Building Blocks: a little Toronto music collective gets NME props
- August 7, 2009 2:27 PM |
- By Arts Online
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
This week, the folks at UK rock magazine NME published their annual Future 50 list, a round-up of the innovators who are changing the face of contemporary music.
As with any broad overview of this nature, the Future 50 is highly subjective. There are certainly some questionable entries on the list: I’d rather be cryogenically frozen than face a future dominated by the likes of Boulder, Co. electro-hop trio 3Oh!3, who resemble nothing so much as a Lonely Island short.
But along with bigger, somewhat boring names like Lady Gaga, Trent Reznor and Beck (who’s done what, exactly, for music of late?), there was one delightful surprise: the tiny, Toronto-based Blocks Recording Club, which was listed as the 11th-most influential entity in the Future 50.
Blocks is an artist-run collective that’s probably best known for releasing Final Fantasy’s He Poos Clouds, which won the inaugural Polaris Music Prize. Founded in 2003 by Steve Kado and Mark McLean (both members of local indie bands), the devoutly DIY label-cum-art co-op has gone on to release music in myriad forms (mini-CD, cassette tape, MP3, vinyl and even good old compact discs) by a roster of equally wide-ranging artists. The acts on Blocks range from opera-trained art-pop singers (Katie Stelmanis) to electro-punk performance artists (Kids On TV) to baroque hardcore groups (current buzz act F---ed Up).
Katie Stelmanis, Believe Me
As Brian Joseph Davis, a Toronto-based writer and artist and member of the Blocks Board of Directors, explains, “we’re known for musical diversity, and we’re just looking for good ideas and good music. Essentially, we’re just there to help people get [their work] out into the world in the way that’s most appropriate for them, whether that’s a proper record, a digital-only release, or some strange DVD package.”
In contrast to the traditional strategies used by the record industry, Blocks is based on a co-operative model. (The Club officially incorporated as a workers’ co-op in 2005.) A board of five elected representatives, of whom Davis is one, runs the whole shebang. They and other co-op members take charge of the nuts and bolts of running a label, from getting records pressed to handcrafting elaborate posters and packaging.
“It’s nothing but a learning curve,” laughs Davis, who handles promotional duties. The Blocks crew elects new board members each year, during their annual general meeting. Davis, who joined the board two years ago, is stepping down this year “to open up that space for new blood.”
The question most people ask about Blocks, Davis says, is how the economics of the Club work compared to those of a conventional record label. The crucial difference is that, for the most part, Blocks splits the inventory of each album with the artist. The creator keeps all profits when he sells the album on the road, while the Club handles record store and mail orders.
“It works well,” he offers, “because we’re not dealing with weird, abstract concepts from the record industry, like royalties and the like. And there’s no transference of rights, so the artists own their work and can sign to any other record label. I know the openness is what attracts people.”
The collective has benefited from the “second-hand success,” as Davis puts it, of some of their artists. The success of F---ed Up’s album The Chemistry of Common Life, which was released by the U.S. label Matador and nominated for this year’s Polaris Prize, could lead to an increased demand for the band’s 12-inch single Year of the Dog, which was released by Blocks.
“This is the future,” he states. “It’s not going to be about one big record deal. Artists can come to us when they want to put out an absolutely uncompromising record, and if they need the resources to do something bigger, they’ll go to Matador or somewhere because we just don’t have very much money.”
Kids On TV, Breakdance Hunx (Market Value Mix)
“Punk guilt is a big part of Blocks,” Davis continues, “and we’ve certainly argued about [getting named one of the Future 50] and struggle with it, but the overall feeling is excitement, no matter what. An international magazine putting us at 11 on a big list will only bring more attention to our artists, and if that helps us put out more great music, then bring it on.”
Was Davis surprised by any of his fellow Future 50 nominees?
“I was a bit surprised that we were higher up than Sweden on the list. I think Blocks is good, but are we better than the entire country of Sweden?”
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