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Cassette-Only Labels Are Thriving, But Is It Just a Fad? 

Wednesday, Dec 21 2011
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With vintage tape duplicators whirring beneath a dizzying backdrop of art supplies, busted keyboards, and shelves of tapes, Billy Sprague describes his long-term relationship with cassettes and the outlandish art that accompanies them. After praising at length the format's financial practicality and sonic warmth, he pauses, smirks, and offers another, perhaps underappreciated quality of cassettes: "They're cute."

Sprague runs Sanity Muffin, a modern cassette label that follows the path of vaunted indies like 4AD, Rough Trade, and Factory. In the '80s, those houses explored die-cut, fold-out packages, custom screenprinted snap covers with buttons, and Velcro. In today's mp3-happy music universe, Sprague and many other locals keep the analog tradition alive by releasing innovative music on cassettes, often with bizarre artwork. Out of the North Oakland studio that doubles as his label's headquarters, Sprague writes music for his own projects, Galena and Tristeza, creates the art for many of his releases, and duplicates the cassettes himself. Sanity Muffin typically releases tapes in editions of 100, and they usually sell out. Since his first, a split with Bay Area hip-hop experimentalists Drape and Odd Nosdam that immediately sold 250 copies, Sanity Muffin has put out cassettes in a wide spectrum of genres, including psychedelic pop, experimental noise, and black metal. And it is only one of many creatively flourishing tape labels in the Bay Area.

The Oxford English Dictionary recently removed the term "cassette tape" from its concise edition, but sales of the format are up 50 percent from last year, according to Nielsen Sound Scan. That doesn't include sales of cassettes by local labels such as Sanity Muffin, Beach House, and Two Thousand Tapes, which duplicate tapes in-house, operate outside the traditional distribution cycle, and frequently sell out their releases. But why the resurgence of what many regard as a dead format? The quality fans most commonly praise is financial practicality. Sprague revels in the fact that he can release five tapes for the cost of a single CD. And with independent tape releases retailing for around $6, the format appeals to consumers who prefer analog tone, but can't always afford the high cost of vinyl.

George Chen began releasing experimental and noise cassettes on Oakland-based Two Thousand Tapes in 2009, after he acquired 2,000 blank cassettes on Craigslist. According to Chen, Two Thousand Tapes' focus on noise and experimental music was not intentional. Within the niche his label serves, artists "basically hand out cassettes like they're business cards," he says. Among these musicians, Chen says cassettes have remained a vital format.

There are even artists whose "sole endeavor is exploring the decay of magnetic tape," says Collin McKelvey, cofounder of San Francisco-based Beach House Tapes. Since 2008, McKelvey's label has focused on releases by local artists producing experimental, noise, drone, and dark ambient music. Many of its sold-out releases explore what he calls the "phenomenon of an object" — the cassette's odd, malleable qualities. Magnetic tape is altered by the elements it encounters. These artists enjoy the continued development of their music as each tape undergoes organic changes that result in warbling, distortion, and tonal fluctuation, which uniquely alter each listener's experience.

Local rock groups such as Thee Oh Sees, Hunx and His Punx, Shannon and the Clams, and Bare Wires have released cassettes on labels like Burger Records in Fullerton, and other local labels have found success releasing rock on the format. After witnessing a single performance by the Traditional Fools, Kyle Crawford cofounded the Wizard Mountain label to arrange the first release of his new favorite band — on cassette. He continued to release small runs of tapes by S.F. groups such as Ty Segall, Rank/Xerox, and Grass Widow. "Cassettes have more integrity than a CD," Crawford says. "The sonic limitations can be fun."

These founders also share a fondness for the immediacy of tapes. Conceivably, music could be performed, recorded, duplicated, and distributed within a day. All of these labels expedite that process for their artists.

Not everyone is a fan of cassettes. Allan Horrocks, co-owner of Aquarius Records — a San Francisco store that jokes that its new motto is "The store that's old enough to think it's funny we're selling a lot of tapes again" — believes that having three formats "is a bit silly." The store stocks many independent cassette releases, but, Horrocks says, "People buying cassettes are too young to remember why we got burned out on cassette labels in the first place." He predicts that "in 10 years, releasing a CD will be the cool thing," and worries that the format's novelty eclipses the importance of the music.

Although the resurgence of cassettes is easy to attribute to nostalgia, most supporters say it is the intimacy, practicality, and imperfections of format that they find endearing — as well as its social dimensions. With the Internet now the dominant means of discovering new music, many enjoy the way cassettes harken back to an era when mixtapes were laboriously crafted and passed along like secret handshakes between fans. Chen even argues that the most significant achievement of cassettes is "documenting relationships between people." Tape-only labels in the Bay Area are trying to keep that habit of documentation alive.

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Sam Lefebvre

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