Torontopian indie co-op Blocks Recording Club calls it quits
By Tom Beedham
Over the past 12 years, Blocks Recording Club facilitated an environment of local labour and love. Started in 2003 as a cassettes and mini-CDs-only label operating out of the Tranzac Club, its central goal was simultaneously modest and idealistic: to forge a co-operative economy of nurture and engagement that united around local talent. What resulted was a network of artists that banded skills and resources together to collaboratively produce, physically assemble, and distribute more than 70 recordings. But as years have passed and members have become involved with other projects, the club has slowly dissolved from the hub of enthusiasm it long constituted. Blocks closed its offices at the Tranzac in December, and the co-operative plans to officially shut down later this year.
“It needs a lot of energy to keep it going,” Blocks member John Caffery explains. “It’s volunteer-run, and if there’s not the energy for folks to keep it going, that’s the reality.”
Caffery has participated in Blocks as a musician as well as an elected board member and president of the co-operative, and on Friday (March 13) he will oversee the installation of a multi-faceted Blocks retrospective at Long Winter. Coupled with archival photos and projections of live performances and music videos, the Blocks catalog will be displayed in full, and long-time Blocks project Hank will perform new material. Caffery will also DJ, and Golden Throats Karaoke is programming instrumental versions of Blocks recordings that guests can sing over.
Founded by Steve Kado (the Barcelona Pavilion) and Mark McLean in 2003, the story goes that the tapes and mini-CDs idea left Blocks with McLean when he abandoned Toronto for Ottawa that same year, and in 2004, Blocks released Toronto is the Best!!! Toronto is Great!!!, a celebratory CD compiling music from 23 projects throughout the city (24 if you count the bonus video recording of the Singing Saw Shadow Show), including the Barcelona Pavilion, Kids on TV, Les Mouches, the Phonemes, Picastro, and Bob Wiseman, among others.
“There was always just a sense of local love,” Caffery enthuses.
The next year, the label was officially incorporated as an artist-owned worker’s co-operative. And so, Blocks quickly gained a reputation as an important institution that was expressly focused on fostering creativity and collaboration throughout the local community – something that made it synonymous with the era of “Torontopia” – a moment of cultural renaissance that brushed Toronto throughout much of the 2000s.
“We felt like there were so many exciting things happening in Toronto and we were already connected to that,” Caffery explains. But the limited geographical scene curated under Blocks’s watch was determined as much out of pragmatic fairness as it was by localist utopianism; the co-operative atmosphere Blocks legally identified itself with didn’t require proximity, but it helped. “The reality is, the artist is not gonna come to the make day or the artist is gonna have a harder time coming to the AGM or anything where folks need to participate or collaborate in order to get them something done or make a decision [if they live outside of the city].”
There were exceptions – Blocks worked successfully with Montreal’s Diskettes and Toronto’s sometimes Berlin-based Nadja – but for the most part, the label was comfortable to focus its energy on the neighbourhoods immediately surrounding it.
Caffery is perhaps best known as the bassist and vocalist for the now defunct Kids on TV, a subversive Toronto club-scene outfit that developed a reputation of its own playing unconventional spaces and acknowledging, celebrating, documenting, and collaborating with artists throughout the Toronto (and broader) queercore scene. KOTV’s “36 Pills” was featured on the Toronto is Great compilation, but Caffery says he’s been more thoroughly involved with Blocks since 2007, when the co-op elected him to the second iteration of the Blocks board of directors at an AGM. He says he became involved at an important time in the development of the co-op’s identity.
“It is about putting time in and contributing. So if an artist was amazing in what their output was, but didn’t really lift a finger in terms of contributing to the cooperative, that didn’t really work,” Caffery explains. “I think everyone found different ways to participate and contribute. But that was I’d say a huge objective for what we were doing at that time: trying to find that balance of good to work with and an exciting artist.”
A year earlier, Owen Pallett became something of a poster boy for Blocks when He Poos Clouds, the sophomore album from his Final Fantasy project, was awarded the inaugural Polaris Music Prize and he gifted a significant portion of the $20,000 purse to the co-operative.
“It was incredibly generous for Owen to contribute a big chunk of the Polaris winnings to Blocks to keep that operation going,” Caffery reflects. “It wasn’t about it being in danger at that time, but it was sure a financial boost. It allowed us to plan much further ahead than we had been at that stage. And it also felt like one of our artists was being recognized – this was really exciting; it creates a lot of potential and a sense of hope within folks, and just the sense that, ‘Oh my goodness, these little projects that we’ve got going on are actually being heard.’ And I think it just created the sense for a while that anything could happen.”
And anything did happen.
In 2008 Blocks began exploring new ways to look at art and collaborating, and over the course of the year it began to emphasize incorporating multimedia into its concert events, hosting workshops through the Toronto Public Library and holding a release party for Iris Fraser’s projection art DVD. With Kids on TV, the Phonemes, and Bob Wiseman, Blocks also participated in Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Parkdale Public School vs. Queen St. West, a project that had Blocks artists teach a senior strings class their songs, eventually to perform them together at the Gladstone Hotel.
The next year, Blocks entered a new era experimenting with digital releases. Some albums were made available strictly as digital releases, while Building Blocks – a free digital singles club – released two new songs monthly, eventually culminating in a project-compiling compilation pressed to vinyl.
“I think there was initially a tension there in that the Blocks aesthetic had always been so crafty and DIY – whether it was the Les Mouches album cover where the CD had red string hanging from it, or these little Barcelona Pavillion mini CDs. There had always been this tradition of make days and helping each other out to assemble a release,” Caffery reflects. “In some ways it felt very incongruent to our whole approach, but there’s a lot of artists involved [with Blocks] and different people felt differently, and so we went ahead with that experiment, and I think in terms of digital only, it was helpful. Not everyone is always able to put the time and energy into a physical release – or have the resources, necessarily. So it just made it possible to sometimes fast track [releases] and just get music out.”
As Blocks circles closer to its end, it is understandable that, preparing for the retrospective, Caffery feels more comfortable seeing Blocks close than witnessing its legacy stretched out to include an extended period of stressed and struggling operations.
“I also personally don’t want to see it drag on for years and not really be in a kind of shadow-self; to have a very productive 10 years and then have a very unproductive 10 years. I’d rather get closure on it and be able to walk away feeling really good and satisfied,” he says. Now after 12 years, the tireless, creative minds that made Blocks possible can rest knowing that they affected real change and helped contribute to the collaborative spirit that defines the city’s music scene today.
Read our full Q&A with John Caffery, below. Above photo by Colin Medley.
Long Winter: You’ve been involved with Blocks since at least as far back as 2007 when you were elected to the second Board of Directors, but I know Kids on TV was also featured on the Toronto is the Best!!! Toronto is Great!!! compilation (in 2004).
John Caffery: So Toronto is Great! came out in I think 2004 so I’ve been a part of Blocks since then. Steve [Kado] helped us record the Kids on TV song “36 Pills” in the Cold Floors studio which was just the basement in his house and I felt like at that time many of the artists were playing shows together or collaborating, so there was already a sense of community before it kind of took on a more formal role, and I think that crossed over into lots of different kinds of arts communities just as a sense of collaboration that was happening and trying different things, so yeah. Blocks helped us out with the Kids on TV album  and we were able to do a special Blocks version collaborating with Michael Cuomo who’s a silkscreen artist, and he created the cover art for that. And we shared a studio with Michael Cuomo, and Simone Schmidt – who was in the band $100, who also put a release out on Blocks Recording Club – that was our first 7-inch. So that’s what I mean there were lots of different connections in terms of like, there would be a group of artists here and they would connect with the larger group of artists. I think that’s still happening all of the time, but it seemed particularly meaningful and significant at that time. There were a lot of things kind of emerging.
The process of getting involved with the Board was both kind of exciting because I wanted to contribute and I was really interested in this new model or new way of artists having more ownership and input into the creative process and the release process, and also just figuring it out mystified me in some ways. It was good to be more DIY and hands-on and just work together with folks to kind of figure out how it all happens. I guess I’ve been involved more so since 2007.
At the time of the Toronto is Great! compilation was your involvement with Blocks anything beyond just being a musician that was having their music released by a label?
That was basically my involvement. The idea that we’re all putting on shows together – Final Fantasy and Kids on TV could be on the same bill, even though they sonically, musically were so very different. But it made sense at that time.
And just for clarification did your involvement continue after the new board was elected in 2010 or…?
Yup. Yeah I’ve always been involved – I think just once you’ve been in that position you hold a lot of knowledge and still pieces, so things like the iTunes account were just pieces that I would continue to be responsible for. And I think part of the reason why Blocks is closing now is that the Board wasn’t changing over in a full way. For a while we always had a changeover of folks with experience and folks bringing new energy, but over time I think those roles weren’t really taken up in the same way and it was hard to get folks to put in that time and that energy, which meant that other folks that held pieces were relied on in an ongoing way.
What were you responsible for while you were there [on the Board] (and eventually elected its president)?
Talking about releases, which artists to work with, what made sense – we always had board meetings. It was also a time when the way people were putting out music was changing, so we were trying to figure out, “Oh, do we wanna do vinyl releases? Do we wanna do 7-inches? Do we wanna keep as CDs? Do we wanna go digital?” Those were a big part of our conversations; trying to navigate that as a really small worker’s co-op and trying to produce music locally but that also could be distributed across Canada, and always trying to figure out deals to try and get the Blocks catalog in other parts of the world. That was an ongoing challenge for us. And things like paying rent; picking up the mail; the smaller logistics of running a business like that.
I feel like 2007 must’ve been an exciting year for Blocks. Final Fantasy won the Polaris Prize at the end of 2006 and Owen said he would use the [$20,000] purse to help fund more records for the Club. Does He Poos Clouds fit into the story of Blocks’ success that neatly?
I think it was incredibly generous for Owen to contribute a big chunk of the Polaris winnings to Blocks to keep that operation going—
I don’t mean to cut you off but was Blocks at risk of not continuing at that point?
It wasn’t about it being in danger at that time, but it was sure a financial boost. It allowed us to plan much further ahead than we had been at that stage. And it also felt like one of our artists was being recognized – this was really exciting; it creates a lot of potential and a sense of hope within folks, and just the sense that, “Oh my goodness, these little projects that we’ve got going on are actually being heard.” And I think it just created the sense for a while that anything could happen.
Yeah, so it wasn’t so much that it was at risk. I do feel like there was a lot of energy around the label at that time. But it felt like it was taking it to a different level.
And I’m assuming there was more of a buzz around Blocks as well.
Totally. In terms of respect for what we were doing, in terms of an alternative model, validating in terms of that being legitimate and that we didn’t have to follow the kind of traditional label model. And it didn’t mean that you couldn’t be creatively successful. So that was really exciting. I felt like it was kind of really energizing for the cooperative.
What were some of the objectives that the co-op was working toward at that time?
The main objective was just to put out releases, I think. And to work with artists that we thought… like I mean the artist has to be both interesting sonically and creatively, but also, you want to work with them. It is about putting time in and contributing. So if an artist was amazing in what their output was, but didn’t really lift a finger in terms of contributing to the cooperative, that didn’t really work. So I think everyone found different ways to participate and contribute. But that was I’d say a huge objective for what we were doing at that time: trying to find that balance of good to work with and an exciting artist.
In 2008 in particular Blocks seemed significantly focused on incorporating multimedia into its concert events. There was the workshop you personally conducted with Kids on TV at one of the library’s Make Some Noise Take Some Noise events, and the Windows to Mirrors DVD release party for Iris Fraser’s projection art.
And I think that was also around the time of Parkdale Public School vs. Queen St. West, when— this is a project by Mammalian Diving Reflex where they got a residency at Parkdale Elementary School, and they were looking at the fact that the neighbourhood was being completely gentrified and there was a lot of change happening and artists were moving in, but a lot of kids that had been going to school that whole time weren’t really connected to the artist community, so the project looked at bridging young folks and artists that have both been in the neighbourhood for a while or are moving into the neighbourhood or making things happen in the neighbourhood. And so, the way Blocks was a part of that was that three of our artists ended up teaching the senior strings music class. So it was like grades six, sevens, and eights, and it was Bob Wiseman, The Phonemes and Kids on TV, and this music teacher [Mr. Curry] was actually the teacher at six or seven different schools, and so sometimes had to not teach the senior strings class because they had an assembly across the town. So there was often these gaps that were happening within the school, and this project was looking at how we can address those gaps by making these connections with artists. And so Bob and Magali and Kids on TV would go in and we’d teach them these songs, and I remember Kids on TV teaching the song “A Song For Holly Woodlawn,” which dealt with this person in Andy Warhol’s entourage, Holly Woodlawn, being denied access to welfare because they dressed glamorously when they went to the welfare office. So not only teaching music to this class but also having conversations about class and gender and trans identity. So it was a pretty exciting opportunity. And then what we did at the end was the performance at the Gladstone Hotel with a kid orchestra. So it was Bob Wiseman and The Phonemes and Kids on TV, and we each performed these songs that we had taught the kids over the course of a few months.
So at that time I do feel like there were a lot of creative ways in terms of looking at art and collaborating and who to work with and not just about putting out releases and playing shows.
Blocks was obviously focused on documenting local music and physically getting it into peoples hands, but it also experimented with digital-only releases. There was also the Building Blocks singles club project. How informative were these experiments? What was the reception like?
I think there was initially a tension there in that the Blocks aesthetic had always been so crafty and DIY – whether it was the Les Mouches album cover where the CD had red string hanging from it, or these little Barcelona Pavillion mini CDs. There had always been this tradition of make days and helping each other out to assemble a release. So initially I felt like there was a tension there in terms of what does it mean to go digital only? What does it mean to be on iTunes?
In some ways it felt very incongruent to our whole approach, but there’s a lot of artists involved [with Blocks] and different people felt differently, and so we went ahead with that experiment, and I think in terms of digital only, it was helpful. Not everyone is always able to put the time and energy into a physical release – or have the resources, necessarily. So it just made it possible to sometimes fast track [releases] and just get music out.
At least as late as 2007, Blocks was an expressly Toronto-based undertaking. In 2005 Steve Kado told This Magazine that “It’s really a shame that [the Diskettes are] from Not Toronto,” and “I feel it weakens our mandate to try and tackle a larger geographic territory. It’s hard to talk about a community of people working together when they’re all over the place.” So, three questions: did that attitude ever change or evolve? Was that a collectively held value? Was it a helpful one?
We didn’t do a lot of projects with folks that weren’t in Toronto. So in some ways that attitude did not change. I don’t know that folks collectively felt that it was – what were Steve’s words? That it was a disappointment or a—
“A shame that they’re from Not Toronto.”
Yeah. (Laughs) “From Not Toronto.” And that’s just I think a funny way that Steve talks about things like that. But yeah, I mean the reality is, the artist is not gonna come to the make day or the artist is gonna have a harder time coming to the AGM or anything where folks need to participate or collaborate in order to get them something done or make a decision. And sometimes artists were able to make it work – we also worked with [the alternately Berlin and Toronto-based] Nadja, so the Diskettes weren’t the only example of where we worked with artists that weren’t really in Toronto. But by and large, that was who we were trying to support and who we turned to, because we felt like there were so many exciting things happening in Toronto and we were already connected to that. It made sense with the model.
Blocks has been so important and influential in supporting and incubating the musicians local music scene Toronto has now; what are some of the success stories you think of when you look back on what Blocks did?
I think that the Toronto is Great compilation was a great success. I remember it being one of the first releases that Kids on TV was a part of, and it felt so exciting to be featured on that compilation with other artists that I admired and respected in the city. I think that definitely the success of He Poos Clouds was a massive success for the label. I think that projects like what I was mentioning with Mammalian Diamond Reflex were incredible in terms of artists working in a more social realm in terms of rethinking who the audience is and who we want to collaborate with, and I also think there were really exciting moments just in terms of who got involved. Like Katie Stelmanis was part of the group and would come to the AGM and participate, and now Austra’s doing fantastic. To be part of releasing Fucked Up’s [premier zodiac single] Year of the Dog and then seeing how far Fucked Up has come. So it’s also nice to look back and see where artists that have been involved are now and the many amazing folks that have been a part of the cooperative over the years.
You could also argue Blocks is partially responsible for the Tranzac’s survival.
[Laughs] That’s true. Yeah. So our office was out of there for years and years and years. We just shut it down in December. And there are still some releases in storage there, but really we’re in the process of closing down. We just closed our GS1, which is all the UPCs so the catalog’s not really online anymore… there’s still conversations about trying to figure out how we make things available moving forward and how we commemorate what we’ve done, but yeah – I mean all our meetings were at the Tranzac, we often had a bar tab going with that, as well as many, many shows [set there]. And I think that the last show that we’re going to organize will also be at the Tranzac. So it’s ongoing.
So there’s still one coming?
I think so! Yeah. That’s in the works. I mean there’s nothing official yet, but there’s lots of conversation, I’ll say.
Why shut it down? Do you think Toronto is in a place where it still needs something like Blocks?
I totally think it is still in a place where it needs something like Blocks. And: it’s volunteer run, and if there’s not the energy for folks to keep it going, that’s the reality. If folks have moved on and have other priorities… It needs a lot of energy to keep it going. There’s a lot of different pieces to hold.
I also personally don’t want to see it drag on for years and not really be in a kind of shadow-self; to have a very productive 10 years and then have a very unproductive 10 years. I’d rather get closure on it and be able to walk away feeling really good and satisfied.
So Blocks hasn’t officially shut down yet?
No. I mean, we’ve stopped paying rent, but we still have a bank account, we’re still in conversation about this show, we’re having this retrospective at Long Winter coming up – Hank is going to be playing that, which I am very excited about, and Hank has a new album—
Is it on Blocks?
It’s not on Blocks. But I also feel like Hank is… every other release has been on Blocks but yeah, we’re not putting out new releases. But I still very much want to support what Hank is doing.
What was the final release?
I think it might’ve been Dani Nash, but I could be wrong.
And I think another highlight for me was Owen Pallett’s [30th] birthday, because it was like a Blocks reunion of sorts. It was at Lula Lounge a couple of years ago and it was I think an all weekend birthday fest that was day and night, and he really – I mean, he was friends with so many of the artists, so he just got them to play his birthday. And that was a real highlight, too.
There was always just a sense of local love.
I also think about the music festival Track and Field. That was more of the kind of Friends in Bellwoods community, but there was lots of crossover there, and many, many Blocks would play at those kind of campout weekend festivals and have a blast. And that also felt very DIY and anti-corporate and more about supporting each others’ creative endeavours and less about trying to capitalize on peoples’ artwork.
What can people expect from the retrospective at Long Winter next Friday?
So there’ll be new material from Hank which is very exciting, there will be lots of photos and album art, we’re going to display all of the releases that we ever put out – so it’s over 70 releases – over the 10 years, and video projections of the music videos that people created as well as projections of live performances.