag, La Force, Leif Vollebekk, Patrick Watson and Shad all call Secret City home. Secret City made a conscious effort to round out Secret City’s primarily anglophone roster around six years ago to more accurately reflect Montréal’s cultural diversity.
“There’s so much great art in Quebec and I don’t want to be pigeonholed to one language,” he said. “There’s a really nice balance of everything now, I love it.”
Secret City publishes almost all the creators they work with on the recording side, a foundational pillar of their business model.
“We feel it’s best to control our destiny on both sides of the equation,” he said. “Our goal is to control a hundred percent of a song whenever we can because it’s important for us in terms of manoeuvrability of the track.”
West’s approach is about investing in a creator holistically.
“We’re not a traditional publisher in the sense of signing writers and growing our catalogue,” he explained. “We’re about trying to represent the song, a full song, and only for creators we work closely with on all aspects of their career.”
CMRRA has always been Secret City’s go-to for mechanical and online collections in Canada, and more recently post-synchronization reproduction services.
“Collection is about efficiency, and we are always looking at our business to see where we can switch things up,” he said. “CMRRA had the best options for us.”
Working with Patrick Watson, going global with The Barr Brothers, and the incredible success of Alexandra Stréliski’s double platinum Inscape album in 2018 are some of West’s most memorable career highlights.
But according to West, success isn’t all about impressive numbers and statistics.
“It’s more the journey of those experiences,” he said. “The success of a project and a creator brings so many adventures and you get to experience new things and forge deeper connections and relationships and hire more staff, which means there’s a bigger team, and it becomes more exciting. It’s all of that.”
Perhaps inspired by his accounting days, West sees music creators as entrepreneurs and is passionate about advocating for a healthy independent music ecosystem.
“I like trying to help protect but also develop the community,’ he said. “It’s important the independent ecosystem is thriving because it keeps art and diversity alive, with a little bit of a check on power.”
West points out that one of the challenges faced by publishers today is the sheer noise in the marketplace and figuring out how to build sustainable careers.
“The last I heard 130,000 tracks were being uploaded to digital service providers every day,” he noted. “So as a songwriter, how do you make it sustainable? And if it’s not sustainable for a songwriter, how do you make it sustainable for a publisher?” According to West, not much has changed in terms of how he engages with creators in the digital age, except the types of conversations around approach to market.
“Things are more expensive than they ever were, whether that’s touring or just travelling in general, so we’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with songwriters and artists about diversifying what they’re doing and finding other income streams,” he said.
He also pointed out that there’s no single path to market anymore.
“The world is your oyster, you can do anything if you have the right distribution and collection network,” he said. “You used to always need partners in foreign territories, whereas now it’s getting more and more centralised globally. That said, while certain online and social promotion leans global, we are also careful to ensure proper localization for other types of marketing, such as press, radio, retail, and playlisting. You need a balance of both approaches.”
West is the Vice-Chair of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), and currently sits on the boards of global digital rights agency, MERLIN, and the Collective Society for the Rights of Makers of Sound Recordings and Music Videos (Soproq). He has also served terms on the Worldwide Independent Network, ADISQ and FACTOR boards. In 2016, he was the sole music industry representative appointed to an advisory group created by former Canadian Heritage Minister, Mélanie Joly, to strengthen the creation, discovery, and export of Canadian content in a digital world.
To learn more about Secret City, visit secretcityrecords.com.