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The local DJs have bucked the pandemic trend and hosted online shows for tens of thousands of fans
Like all artistic endeavours, The Funk Hunters are products of a physical place and a community that made them. Liverpool made John, Paul, George, and Ringo; Trenchtown made Bunny, Bob, and Peter.
Nick Middleton and Duncan “Dunks” Smith, headquartered in Victoria, are the celebrated DJs known as The Funk Hunters. Middleton and Smith met as teenagers on Galiano Island at the now-shuttered Gulf Islands Film and Television School (GIFTS) .
GIFTS ran summer camps for children and residencies for adults, and provided an artistic milieu that nurtured artists from all over North America. “A lot of amazing people from around Canada and abroad would come through Galiano to work at the film school,” Middleton explains. “It was a bit of a creative hub.”
The Funk Hunters’ origins at a film and television school is significant—the DJs’ live performances incorporate live video mixes helmed by Smith, and those have now arrived on the social media platform Twitch.
The duo spent 2019 criss-crossing the globe on their award-winning Typecast Tour, but now, due to the pandemic, they’ve traded massive sold-out live shows for crowdfunded livestreams on Twitch. In doing so, they’ve done what few bands managed to do before them: to translate the energy, creativity and—yes, even some of the profitability of a live concert—into an online venue.
Technology is a big part of what they do but their story equally starts with a love of music, which was also inculcated on Galiano Island at GIFTS. “When I was like 15-16 years old, I met some other filmmakers that told me about a festival called Shambhala Music Festival,” Middleton said. “And it kind of started to introduce us to this festival culture. In the summers, I would go with some of them to some festivals around BC.”
The festival culture became their own culture, and Middleton and Smith started spinning records together in 2006. After two years of honing their skills at parties on Galiano Island, Smith moved to Vancouver in 2008 with Middleton joining him there a year later. By 2010, they began taking their craft more seriously.
Part of the secret to their success is that The Funk Hunters have made a practice of building community around their work. In Vancouver, they hosted self-promoted underground shows featuring other DJs. These early shows served as incubators for the musical community they have spawned locally across Western Canada and now around the world.
In 2010, The Funk Hunters played the Shambhala Music Festival and something magical happened onstage. They have been invited back every year since. Being a returning local act at one of Canada’s longest-running electronic music festivals was a springboard for the duo to build a solid following in BC and Alberta. In turn, the community around them gave The Funk Hunters the financial foundation to extend their following across Canada, the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
In 2013, they started their own music label, Westwood Recordings (where they again feature other artists), and in 2018 they were invited to remix U2’s Love is Bigger Than Anything in its Way, which reached #1 on the Billboard Dance Club Chart. Their 2019 Typecast Tour was so well-attended that The Funk Hunters received a Road Gold certification from the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) in acknowledgment of selling more than 25,000 tickets for their 2019 Canadian tour alone.
Then COVID-19 happened. Live music stopped. Raves, festivals, and clubs shuttered, and like so many others The Funk Hunters’ wild ride ground to a halt.
Having relocated to Victoria in 2018, Middleton has continued to live and work here since the onset of the pandemic. For Smith, when the lockdown started, he left Vancouver for Galiano Island. He intended to only stay for a week but has been there ever since. For artists with such a grueling touring schedule, the initial lockdown, while unexpected, wasn’t actually unwelcome.
“When the pandemic hit, it was like, OK, everything's going to stop now,” Smith said. “And I think a lot of touring artists will say this: it was a really nice break for us.”
Middleton continues to focus on his work in the studio managing Westwood Recordings, and through the pandemic, he has started a new agency for Canadian artists. Early on in the pandemic, The Funk Hunters were invited to participate in the first ever live-streamed event on TikTok: the 48-hour Music Lives festival. Startled and excited by the more than 300,000 people watching their set, that event inspired them to start exploring the world of livestreaming about once a month on Twitch. “I was curating some live shows, and I didn't really see much of a future in the livestreaming world,” Smith said.
Discouraged, Smith took some time off to “smell the flowers” on Galiano over the spring and early summer, but with the pandemic dragging on with no end in sight, he took a second look at livestreaming and hasn’t looked back since.
“I kind of realized it wasn't about doing like, you know, one show a month that's perfect. It was really just about doing it a lot,” Smith explained. “And I just went in and started livestreaming and not planning anything. And it was a very different experience. It's very, you know… raw. It's completely improvised.”
The more relaxed format and the sheer number of hours Smith spent livestreaming started to catch on with their most devoted fans and has helped The Funk Hunters expand their “Funk Fam” community all over the globe. Since March of 2020, they have streamed over 486 hours, with over 93,272 unique viewers who have watched more than 64,000 hours—nearly 8 years, all told—of video on The Funk Hunters Twitch channel.
Twitch is the leading live-streaming video service for video games in the US. In 2014, the year it was purchased by Amazon, Twitch was the fourth-largest source of peak Internet traffic in the United States. With more than 100 million viewers per month and 27,000 channels, the platform offers access to a lot of eyeballs (and ears). It now includes cooking shows, podcasts, pundits, e-girls and e-boys, and purveyors of ASMR—people who sometimes suggestively whisper you to sleep—and almost every genre of music under the sun.
Twitch channels can be viewed for free while offering paid subscriptions for followers to support and interact with their favourite content provider. Subscribers can send messages to the channel hosts in real time and send emoticons that float over the screen and liven up the livestream in a video-game-like display of silly and colourful graphics.
The Funk Hunters launched their weekly show, The Detour Drive, in June 2020. “I was actually going to launch it in May and then the whole Black Lives Matter movement really blew up and there was so much kind of social and… racial turmoil,” Smith recollects. “And I was like, OK, I'm going to need to redefine what the show is. And so when I originally launched it, I really wanted to use it as a platform to raise money, to raise awareness.”
Between June and September they raised over $5,000 for various organizations, including Raven Trust, Black Lives Matter Vancouver, SPCA, Red Cross, and Good Night Out Vancouver. But as the pandemic wore on, the cause became the artists themselves.
“Eventually, we realized that, although it was incredibly rewarding to raise money for charities, the artists we were having on, often they could use some money and our fans want to support the artists,” Middleton said.
“People want to give their money to something they're connected with,” Smith added. “The amount of messages I've received from people through Twitch… just saying that, you know, if it wasn't for my livestreams or the livestreams of others, they'd be in a really bad place right now. And I think what we've done is actually really helped people’s mental health at this time by creating a sense of community.”
Each week, The Detour Drive features Smith spinning a set of music with up to three or more guest artists and some compelling interviews with fellow artists and producers. Considering Smith hosts and produces the show live by himself on Galiano Island, the production values are remarkably smooth. The Funk Hunters were well positioned to turn their festival show into a TV show because Smith had previously assembled and curated over 1,100 videos he used prior to the pandemic, as part of their live show on tour. During The Detour Drive, he seamlessly fades between the music he is spinning and music videos.
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Equally impressive, The Detour Drive seamlessly switches between Smith’s livestream on Galiano to that of his guest artists in places as far flung as New York City, London, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC. To accomplish this they work with a third party company, Digital Demi Renegades, which acts as an online stage manager with a central server managing the incoming livestreams. “During the show… I have a separate window where I'm communicating with them and it's literally just like live TV. They're doing countdowns like five, four, three, two, one—that type of stuff,” Smith explained.
Streaming a live set of one of your favourite DJs spinning records in their living room makes for a pretty intimate experience. It's like spending time with one of your favourite artists while they explore and play around with their craft. Smith seems to be enjoying himself immensely—something he corroborates. “In a lot of ways, I've been more fulfilled as an artist doing this kind of DJing… because it's like I can do it whenever I want, for how long I want, play whatever I want and really be myself.”
With the nearly 100,000 viewers The Funk Hunters have found on Twitch it’s clear the intimate format has resonated with their fans as well. “It's the same conversation we've been having for a decade in the music industry,” Middleton said. “Is it better to gate your music and say you can only have it if you pay for it, or is it better to give it away so it reaches more people?”
On Twitch, they’ve proven that the latter approach is financially viable. The Funk Hunters have nearly 23,000 followers on Twitch, a small core group of people that are really loyal and continue to pay to support the show. Compared to their tours, the gross revenue generated from livestreaming is far less. “But the expenses also don't compare,” Smith said. “We're kind of keeping ourselves afloat and, more than anything, I think just keeping music and art alive for our fans and for us.”
For now, The Funk Hunters are living in the moment while their eyes are wide open to the devastation COVID-19 has brought to the live music industry, both locally and around the world. During a recent broadcast of The Detour Drive, Smith said, “Touring will come back, but it will never be the same.
“How many independent venues are going to be open after this? Not just for the music industry, but for all industries, it's like the mom and pops are getting swallowed up by giant corporations.”
This has real world implications right here in Victoria. Capital Ballroom is owned by MRG which has enough resources to close and return after COVID, while Logan’s Public House is closed permanently. “People like us would never have started our career if we didn't have independent promoters to work with,” Middleton said. “Before you have an agent and before you're big enough to play for Live Nation, a lot of the time you're playing in the smaller rooms in each city, and that's how you build a career.”
The Funk Hunters are keenly aware that this inward and online Twitch journey has expanded their community and craft in unexpected ways. Middleton’s sense is that with livestreaming they are “cultivating way stronger fans.” And that when touring resumes the fans they’ve drawn in on Twitch are going to be first in line to purchase a ticket.