As a member of celebrated electronic music duo The Funk Hunters, the CEO of Westwood Recordings, and the co-founder of Midnight Agency, it's not hard to tell that Nick Middleton has a passion for the music industry.
Covering everything from music production to marketing and more, Middleton is involved in every step of the process. But that wasn't his initial aspiration. In an interview with EDM.com, Middleton tells us that he "never really had music as a dream career" and he believed his passion was in film.
Throughout high school and progressing into college, Middleton worked in film. He made documentaries, taught post-production, and even ran a film school on Galiano Island called The Golf Island Film & Television School (GIFTS).
It was his work at GIFTS that connected Middleton with Duncan Smith, the other esteemed member of The Funk Hunters. "I would go and live there for half of the year for many years… and that’s how I met Duncan," Middleton explains. "He grew up on the island."
There were some locals, but the film school drew in students from all over. That's how Middleton first heard about music festivals—and it was only a matter of time until he went to experience one for himself.
Seeing is believing
"I started going to these festivals and it was like the curtain got pulled back on this whole other world," Middleton said. "It wasn’t just the music side of it, it was like the production side and the tech side, and there was lasers and stages built into the trees, and this whole world that I had never seen."
Middleton recollects that he would "come back every summer with these crazy stories," trying to explain the magic of Shambhala Music Festival to Smith. Anyone who has been to the ineffable Shambhala—or any festival for that matter—knows that words simply cannot do it justice.
"You know, seeing is believing," Middleton adds.
A few years later, Smith decided to accompany Middleton to Shambhala. And that's when it all began. "We came back and were like, ‘We should buy some turntables,’" Middleton recalls.
And that's exactly what they did. There was a learning curve in the beginning as neither of them had ever made music, DJed, or bought records before, he noted matter-of-factly. "We just started it together."
The Funk Hunters got their start DJing at a variety of beach and house parties on the island during the summers. "Instead of trying to cater to a particular genre or sound we were playing for 20- to 60-year-olds at these big island parties outdoors on the beach, or at different houses," Middleton explained. "And so we naturally fell in love with all styles of music, classic and funk, and rock and soul mixed in."
Divide and conquer
Co-creating can be difficult, but these two make it look easy. Middleton credits cohesion as the driving factor behind the chemistry between him and Smith, who have "passions for different things."
When The Funk Hunters started touring, they were not producing music because "it was never a goal." They were DJs, and loved doing just that. But as time went on, Middleton had a burning desire to explore more.
"I actually make and produce all of the music for The Funk Hunters," Middleton said. "I really taught myself over those years how to produce music and engineer, that’s become something that falls into my wheelhouse."
While Middleton handles production, Smith has evolved as a DJ and performer. According to the former, "Duncan's a fantastic DJ and great tastemaker," so he takes the lead on their DJ sets and live performances.
Smith also spearheads the audiovisual components, utilizing his acquired skillset from film school. "We’ve certainly divided duties over the years which I think has helped our partnership and let us be able to do more," Middleton shares with pride.
The label launch
As a new artist, it can be difficult to get the attention of a record label. When The Funk Hunters were ready to release music, they struggled to find the right imprint.
"The labels that were giving us attention weren’t doing a very good job. We felt really underserved," Middleton laments. "The more I looked into it, I realized that we could do it ourselves—and probably do it better—and be able to own the whole part of the decision about how, where, and when we put out music."
So he launched his own label, Westwood Recordings, in 2013. "I really started [Westwood] as an outlet to put out my own music, and then quite rapidly—within months—it was just constant friends emailing and calling being like, ‘Hey, do you want to help me put out my record?’" Middleton quickly realized that the venture could turn into something big.
"Back when we started Westwood, there weren't as many artist-run labels," he said, knowing how difficult it is to run a label in an ever-changing industry. "We saw over the course of a few years a number of artist-led labels pop up and then just disappear. I’m proud that we’ve stuck around and continued growing."
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More than a record label
Like anything in life, the goal is to expand and grow, at all times. When it comes to a label it’s ultimately all about creating more opportunities for artists.
"Putting out music is the most elementary thing. Today anyone can put out music, you don’t need a record label anymore," Middleton points out. "So, the idea is always like, ‘What can we do better or bigger to help our artists succeed? What are we not currently doing? Where could our artists make more money? How could we serve them more?'"
With these core values top of mind, the Westwood Recordings brand expanded to include a number of sub-divisions: Westwood Sounds, Westwood X, and Westwood Radio.
In partnership with Splice, Westwood Sounds is a series of sample packs that "allow our artists to have another revenue stream to create content for other music producers," Middleton explains. "We have a number of new packs finished and ready to come out in the new year."
Westwood X is a sub-label that was designed for "new artists that came to us with just a few songs finished that didn’t feel ready to be put through the full label system." The goal is to build a foundation and ultimately graduate the artists up to the Westwood roster.
Westwood Radio is a monthly mix series featuring special guests from around the world. One of their latest episodes highlights "The Best of 2021" from the Westwood label.
"I don’t really even refer to it as a label very much these days," Middleton said. "It’s hard to pinpoint what the best word is to describe Westwood—or other labels out there—but it’s like a community or a platform or a music company."
Getting the music out to the masses, whether on Spotify or Beatport, is just one part of it. "The other aspects around the business that we had built out is certainly touring and branded events," Middleton added, "as this helps get the artists onto the stage."
A monster collab
Back in September, Westwood Recordings teamed up with fellow Canadian record label Monstercat to curate a special compilation album, Compound 2021. The eight-track collection was curated by Middleton, providing the unique opportunity to highlight Westwood talent on a Monstercat release.
"I've always really admired the way that they’ve structured the company and how they serve their artists," Middleton gushed about Monstercat. "They have a really great international roster and I think they recognized we have a really solid Western-Canadian artist roster."
"The idea came up about [Monstercat] potentially looking—if restrictions allowed—to bring their Compound event back in person this year," Middleton said. And, as it just so happens, Monstercat went on to move their headquarters to Vancouver.
Naturally, Nick was honored, saying the team at Monstercat "let us really take the lead and book our own lineup and do our own stage." The event was a huge success with nearly 10,000 people in attendance, the largest turnout they had ever had at the annual event.
By artists, for artists
Middleton also launched Midnight Agency alongside Grant Paley last year. Their new boutique artists agency is about taking back control for the artists, building new revenue streams, and navigating ever-changing demands in a mercurial industry.
"Most people would look at this time as the worst time to start an agency, but I actually look at it as the opposite," Middleton admits. "The pause on touring actually afforded us the luxury that you wouldn’t normally have to think things through."
Without the distractions of a busy touring schedule, Middleton and Paley were able to take the time to build out the company, hire staff, figure out how they wanted to serve their artists, and what they could do that’s different. "If we truly ever wanted to start a new agency, this would be the time to do it," Middleton added. "I think Canada was ready for a new agency."
This gap in the market was easy to identify since Middleton has been so immersed in the scene and knows just how frustrating it is to be underserved as an artist himself. Progressing from an artist, to a label head, to an agent just made sense for him.
"By artists, for artists…" he said. "Because I wear multiple hats, I can hit pause for a second and have the perspective of an artist. ‘Does this deal make sense? Does this tour make sense? Does this release make sense?’ Not all agencies or record labels can do that."