Reel to Real
The culture of cassette tapes
Remember when music on vinyl was pronounced dead? That was soon proved wrong when even “hit” groups like Pearl Jam released LPs. If you paid any attention to underground and indie bands, you knew that vinyl never went away. It was just quietly in the background like stealth spyware on your computer, waiting ...
But what of the format that was predicted to replace records long before CDs came along, those slim plastic boxes first known as compact cassette tapes? While they’ve never retained a following quite like vinyl, recent years have seen a resurgence in tape releases as well as an wealth of cassette-only labels.
Despite breaks, stretched tape that distorts sound and warping of the plastic shell, cassettes have a durability that digital can’t match. One glitch can render a whole compact disc unplayable. A sharp blow to an iPod can trash your entire music collection with one fumble. It takes a lot to make a cassette completely unplayable. A piece of scotch tape isn’t really good for the playback heads but breaks can be fixed. Many cars still have tape players; and since older vehicles weren’t designed for a quiet ride, who gives a damn if the fidelity isn’t high? Even if you wreck a tape beyond all playability, what are you out, five bucks? Finally, never discount the diehard music fan’s fetish appetite.
Via electronic communication, I asked a few locals that still release music on cassette a simple question: Why cassettes?
Jeremy Barnes, whose latest project (with guitarist Brian Gillespie) Bee Wing/Stop Balding is out on tape, answered, “Why do we do it? I don't know. But then again, Heather [Trost] and I did release a ’78 RPM A Hawk & A Hacksaw record about a year ago. So there is a pattern.”
“They're fun to make and they go quickly,” says ambient musician William Fowler Collins, who’s released two cassettes this year. “I feel that each medium has its own distinct qualities. I grew up buying cassettes, and I like how things sounds on tape.”
On a decent sound system, the denigrated “tape hiss” can bring a dimension similar to the warmth of vinyl, both of which are closer to what the ear hears rather than sharply defined digital audio.
Raven Chacon of noise/experimental micro-label Sicksicksick Distro cites “the possibility of an analog/mechanical format that can serve as a three-dimensional art-craft object.” It’s no surprise that many “cassette bands” are art students who are interested in creating more than mere music. Most are deeply involved with presentation far beyond sleeve art and liner notes: covered in aluminum foil instead of shrink wrap, tied in mesh bags or nestled on fur (!) in little boxes.
“I was allured to release more transitory perspectives—many of which better serve as documentation of a moment than a concise album,” says Daniel Brigman of Featherspines. “It seemed that in a push to grow as fast as possible, an increasing number of bands forwent the process of releasing a ‘demo tape’ and immediately had CDs or vinyl with barcodes all shrink-wrapped and, to a certain degree, factory assembled. I just really missed the demo tape.”
“My label generally releases music that only a small segment of the population really love,” continues Chacon. “Every cassette sells out faster than any other format, regardless of artist. I believe they have become a collectible series of items to my regular customers.
“Also, cassettes are the only recyclable music physical format,” he says. “There is an energy that exists in every cassette hinting to you that anyone could record their very own masterpiece over it by simply covering up the tabs and pushing ‘record.’ ”
Chacon summarizes the core spirit of cassette artists: “This isn't about selling the most units, nor comfort, nor popularity; otherwise my label would be trying to force-feed you the next Lady Caca.”