Words by James Nason
As 2020 continues to fade into dusk and newer things brighten into contrast, Westwood Recordings finds itself standing, maybe a bit more battle scarred by the year that was, but gazing steadily forward into both a return of familiar loves, and an embrace of some new channels and developments that are here to stay. If we can filter out the scary and unpleasant things everyone is so unfortunately familiar with at this moment, there were some real bright spots that can give us a glimpse of the future.
Music lovers’ greatest sadness has been the shuttering of festivals and venues around their communities, and that has led to 2020’s other great success, shadowed as it may be by the context of live music shutting down: livestreams. Something that originally felt like a way to stay connected and engaged during lockdown times has pivoted and started to become an established and expected part of the music and promotion ecosystem. An avenue of creativity that was not really on the radar before this year has become a massive traffic source that really shows no signs of stopping in the future.
“I think the two standout successes this year have been The Funk Hunters channel and Stickybuds’ Different Strains show,” Nick Middleton, Westwood’s label head, shares. “[The Funk Hunters] became a partner with Twitch a couple of months ago and Duncan’s been streaming up a storm doing a weekly show every Tuesday called the Detour, as well as streaming three, four, five, sometimes six times a week on Twitch. We did some calculations and he’s had something like 2.1 million minutes watched just since September.”
Though The Funk Hunters are among the most established Western Canadian dance music acts, those numbers are astounding and point to a global scope of connection and engagement any artist would only dream of in the past. Just take a gander at Dua Lipa’s pioneering online show that was downloaded 5 million times in its first weekend to see how far that phenomenon can go at scale.
“Also Stickybuds, Tyler designed this conceptual show called the Different Strains show, [where] he worked with an amazing animator and visual team to put together an immersive environment for his show, and I guess I’m biased but I think it’s one of the highest production level shows on Twitch right now, and he’s been doing that every Wednesday [since the spring]. That’s a space that wasn’t on any of our artists’ radar prior to the pandemic, and that led to some cool collaborations. We were only a handful of labels in the world invited to participate in Twitch’s Soundtrack product they just launched, which licensed our catalog of music and made it available to their video game streamers.”
As platforms like Twitch find ways to legitimize their revenue streams and sort out some of the complications around rights and distribution, such dovetailing of promotional live streaming and music licensing via products like Soundtrack show great promise for artistic engagement and compensation, and we’ve strived to stay on top of those developments as they grow. With the scope of the audiences it’s hard not to see the potential.
“It’s been remarkable to see the size of the audience,” Nick continues. “When we look at the numbers of an online festival or just for an individual artists’ account, a lot of the artists are actually connecting with and engaging an audience that's a lot larger than what they would play to on tour. It's not like, ‘Let's do some live streaming while we wait for the world to turn back on,’ [because compared to] all the roadblocks of touring, the high financial cost, the travel time, airports, airplanes, the limitation of the finite number of people you can play to, we are seeing exponentially higher numbers on Twitch.”
“The audience we’re also finding is more engaged than what we traditionally see at a show. Most of the audience on Twitch is sitting there one on one with the screen, chatting in the chat and watching the entire show, so that’s been really fascinating. Some of the artists have built an incredibly loyal new following on a new platform that’s paying attention, is engaged, buying merch and sending donations, so they’re going to be really rewarded when touring turns back on.”
With new developments like this gaining steam, it feels like a genuinely new development on the live music scene. Moving forward there’s no reason for an artist not to livestream from the road, be it on stage or in their hotel room, and continue fostering and cultivating these tremendous communities they’ve started to engage with. There’s massive potential in the space, and now that the genie’s out of the bottle there doesn’t seem to be much reason to put it back.
“It’s been a really golden moment for livestreaming,” says Nick, “and we saw that in the numbers in the spring and summer. It felt like a competitive space in the summer but we were also competing with the outdoors, and you can see from the numbers that once the fall hit and people went back inside and lockdowns tightened again the numbers just blew up. It will be hard to replicate that as we go into the next year or two and touring turns back on, but what's clear is it's here to stay, and it will be part of some artists’ careers going forward forever, and there will be a hybrid model. Maybe it lets you tour less, we don’t know, but for sure it’s a new medium to connect with fans that we just didn’t have before, so whether it’s premiering a new album, talking with fans, doing a weekly show, playing between tour dates, that’s all still to figure out and depends on the artist and their fanbase but it’s definitely going to stay a part of their careers going forward.”
“The amazing thing is the way we have our Tuesday show built, part of the idea is to give our platform to other artists, so we have special guests appear on the show. They could be high profile guests like Felix Cartal, but there’s also guests that are just personal fans that maybe don’t have a big following, so the neat thing about it is we could be anywhere in the world and still do that show, as long as there’s an internet connection and a DJ setup and a camera, we can still log in Duncan can DJ and host the show, and we can still cut to these special guests. The flexibility is amazing.”
Luckily, there’s been more on the docket in 2020 than artists livestreaming from their living rooms and studios. One of the most notable projects on Westwood’s roster this year has been a reimagining of a legendary hip hop record: Chali 2na’s Fish Outta Water, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. As Nick and the rest of the team connected with Chali during this rare moment when he wasn’t constantly touring, four of that album’s most notable songs were selected to highlight with a re-release. Chali collaborated with House of Vibe and his regular collaborators from Ozomatli to craft new instrumental elements and recordings, and all of the vocals were re-recorded to give fresh 2020 takes on some of that record’s legendary tracks.
One particularly special musical nugget was also Kotek’s “Index,” a track Nick highlights as one of the most exciting songs of the year on a production level, so that one is absolutely worth a stream or five if you’re looking for something new and interesting.
Beyond new performance technology, it’s safe to say that artists have never had more time to create music and refine their art, you only have to check out Westwood’s top 20 tunes of the year to get a feel for just how inspiring and amazing that material has become. That pent up creativity is something we’ve tried to pivot and leverage for our artists in the meantime, and with large scale festivals and touring out of the picture for now an exciting new platform has shown a lot of promise: sample packs and production material. For artists who put so much time and effort into their music, it’s hugely beneficial to them for us to maximize the exposure and revenue they can leverage from that material, so we partnered with music production subscription service Splice this year to provide a new angle for artists to push the material they own onto the global music stage.
“To put it in a nutshell,” shares label head Nick Middleton, “there’s never been more people ever in the world making music because the barrier to entry is so low. Any kid with a laptop that wants to make house music or hip hop beats or whatever can buy Ableton and get a subscription to Splice, it’s a huge market right now. We’re always just trying to think about how we support our artists and how we create more revenue streams for them ... Maybe they’ve done a campaign all year of singles and an album and then they can go back to the studio and actually break out a lot of the sounds from that album that they made and are original to them, and record more new sounds and put together a sample pack and it becomes a whole new asset they have that we can put on Splice and sell in download stores.”
To that end, Westwood debuted those projects with a launch sample and preset pack by production whiz Kotek, which has gained traction on Splice, as well as linking with buskers-turned-festival juggernauts Too Many Zooz for a distinctive sample pack, and another collab with Chali 2na for a hip hop vocal pack. Between the financial boon and the marketing win of linking up with new artists, the sample world has shown some great promise for 2020 and beyond in terms of supporting artists and giving them new places to grow within the industry.
Ultimately, 2020 has provided some frustrating lessons, but as always art reigns supreme in peoples’ consciousness. “The thing that we were taught this year is that our industry, at least live music, is first off, and it’s going to be last to be back on,” Nick says. “That’s really hard to stomach for a lot of people. There’s a lot of unsung heroes, and just a huge workforce across the country and across the world that aren’t the first people you think of in that industry. The first people you think of are the artists or maybe music venues... but there’s tens of thousands of really talented techs and lighting people and tour managers and staff and bus drivers, and the list just goes on and on of the number of people we interface with when we have a big tour going on. Those people are also part of the equation and I think they get forgotten a lot, so that’s really hard.”
“For me personally, my concern is the artists, that's who we deal with the most, most of the other people are contractors or contracted by the artist team, but I’d be lying to say it wasn’t a stressful year. We felt a lot of pressure to keep the label going so we could keep offering all of our normal label services and support to our artists, and we’re really involved in a lot of our artists’ careers, more so maybe than a traditional label and always trying to work on bigger more exciting marketing projects and ways to help them finish music and put it out, so it was definitely a stress to try and keep our lights on for that reason.”
It was daunting to manage not just the typical personal stresses but also to be on the bottom of the priority list in terms of support and restarting. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of art’s demand it is more easily taken for granted, but for whatever reason it’s become obvious that as things shift and change in the world of public health responses, all the things that make artistically oriented peoples’ lives worth living (music, art, physical connection, meals on the town) have been the things we’ve lost almost entirely. As different industries get floated in the news and political press conferences, live music and performance related industries are never even mentioned directly, let alone given support or priority.
Nick, someone who maintains not just his livelihood but that of label staff, sees this and struggles in his own way: “The sad realization is that our industry is definitely singled out, and I can see why for some reasons, and other reasons don’t quite make so much sense. I think there’s ... a bit of awakening this year for people that I’ve seen, to put a positive light on it ... that a lot of people who maybe took their nightlife or just listening to live music for granted, really woke up to this feeling of, ‘Oh man, this thing that gives me a lot of hope or happiness or that I connect with emotionally, it’s hurting right now and how can I support it?’ We saw fans, more than government or anything, really step up and support artists they love, and we see that in donations on livestreams, people buying tickets to livestreams, merch sales picking up way more, people making bigger donations and buying music on bandcamp, people streaming and playlisting, and more than anything being more engaged with the art they love and the people that create it. We’ve seen that across all industries of art this year... people who are often also hurting but supporting more than in traditional years.”
“Often our industry looks like a frivolous thing, it’s nightlife culture and it’s associated with partying, but that's just one aspect of it, and I think at the end of the day the industry is about music and it’s about art. Fans have a real connection to it, it’s something people turn to and look to when times aren’t good. It’s a soundtrack to happy times but it’s equally something you look to for escape and inspiration and creativity. When that’s threatened, it’s neat to see people step up and realize that. Art going back throughout history has always been a big part of human life, art is human struggle, it’s sad to see it not respected and looked at in the way that other parts of industry are. It’s part of the artist’s dilemma isn’t it?”
Art isn’t just essential to the human experience, it literally reflects and defines our lives. As irritating as it’s been to see so much sacrificed from that space, it’s impressive and notable to see just how critical it still is to all of our lives. It’s not an exaggeration to say that creative expression has literally kept us sane this past year, and no matter how hard the capitalist culture makes it for artists and their fans to survive and connect, it’s always going to happen no matter what.