Early this year, the Blocks Recording Club announced it was shutting down after 10 years. The Toronto-based label was run as a workers’ co-op, and released records from Final Fantasy (including the Polaris-winning He Poos Clouds), Fucked Up, Katie Stelmanis (pre-Austra), Bob Wiseman, and dozens more. Blocks was a key mover in the early-2000s “Torontopia” moment, a joyous celebration of Toronto’s underground music scene. The city the Rest of Canada loves to hate suddenly found itself offering an inspirational model for local communities. Steve Kado was a co-founder of the label, president of its first board, and member of some of its prominent bands including Barcelona Pavillion and Ninja High School. Today, he’s a visual artist and composer who divides his time between Toronto and L.A. I spoke to Steve about the history and legacy of the label. Malcolm Fraser: Tell me about when and how the idea for Blocks first came together. Steve Kado: Like a lot of things I think it came together out of frustration. On the one hand Mark McLean and I were both doing and seeing music we thought was exciting, but also we had just had pretty negative experiences with prior bands, and we thought we could have a better personal relationship with people and goals in music that would be more interesting. Kind of the normal reason why people do things. Also, the recording industry, which had seemed very opaque, was becoming more transparent — home recording was getting really easy and powerful, so there was a whiff of possibility around the idea of issuing recordings. How did you decide on the workers’ co-op model? After Mark took off for Ottawa I worked with Lisa Graham to run the whole thing and eventually, it was getting out of control. There was too much for me to do, people volunteered but there was no structure to it, no responsibility outside of just “ask Steve.” Also at the time, there was a lot of talk about “collectives” in Canadian Indie Rock and I felt like that collectivisation was phony, those decisions were all getting made by one guy not a group decision-making process — so I felt like it would be interesting to try the opposite approach, to make the entire thing democratic and primally socialist, like an agricultural co-op or a credit union. Also, that artists would be the only ones with a stake in what got released, there would be no suspicious middlemen involved, just musicians working with musicians. In the indie-rock industry, with something like Arcade Fire, you have so many people working on it that it becomes like a version—a much less serious version—of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” where people are just cogs in the machine without any direct connection to the music. The hope was that if it took off and worked there’d be a huge shortcut around these weird bureaucrats in Canadian Pop Music and we’d all be “free” or something. It was a stab at producing more solidarity between us Toronto musicians and in keeping ourselves “punk” in at least a marginally legal sense, while at the same time reducing the amount of vile capitalism that circulates in a place where maybe we thought it shouldn’t circulate? Initially I had these fantasies of pan-sector solidarity: like that we’d bank at a credit union and form alliances with farmers and unions and such. But the co-op secretariate of Ontario was singularly unhelpful. I went in there imagining a grand union of agriculture, physical and cultural labour and they were like “please go away, we’re very busy.” That kind of overarching solidarity did not materialize from the other side of the co-op world. Can you tell me about how that worked on a practical level – what did the organization look like? On a practical level it meant that every year there would be board elections and members would go to an annual general meeting and vote for people to be on the board. Releases would require board approval. The hope was that instead of volunteers burning out they’d just stand down come the next AGM, and there’d always be a competent and motivated core staff running the whole thing. I’m not sure it ever worked that way. Which isn’t to say that the board system didn’t bring in some very competent people, but it also would really drive some of those people hard, they’d burn out and sometimes on their way out there’d be really gnarly fights. It brought people together, but you can’t always control what happens when people get together. What are some of your favourite Blocks releases? I like a lot of them: the best Blocks releases are the Hank records we put out. All those records are amazing. Blocks had a policy of (almost) exclusively working with local artists, and you were very passionate about the Toronto music community in the early days. Do you still feel that way? I like a lot of music from Toronto still—Healing Power Records, Man Made Hill, some Daps bands, obviously New Fries… I think a lot of the regionalism I was pushing for was kind of misplaced. The music community I belonged to was so focused on a small part of downtown Toronto with a few suburban offshoots that it didn’t really cover Toronto properly. Like a really big deal in a really small area. Looking back now I wish I’d figured out a way to describe what it was like in Toronto. To grow up there. Maybe I just didn’t do a good enough job? Tell me about the decision to close Blocks – what were the reasons behind that? There are lots of reasons. One: nothing was really happening. Nothing had happened at Blocks for a year. There hadn’t even been an AGM in a while. People had drifted off. Two: the music industry objectively changed. Do you really need to make some CDs? Everyone listens to music on their phones and computers, you can distribute it to them in a totally effective way through something like Bandcamp at a fraction of the price it would take to do it physically. It’s even easier now to record music yourself. You don’t need even the flimsiest mediator anymore. Most of the distributors that were like taking me to lunch back in the day being like “Hey kid, let me tell you how the music biz works…” are closed now. Their jobs don’t exist anymore. And major distribution doesn’t mean anything. It would be better to have a great relationship with eight great record stores in the world. In a way Blocks’ goals were achieved but in an entirely different way and for entirely different reasons. For most of the music Blocks dealt with something like Bandcamp would have worked out fine. Are you sad about Blocks folding, or are you philosophical about it? I have mixed feelings. I don’t blame anyone for the way it faded out, but it’s the problem with a lot of collective projects: people change and it doesn’t have the same place it did in their lives, and then it doesn’t get passed on to another generation. I can’t be sad about it. Everyone’s doing great. There’s still great Hank records, Bob Wiseman’s records, Owen Pallett’s new record is the best he’s ever made. But I am sad that… I was hoping to get out of this weird culture dungeon and broaden the universe. I’m still kind of sore about that. And the packaging side of things, that it went towards expediency and not towards making outrageously beautiful objects forever. But there were reasons for those decisions. Would you have any advice for someone trying to start a label and/or artists’ co-op today? I would say starting a cultural thing within the co-op sector from my experience was needlessly hard given how idealistic and posi I was at the time. If you are at all less posi and less idealistic than me in 2004 then don’t do it. It’s hard to dissolve co-ops. If one is tanking it’s easier to let it just drift than it is to shut it down, you have to get people together and it’s hard to get people together, least of all if they all left off working at the co-op with slamming doors and mic drops. By doing things in this weird different way we also talked our way out of getting any fancy funding like all those labels that have FACTOR Direct Board Approval do. So when we were trying to do things like mass-releases of Final Fantasy records we had to do that all ourselves, whereas something like Last Gang would have gotten a bunch of dosh to ramp up for production like that. So in a way it wasn’t that smart. If I was giving someone advice now I’d say start small, work with your friends and keep it clever and small. Don’t produce piles of records that might risk sitting around in boxes and do most of your distribution via the internet. Make the thing you do make really special and in small amounts.