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

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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13 comments
(.V.)
(.V.)

I didn't get burned out on tapes so much as Sam Goody, Hastings (remember them?) stopped carrying them in the mid 90s, and Borders (remember them?) never did. They all moved on to CDs claiming that they were soooo superior. I don't think 3 formats is silly at all. They all have relative advantages and disadvantages. There are still small labels doing CDRs too, just not as much press devoted to them at this point in time.

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robthom
robthom

Eh.

Just being weird for weirds own sake isn't as avante garde as it used to be IMO.

Its kinda been done already.

There is nothing lovable about the sound quality, mechanics or storage of tapes.

There never was.

I would almost agree with him that they're cute. But for someone who had to wrangle those gawd awful things throughout my youth they carry more bad memories than good ones.

Although they're probably much cuter to kiddy hipsters who've never had to deal with one before.

Like backpackers who suddenly discover graffitti and boomboxes after everybody else has already moved on.

Anyways, good luck fella.If it sells go for it.

dontdomusicformoney
dontdomusicformoney

"People buying cassettes are too young to remember why we got burned out on cassette labels in the first place" this sums it all. as a kid growing in the 80s I quickly dispossed of cassettes as soon as I got my first cd player,and the same thing happened to cd players once I was able to get digital backup. cassettes were bothersome, the tape was easily broken, it was hatefull to have to rewind and fast forward over and over to get a certain song. nothing beats digital practicity. you can have as many things as you want and not have to worry when you have to move permanently to a different addres or city. music is what matters, not how its presented

robthom
robthom

"nothing beats digital practicity."

Tapes are not records.

There are absolutely no advantages to be found going back to tapes.

All disadvantages in a package larger then an 80 gig MP3 player.

But if he's packaging the thing in extravagant paints and velcros and all that, then its actually more of an art piece.

Which would justify it.(Justify the method I mean.)

And I'm assuming that the quality of the music is a secondary concern to the packaging.

Raymond
Raymond

So it's cool to make mixtapes again?

Billy Sprague
Billy Sprague

ahh yes, a nice array of mostly Pro's for the Tape! well deserved... CD's coming back in 10 years as a cool thing to press? I THINK NOT)))))) nice article Sam!

Shahramimen
Shahramimen

I knew I held on to that NAD dual tape deck for a reason. Don't ask me if I bought it new but I'm old enough that I could have. Sweet words!

 

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