Lo-fi loyalty: A look at cassette resurgence
Like vinyl records, hissing cassette tapes were on their deathbed more than two decades ago with the introduction of CDs. What cassettes lacked in sound quality, CDs made up for. However, the discs were more expensive and they only replaced the hiss annoyance with skipping players, scratched surfaces and data rot – not to mention they could not fit in the back pocket of your tight jeans. Gone were both the jeans and heavy metal tape-trading that defined the ’80s.
So it’s no wonder some tape fideles yearned to bring the beloved reels back. As it turns out, cassettes faded but never fully burnt out. In fact, they are making a comeback in the world of tangible music.
“Tapes have become an acceptable medium,” Sidoli says over the phone. “So to me that constitutes a resurgence. You never saw them anywhere, and when you did you thought it was ridiculous. Now Jay Reatard could release a tape and people wouldn’t bat an eyelash.”
With Telephone Explosion Records in its second year and looking to profit, it is now focusing more on LP sales than tapes, but indie tape labels have been popping up all over the world for years. (See list at article’s end).
“We were born out of necessity. We were at the right time, right place,” he says of TER.
Indeed, a slew of high profile bands are on the magnetic train, from Health to Fucked Up. Dirty Projectors recently released its fifth album Bitte Orca on cassette, while Deerhunter put out a limited edition tape for show attendees only.
The Tropics and DD/MM/YYYY, and Bennifer edition tapes sit behind the cash at local record joint Rotate This. Clerk Marco Landini points out, “a lot of bands are doing it again,” adding that from a retail point of view it has gotten slightly more popular for garage and indie bands. Online it is the experimental, noise and lo-fi genres with the bulk of the releases. In fact, the Godfather of no wave and experimental rock Thurston Moore gushes over the format in his book The Art of Cassette Culture.
Realistically, however, it looks like tapes are going to stay underground, despite hope from the recent resurgence of vinyl sales. Last year tape sales represented just 0.1% of all music sales in the U.S., according to the Recording Association of America; even audio-books, in actual need for tape technology (stop-and-pick-up-where-you-left-off), stopped being sold in tape format last year.
“It’s entirely a niche market, not everyone wants to listen to them,” says Brett Wagg who runs small cassette label Campaign for Infinity out of his house in Montreal , so far having put out around 25 releases.
What is pushing this niche? Three things.
Cassette revival is thriving on the very thing audiofiles eschewed it for: Low fidelity sound. And that acceptance may be coming from the digital realm.
“Myspace was the main proliferator of lo-fi streaming,” says Sidoli. “I remember thinking there’s no way people will listen to that, but now there’s a generation so young and so used to harsh digital music, they even find it endearing. For 16 – 18 year olds, there’s definitely a market.”
Teens today are used to listening to their favourite bands on YouTube, Last.fm or myspace.com, and are accepting convenient ‘lo-fi’ options over quality (more expensive) ones – what Wired magazine calls the Good Enough revolution.
When Wagg duplicates his master copies of bizarre-effects pop band The Pink Noise or the psychedelic Ultrathin using his cassette duplicator, the assumption of the matter is, this is punk rock – who cares about quality?
“The quality’s not necessarily important because the music in and of itself is already of lo-fidelity,” he says. “If you record something in your house on a four-track, it’s not going to sound infinitely better if you did it on a CD release. A lot of the stuff goes from the four track to the master cassette and it will never touch a computer at all, and there’s not really that much loss of quality in that instance — there’s no digital information that’s being cut out.”
Though there are instances for which important sounds can be lost.
“If there’s a lot of dramatic studio effects that have been done to it, then you might lose a bit of that quality.”
Wagg’s answer to the quality issue is he will provide an mp3 for them to actually listen to. He has a page on the WFMU New Jersey radio station’s music archive hosting his digital tracks for free.
It sounds a bit redundant to use both formats, but Wagg is serious.
“Some people are initially just interested in purchasing it for the packaging, but then they have the quality mp3 they can download.”
“It’s substantially cheaper, at least 50% less than any other medium,” says Wagg.
Unlike vinyl, which costs thousands of dollars to press at a plant, tapes merely require a master copy and a duplicator. Commercial-grade duplicators, once worth thousands, are available on EBay for $50, according to Sidoli. “It’s definitely cheaper to release a cassette than an LP… CDRs are in a similar cost range, but I prefer working with cassettes,” he says, adding he prefers the DIY art and packaging coming with tapes.
“(Costs) depend on how it’s packaged,” Wagg agrees. “You don’t necessarily need the plastic case, you can use home made artwork and people love that.”
Wagg’s costs come in part from his small-scale archaic distribution method. “Canada post is getting really awful, their rates are going up.” It cost on average $2.50 to $3 to ship it, so he charges $8 (postage paid) per tape online. In person he sells them for $5.
Both Wagg and Sidoli agree there is little chance of profiting huge off their endeavors.
“We have to be selling a lot of tapes to profit,” Sidoli says. “And there’s been times we’ve had money left over, but it just goes into making the next batch of tapes. It has to be a serious hobby to consistently break even.”
“At this point it’s starting to pay for its costs,” adds Wagg. “But for the first year I was paying for the cost of all the supplies out of my own pocket … But I’m not trying to do it to make money.”
Sidoli says in the end vinyl is “the only medium to make profits with something tangible. It’s actually opposite to tapes which don’t do a large run but are cheap to make.”
It appears tapes are a feasible way to do small, special runs. Which brings us to a possible conclusion – more than a viable format for mass production, tapes are just a form of retro-cool collectors art, meant for limited editions.
Tapes may be more akin to the vintage pop corn blower sitting in one of your parent’s kitchen cupboard – still useful, cheap and giving a special flavour – but will you ever use it?
At Rotate This, Landini has his own skepticism of tapes as a viable format: “It seems people don’t have the (tape) players,” he says, suspecting people might be buying them as “nice artifacts.”
More than just a “hipsterati”-fuelled revival, tapes-as-artifacts could be a nostalgia thing. This writer’s Techno mix tapes series 1-30, with its signature choppy dubbing job and two-second mash-ups still gets a play on the old ghetto blaster from time to time. Whole communities were formed through ’80s heavy metal tape trade and before that UK “cassette culture” in the late-’70s early-’80s post-punk period. Fans would read fanzines and build networks of mailing art.
Like any old fashion or format, tapes have the potential to come full circle.
“People are wearing Doc Martens, so it goes to show right there nostalgia is a factor,” says Sidoli.
And just like those Docs: “There will always be people who scoff at it.”
Friday Dec. 11 is your chance to scoff at (or support) the tape label community at the two year anniversary of Telephone Explosion Records at Wrongbar with Montreal’s Demon’s Claws, Ottawa’s Holy Cobras, and Toronto’s Actual Water, and Sun RaRaRa .
- Marsha Casselman