Jim West (left) is the founder and president of Justin Time Records and Justin West is the president and CEO of Secret City Records (Photo: Owen Egan/Jodi Dufour)


A father and son in tune with the music business

Some of the best music released in Canada, albums that have contended for Junos and the Polaris Prize, come from a pair of Montreal-based record labels. Meet Jim West, BA’79, the president of Justin Time Records, and his son Justin West, BCom’04, the president of Secret City Records.

Story by Darcy MacDonald

May 2023

When Jim West, BA’79, and his son Justin West, BCom’04, get together, the conversation often turns to music – for good reason. The Wests have played a significant role in the release of some of the most acclaimed music created by Canadian artists.

Jim, who was appointed to the Order of Canada last June as a new member, is the president and founder of Justin Time Records, principally a jazz label and one that boasts plenty of Juno Award winners and Juno finalists among its recordings. Justin is the president and CEO of Secret City Records, an indie label whose musicians have turned up on the shortlist for the Polaris Prize (most recently Shad for Tao).

The elder West began his career in the music industry in the mid-seventies. As a stagehand working at the biggest rock shows at the Montreal Forum, Jim observed how the business side of the music industry operated.

He was a road manager for the Montreal rock band Mahogany Rush and assisted the once iconic Canadian music retailer Sam the Record Man when it opened its first Montreal location. Then, a stint as a sales rep for a record importer in Montreal put him on the path to creating Justin Time after the owner decided to call it quits.

“He gave me a severance package with all the materials it would take to start up a business, which I couldn’t afford to do at the time,” Jim recalls.

With those resources and the knowledge he’d acquired by paying attention along the way, Jim founded Justin Time as a music distribution company in 1981.

The company soon evolved into a music label when Jim decided he wanted to help a local jazz great expand his audience.

“The record label came simply from going to dinner and watching Oliver Jones at a club and talking to him after the show. That’s what started the label,” Jim says.

In 1982, Justin Time released its first album by Jones. “And the record did very well, so we did another one. Records sold in those days!”

Four decades later, Justin Time marches on, with a catalogue of more than 600 original releases. The label’s artists have included some of the most influential musicians in contemporary Canadian jazz, many of them with ties to McGill’s Schulich School of Music as either faculty members (including Ranee Lee, Jean-Michel Pilc, and Jeff Johnston) or graduates (including Christine Jensen, BMus’94, MMus’06, Julie Lamontagne, BMus’98, and John Stetch, BMus’90).

The label came of age in 1993 when Jim released Diana Krall’s debut album Stepping Out.

“One of our most notable achievements certainly has to be Diana Krall, for obvious reasons,” Jim says.

“She’s a worldwide success story and an incredible talent. Working with Oscar Peterson was also a major highlight. He was simply the greatest jazz pianist ever! They helped to open many doors.”

It’s no accident that the label is named Justin Time – Justin was born around the same time that Jim launched his business.

“I don’t remember this, but the initial distribution company and label were in the basement of the house,” Justin says to his dad. “You did the picking and packing, and mom did the invoicing, from what I understand.”

From the age of 12, Justin spent summer vacations working for Jim, shipping orders, learning data entry, and even doing sales. He accompanied his father on international trips to industry conferences around the world from a very young age.

As his studies continued, he spent more time working and learning the business at Justin Time. After graduating from McGill with an honours degree in accounting, Justin put in a short stint at Ernst & Young.

But his interest in the family business never really faded. In 2006, Justin started Secret City as an imprint of Justin Time when both Wests took an interest in an emerging Montreal talent, Patrick Watson.

“People around the office at Justin Time had really been talking about him,” Justin recalls. “Remember, Dad, we went to see him at Cafe Sarajevo, at the time? You were really into it!

“Patrick needed a record deal,” Justin continues. “He always says, ‘People thought I was too weird, and no one wanted to sign me!’”

Watson, however, didn’t feel it made sense to sign to a jazz label.

“And Dad, you said, ‘Justin can start a label!’”

It was the right call. Watson’s debut album, Close To Paradise, was released in 2006, receiving the Polaris Music Prize in 2007. In 2008, Secret City became an independent label.

Today, Watson is an international star, and Secret City continues to help foster the success of Canadian talents such as the Barr Brothers, Basia Bulat, Plants and Animals, and many others on its diversely curated roster.

Justin counts the Barr Brothers’ 2011 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman and Quebec classical pianist Alexandra Stréliski’s 2019 ADISQ prize and 2020 Juno Award among Secret City’s proudest achievements.

He says much of the label’s success goes back to its roots.

“The wild ride with Patrick Watson’s Close to Paradise was an incredible experience. It opened up many doors. I got to jump on the tour bus and travel with them all over the world,” he recounts.

“And the fact that we’re still releasing music together and are even closer than ever, that’s a great feeling. He’s kind of the foundation of the label, and a big inspiration for me to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible as an independent label.”

While media and consumption habits have evolved, Justin, having grown up learning the old model, reasons that the fundamental ways that music is discovered, distributed and promoted remain more traditional than one might think.

More importantly, so has the spirit of how fans share a communal experience.

“If you think about recommendations, that whole aspect of building around communities – your friends, people with similar interests, and so on – that’s never changed, whether it’s on TikTok or at the record store,“ Justin says.

“Today, someone using your track on social media [is] the equivalent of friends sharing tapes.”

Licensing and publishing agreements mean that Justin Time, which owns the rights to thousands of songs and hundreds of albums, can repackage and reprint music in foreign and niche markets and turn new profits from existing investments as people discover older jazz gems for the first time.

For example, Jim says, a Japanese label will soon be reissuing 85 releases from the Justin Time catalogue.

And in an age when anyone with the Shazam app knows within seconds what that great tune playing on screen is, the sudden re-emergence of decades-old hits on the streaming charts and in popular culture is increasingly widespread.

“We had an Oliver Jones track on a very popular TV show just a month ago, and the demand for it on streaming was pretty significant,” Jim explains.

Justin points out that Patrick Watson’s career got a huge boost when his song “The Great Escape” played in the closing scene of an emotional season finale episode of Grey’s Anatomy when it was the biggest television show on the air.

Looking ahead to 2023, Jim is excited about new Justin Time releases from the Doxas Brothers, the Christine Jensen Quartet and an unearthed, 1958 live recording of Oscar Peterson in Vancouver.

And in the new year at Secret City, Justin is involved with new works from La Force (Broken Social Scene member Ariel Engle’s solo project), Alexandra Stréliski, and vinyl pressings of Watson’s entire catalogue.

“The fun part is developing a young act, seeing an artist for the first time and then watching their career take off,” Jim says.

“The music business, at least in my experience, is hard work,” Justin offers. “But it’s always been a bit about magic, too.”

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