Interview with Justin West of Secret City Records and Secret City Publishing



Secret City Records is the independent Montreal label behind Patrick Watson and Shad’s 2019 Polaris Prize Shortlist nominated A Short Story About War, among others. Re:Sound spoke with founder Justin West about independent labels, their unique needs and the importance of royalties for music creators.

Tell us a bit about your business and what sets it apart?

Secret City Records was founded in 2006 to release Patrick Watson’s Close to Paradise album. We keep our roster small and focused, believing attention to detail and a career-oriented approach for our artists will yield the best long-term results. We support the idea of a self-reinforcing community, where everyone supports one another, and we think globally, so that people all around the world can discover and access our artists’ music. We are not limited by genre or format, nor by conventional thinking; we strive to be fair, transparent, and humble; and we’re always evolving and building. Our mission is to be a bridge between art and commerce, with respect and support for the artists’ vision. We’re also proud members of MERLIN, a digital rights agency for the indie sector. This has allowed Secret City to take full control of its global digital business.

As an indie label, how critical are performance royalties from organizations like Re:Sound?

Performance royalties are extremely important to our business and bottom-line. This revenue stream has helped us to invest more in the artists we work with and the infrastructure supporting those projects. An efficient flow of performance income to the appropriate rights holders helps to create a virtuous cycle.

What is the most important thing that Re:Sound can do on your behalf?

With members absorbing their respective share of the organization’s costs, the benefits of efficiency – which I know is a Re:Sound value – do trickle-down to rights holders like Secret City. Therefore, it’s crucial to find the optimal balance between maximizing revenue collection and minimizing costs through efficient and effective spending.

As the Chair of the WIN (Worldwide Independent Network) Board, what do international best practices bring to Re:Sound and organizations like it?

This is important for so many reasons. First, it leads to greater standardization, which in turn creates efficiencies and reduces costs. This directly benefits all rights holders. Second, it leads to greater accuracy and fairness, meaning that monies are being paid out to the appropriate rights holders, rather than being incorrectly distributed or even unattributed. This has been the focus of much of WIN’s work over the years and continues to be a high priority for the organization.

What more can Re:Sound do to support you as an indie label?

I’ve already noted the importance of continually finding the optimal balance between maximizing revenues and keeping costs low, as well as the benefits of following international best practices. Those are crucial. I’d also say that while the high level of fragmentation in the indie sector helps to make it such an incredibly special community, a lack of size and scale for many individual labels can create challenges with the management of data, processes, and rights. To ensure Re:Sound is always at the forefront of supporting the needs of the independent community, it’s critical for indie labels like Secret City to have a strong place and voice within the organization, sharing the challenges we face and helping to keep these points of view well represented in all decision-making.

Our core values at Re:Sound are: Fair; Artist and Maker-centred; Transparent; Efficient; and Dynamic. What do those mean to you?

It’s great to see those core values put forth explicitly. Each one is fundamental to the work of an organization like Re:Sound. For example, transparency is critical. It helps to ensure we are collecting all that we are entitled, understanding the rights, processes, and mechanisms involved, and feeling confident about the investments and decisions the organization makes on behalf of all of us, the members.