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How Secret City Records built a community within Montreal's booming music scene

Melody Lau

Within the Canadian music scene, Montreal has always been one of the most active and vibrant cities for exciting new artists. Before the turn of the millennium, bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Dears, Tricky Woo and Doughboys were putting the Quebec city on the map, though its sonic signals were a relative blip on the radars south of the border and internationally.

All this changed by the early 2000s: Wolf Parade signed to Seattle's Sub Pop Records in 2004; the Unicorns found its way onto the airwaves of MTV2; and an up-and-coming band named Arcade Fire dropped an album that would set the city ablaze, turning that blip into an unavoidable smoke signal stretching across borders and oceans.

In 2005, Arcade Fire found themselves on the cover of Time magazine following the release of Funeral, and the New York Times named Montreal the newest hotspot for music, following in the footsteps of Seattle, Austin and Athens. The energy in Montreal was, as Justin West remembers, palpable: “You absolutely felt it.”

With such frenetic forces rising up from all corners of the city, a form of structure was needed. A select number of acts were getting global recognition but in order for other burgeoning artists to benefit from that attention, they needed support in the form of labels, publicists and digital platforms that were still taking shape. West, who was fresh off of earning a business degree from McGill university and working for his father’s label Justin Time Records, wanted to help boost lesser known artists into the same spotlight as those aforementioned names. So, with the help of his dad, he started Secret City Records.

On Sept. 26, West’s brand new label released their first record called Close to Paradise by singer-songwriter Patrick Watson. A year later, that album went on to take the second annual Polaris Music Prize, beating out Arcade Fire’s sophomore release Neon Bible, as well as labelmate Miracle Fortress, Montreal vets the Dears and commercial favourite Feist.

This year, Secret City celebrates its 10th anniversary. In that decade, the label has earned many more Polaris Music Prize shortlist nominations, Juno Award nominations, three gold record certifications and successes around the world. Its roster was quickly filled up with local acts like Miracle Fortress, Plants and Animals, Basia Bulat, Diamond Rings and the Barr Brothers. In recent years, they’ve also added Owen Pallett, Thus Owls, Suuns, Emilie & Ogden and Jesse Mac Cormack.

Just a scan of the artists and titles on Secret City’s anniversary compilation – 39 tracks! – and it’s clear that the label is now brimming with talent, most of whom are native to or are now living in Montreal. While West says proximity was a perk and not a requirement, he does speak of the city’s music scene with a fondness that feels loving and protective. He speaks of it, especially the pocket in which Secret City now occupies, as a community and one that he hopes to continue expanding as it enters its second decade.

Below, we spoke to West, Patrick Watson, Plants and Animals and Suuns to form a brief but enthralling oral history of Secret City Records and the Montreal music scene.

The Montreal music scene in 2006

Patrick Watson: Before 2006, Montreal was a series of small loft shows and nights where musicians mixed and played and improvised together, like the Moon Data nights. There were a ton of great musicians and it was very inspiring to be here. In 2006 though, the music scene was in the process of changing.

Plants and Animals' Matthew Woodley: Godspeed built this underground empire, came home with their pockets full and opened cool venues. Arcade Fire blew up. Other bands rode that wave. The Pop Montreal festival kept growing and getting more creative and reflecting of the weirdness of the music scene and the city as a whole. Big websites and magazines like Pitchfork and Spin added fuel to the fire and all of a sudden, the Montreal scene was a thing.

Justin West: You definitely felt the buzz in the city and it was really noticeable when you were out there internationally. I had been travelling to various events around the world, whether it was in France or London or whatever, and when you went there, people were talking about the Montreal scene.

Woodley: Just being a Montreal band lent cred, we all felt a little bit special. But while that outside spotlight helped, the scene came from within. We all loved it, that prices were still hungover from the 1995 referendum and probably the two before that. We didn’t have to work all day, we could make music or go to see music or be the person who makes hilarious show posters or the one writing about it or promoting it or just there in the room being a part of it, maybe dancing. This sounds like rose-coloured nostalgia, but there were a lot of amazing moments and there still are.

West: There was a huge bubbling scene but I felt, and I think a lot of people did as well, that there weren’t enough local labels at the time. There were some great ones like Constellation Records and Aquarius Records but there weren’t enough. With Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, those were the two biggest examples of bands that got big-time U.S. deals and kind of broke out and got everything rolling.

Launching Secret City Records and Patrick Watson's Close to Paradise

West: My dad never encouraged me to get into the music business. He very much tried to be as neutral as possible so I could make the choice I wanted to make, that was his approach. I did a lot of finance and accounting in school and decided that that area wasn't for me. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted to do and I worked at my dad's record label because I wasn't sure what I was going to do. 

There was no plan to start the label but it came out of circumstance. My dad's company distributed a lot of stuff but it’s mostly jazz, blues and gospel – and Patrick Watson was on the table. It didn’t make sense to put Patrick on a jazz label and so Secret City was born out of necessity for Patrick.

Watson: Justin approached me and said he would start a label for my project. I was a bit skeptical at first but we went for it together! In the end, I don’t think I would have succeeded the way I did without Justin. He’s such a focused and well-researched guy. He works hard and I owe a lot to him.

West: Secret City was part of Justin Time in the early days but it was just a brand under that umbrella group. It was really a family affair in terms of the people connected to the label. Patrick and I had gone to high school together and didn’t know each other that well in high school but it’s just funny how it all came together. And I’ve known [former Vice President of A&R and creative Andrew Rose] since I was three; he was looking to get into the music business and he came onboard. Andrew was a big part of the label at the beginning and he’s still a great friend of mine.

In 2007, Close to Paradise was shortlisted and won the Polaris Music Prize. 

West: The Polaris Music Prize definitely did have an effect on us. The record had been out for a year and it had just come out in Europe at the time because we had done a deal with V2 Records, Richard Branson’s label, and it took a while to get that deal done. So yeah, it became a bit of a story they could latch onto there because Polaris was fairly new and it was only in its second year. It made a big splash and I think they were were able to use the story to help build a career.


Growing a roster

Woodley: We met Justin through Andrew Rose. Years before, Andrew had played me a Patrick Watson song and you could tell Pat had that je ne sais quoi. It didn’t surprise me when Justin and Andrew started a label and that their first signing was with Pat and his band. Then it was Miracle Fortress and then it was us, in pretty quick succession.

West: Miracle Fortress and Plants and Animals were friends with Andrew and, at the time, he brought in a ton of demos. There was this light green slip case demo of Plants and Animals and I remember having it in my car and listening to it. I think “Faerie Dance” was one of the songs on it. It was just like, wow we think this is great, let’s do it.

Woodley: There aren’t too many degrees of separation in the music world here – especially the Anglophone one. It’s always been kind of a small town that way.

Suuns' Ben Shemie: I personally met Justin in elementary school, we played hockey together. I wasn’t really paying attention when Secret City got going, just that Patrick Watson was blowing up. So there was something going on there. … We signed to Secret City because they have their s—t together and don’t blow smoke up your ass. They are also really nice.

Woodley: I’d like to say we signed to Secret City because they were an exciting label run by people with integrity and drive and that they had a strong sense of the changing tides in the music industry and knew when to push their artists and when to let them do their thing. Fortunately, those things have all proven true. But when we signed, we were green, our manager was green, and we were all flying by the seat of our pants trying to figure out how this whole game worked. We probably pretended to know more than we did. Maybe Secret City did too, but if so, they were very convincing.

West: I wasn’t sure how it was all going to play out! I just followed a path and it really evolved from there.

Woodley: Justin grew up in the music industry, he studied business and he cares a lot about what he does. He’s always on the cusp of new technologies and trends. He invests himself in the music biz dance in the same way that musicians invest themselves in their craft.

West: I'm fascinated by the changing landscape of music. What keeps me in it is the music, obviously, because I love discovering music whether it pops up on my desk or someone else finds it and brings it to my attention. When I hear something new that I love and understand the vision, that excites me. But also, the media landscape fascinates me. I think streaming brings along a lot of opportunities like, could we really do what we do globally in the way we do it without streaming? We try new things every day. 

Secret City Records and the Montreal music scene now 

Patrick Watson: Montreal is still filled with great musicians and Secret City is a big part of that.

West: There are lots of new artists coming out of Montreal every day. I'm pretty excited for the newer artists we've signed like Emilie & Ogden and Jesse Mac Cormack. For me, that confirms the vibrancy of the local scene.

Shemie: Secret City's a very solid and desirable Canadian label now. The scene in Montreal blew up, and then it kind of plateaued into this nebulous thing that is hard to define. Secret City put out great records the whole time and found audiences for great artists from the Montreal underground.

Woodley: If you’re in the know about Canadian labels, they’re a household name. Their artists tour all over the world. Word is out.

Watson: It’s not about one label, though. Montreal is successful because of the diversity and originality of the bands that come from here. Early on in the Montreal music scene, having a project meant it had to sound like no other one so we all got along because everybody was doing something different. That was the key. There was no music business here to give you rules so we made up our own and people like Justin enabled us to do that. It was a great team and continues to be.

Woodley: The scene is still strong. I don’t feel that same sense of excitement and newness that was in the air 10 years ago, but I’m also not in my mid-20s anymore so I can’t claim to see it the same way. People have come and gone. More have stayed than not. There’s a whole new generation coming up. Rent is still cheapish. And there’s plenty of newness. Big acts have emerged and all the while there is consistent good stuff happening at Casa del Popolo and the Ritz PDB and the Divan Orange. There is more of a connection between the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. As for Secret City, they keep signing artists and they keep putting out good records. That’s very good for Montreal and its reach extends way beyond this island.

West: It's great to see the Barr Brothers playing music with Patrick, Erika from Thus Owls toured with Patrick, and Owen Pallett working with Basia Bulat. Everyone's really working together and everyone's building each other up. I bring it up a lot to the artists and staff, who are also so hard working and wonderful, just the importance of how everything ties together and how each artist's success impacts everyone else in the label. We're excited when the Barr Brothers perform on Letterman, what kind of doors that opens up for everyone else. When Basia breaks down a wall in the U.K. or gets a four-star review in the Guardian, that means something to her, but it also means something to the label and the other artists. We've been very fortunate to have artists that believe in us just as much as we believe in them. That's our strongest point.  

More to explore

Listen to Patrick Watson's 'Clouds' from The 9th Life of Louis Drax soundtrack

Polaris Music Prize gala 2016: watch all the performances

Watch Iggy Pop, Jeff Tweedy and more praise the 2016 Polaris Prize nominees