Tales of the Tape: Cassette Culture in the Digital Age

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden.

In his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz slaps us with a provocative theory: The modern consumer’s unlimited freedom of choice is actually a burden that leads to anxiety and unhappiness. Schwartz isn’t culling ideas from Orwell’s 1984, but from extensive research into the psychology of “want”. Think about the last time you ate at a restaurant with a textbook of a menu. How long did it take you to order? Did you change your mind a few times? Did you suffer any ‘buyer’s remorse’ once you did make your decision? Too much choice can leave us paralyzed by the decision-making process, or at least hungrier for longer than we might have been otherwise.

I think of The Paradox of Choice whenever I find myself standing on a street corner for 10 minutes, scrolling through my iPod for something to listen to. These sad and desperate search missions are all too regular, and the messages locked inside my diverse musical library feel strangled and homogenized by the medium. Like visiting record stores in my youth, excessive choice overwhelms me to the point where I forget what I wanted to listen to in the first place, if there were anything in mind at all. I’m even worse at this with all-you-can-eat streaming services like Spotify. The last time I got caught in a scrolling wormhole, I longed for something I hadn’t thought about in years: my cassette Walkman.

Tapes had personality. They had weight and substance when you held them. They had artwork and stories behind them. Sometimes you carried a favorite tape around with you, just because. I remembered the art of a good mixtape: Whether you were making them for a girl you had a crush on or as a soundtrack for your own driving, cleaning or moping, things like pacing, fit, and flow needed to be considered. Most importantly, tapes were the antidote to the Paradox of Choice. You had to love the music on your tapes because you couldn’t hit a scroll wheel to skip to another artist if you didn’t.

This is textbook nostalgia of course, but there’s a growing segment of the population that feels it. Much like vinyl, cassettes have made a comeback, not as a challenge to the sales might of digital downloads and streaming services, but as a niche alternative listening experience. It’s time to meet the people in your analog neighborhood.

Anatomy of a Cassette Label

“I am embarrassed to say what my first store-bought tape was,” says Em Brownlowe. Along with partner Rachel Rhymes, Brownlowe runs the aptly named Cassingle and Loving It cassette label out of Portland, Oregon.

“Rachel and I are too poor to release the amount of music we want on vinyl…so cassette seemed like the next best option. We had both wanted to create labels for a long time to create a scene or document bands that we love that are happening right now. Plus tapes are inexpensive to make and to buy and are much more convenient to carry around at a show than vinyl or CD. Just stick it in your back pocket, man, and continue dancing!”

“Restraint” from Seattle band Orca Team, on Cassingle and Loving It

Cassingle currently has nine releases, and Brownlowe and Rhymes are now working on a 20-band compilation culled from open submissions. Although it’s a small operation, Cassingle receives orders from as far as Germany, the UK, Australia and Spain. They also do a healthy business at Portland’s Record Room, where Rhymes has a display full of Cassingle releases, in addition to hundreds of other ‘guilty pleasure’ cassette tapes from the good old days of analog.

Their releases are usually limited to runs of 100 and are dubbed professionally on high-quality chrome tape, a process that can sometimes take up to two months. During that lull, Brownlowe and Rhymes help bands prepare press releases and submit digital versions of music to various review outlets.

They are searching for that sweet spot between nostalgic longing and contemporary convenience, as evidenced by their mission statement on the Cassingle and Loving It website:

“It is our hope to reconnect people to a collectible item that could end up decorating a desk, be blasted loud through a car stereo, or looked back upon fondly under the delicate spell of nostalgia in years to come. We also will not forget the new era of the music industry… music downloading and the natural desire to listen to music in many ways and spaces…”

Digital download codes, along with online extras such as video, artwork, and bonus tracks are also included with each cassette package, a practice that Cassingle has picked up from the vinyl industry. It’s one that may help explain the recent resurgence of both formats: Collectors enjoy having their own private party (vinyl or cassette) but don’t want to be shut out of the bigger one (digital media) just for doing so.

The Lo-fi Curator

Stephen Bishop had more pragmatic reasons for starting his own cassette label, Opal Tapes, of Redcar, England. It was “simply finance,” he told Oli Wawrick of Juno Plus in an interview earlier this year.

In the beginning, Bishop deliberately sought out electronic artists with zero visibility, often searching Soundcloud with filters that looked for songs and artists with the least number of listens, in order to release their music on an archaic format. For this, he has garnered significant attention and turned a decent profit.

This hardly makes sense in the edgeless world of the Internet, where hype is currency and real money never seems to materialize. But cassette culture exists in a brick-and-mortar world, and in this world, if the price of the goods you’re selling exceeds the cost, you’re in the black, no matter how small that sliver of black may be.

When Opal Tapes began gaining notoriety, interviewers wanted to know about Bishop’s division of labor: who did the design, the mastering, and so? They were often surprised to find it was just one man, Bishop himself, alone in his bedroom. So much for overhead.

Basic House- “I’m Not a Heaven Man” on Opal Tapes

But Bishop’s path in starting Opal Tapes was also a reaction to the Paradox of Choice. While making his own electronic and noise music under the name Basic House, Bishop and a friend came up with the romantic notion of spending six months in an isolated wooden cabin in an Irish valley, where they hoped to make music without distraction or outside influence. The plan backfired:

“It totally broke apart a lot of the things that I was doing with music at the time, and coming out of that I became incredibly unproductive. In fact I started to really dislike the process of a lot of music and a lot of art. Part of it was tied into the Internet, at the age where so much of my listening and my appreciation of art was being guided by the increasing speed of my Internet connection.”

This rebellion against the ephemeral nature of the Internet is at the heart of cassette culture, or at least in its subconscious. The music on Opal Tapes has a closed-in feeling. It speaks to smaller worlds and sacred spaces, like the bedrooms of those who make and listen to it. It isn’t a conversation with the world so much as a secret whispered into a friend’s ear.

Demand has forced Bishop’s hand in creating a Bandcamp store with digital releases mirroring the cassette ones, his principled reluctance ultimately giving way to the notion that the music and its availability mattered most. And as apprehensive about digital music as he can be, Bishop is no luddite. The success of his cassette label is due in great part to his relentless marketing efforts on the Internet, an irony that isn’t lost on him.

Still, Bishop will always prefer analog – its simplicity and grit – as well as its ability to become a part of the music itself. As he noted in the same Juno Plus interview:

“If you run a tape label, no matter what music you throw onto a tape, if you always use the same tape stock and the same duplications then that’s almost like the fifth band member… It adds a filter to things, and so everything has a timbre which is associated only to my duplication.”

The Music of Consequence

Jesse Krakow is a New York City bass player with a resume that includes collaborations with The Brooklyn Philharmonic, Japan’s Ruins, The Shaggs, the Captain Beefheart tribute Fast ‘N’ Bulbous, and even an ill-fated audition for Puff Daddy’s backing band.

In 2003, Krakow began an ambitious project revolving around 4-track tapes and registered mail:

“At the time I was obsessed with Half Japanese and the whole ‘bedroom band’ vibe, of how quickly & cheaply you could make music, and how anyone could make a tape. I was touring a lot and becoming friends with all these amazing musicians from around the world, people who I couldn’t be in bands with because we didn’t live in the same city. And then I thought ‘what if I just send cassettes to all my friends around the world and we all overdub on top of each other on our 4-tracks and become a band for this one album?’”

The result was Krakow’s “band” We Are the Musk Brigade. Multiple albums were pieced together track-by-track by musicians the world over who knew Krakow, but often not each other. While this aspect was the main attraction for Krakow, he was also intrigued by the limitations and danger inherent in the medium:

“Tapes are so easy, so cheap, and yet not that reliable. Plus, people lose them easily. I wanted that sense of disposability in the band. If one or two people work on a tape and then send it to someone who loses it – which has happened 4 times – then perhaps it wasn’t met to be. And thus the “band” breaks up and the album is never finished.”

These errors of chance were part of the process from the beginning.

While making We Are The Musk Brigade’s first album, Sand Dunes & Beef Balloons/Our Best Is Too Good, one of the participants lost the original cassette master during a move. The final version comes from a dubbed copy of a quality that Krakow calls ‘particularly gnarly’. And The Musk Brigade’s 2004 album, Lori’s Songs, was built on the back of a 25-cent home tape of the same name Krakow found in a Christian thrift shop in the South:

“When I listened to it I discovered it was about 30 minutes of the worst romantic piano playing ever… I started “learning” these songs the best I could, and overdubbing bass onto it. Then I sent the tape to Joe Quinn (of Rated R) who added vocals that ranged from grindcore to spoken word to crooning. Then I gave the tape to Chuck Stern (of Time of Orchids) who added detuned guitar. The result is one of the most oddly inspiring faith albums I’ve ever heard. And there is NO way it could have existed without taking a cassette from GA and bringing it to NYC. All the wav files in the world couldn’t have made THAT happen. That’s a chance thing. They don’t sell mp3s in the bargain bin at Southern thrift stores.”

Singular Experiences

If cassette culture’s aim is to reestablish meaningful connections between artist and listener by bringing music back to tangible media, then James Fella takes the concept to its logical extreme.

James Fella’s “Singular Set” Tapes

Fella runs Gilongo Records out of Tempe, Arizona, distributing mainly 7” records and a few CDs. The Gilongo catalog does contain one cassette item, however: Fella’s ‘Singular Set’ series, one-of-a-kind improvisations that Fella records directly on to tape, then sells or gives away, and never sees again.

“If I had some new gear or ideas that I wanted to test out – I would just record that process. I generally do not “practice” my solo material- it’s as improvised as it possibly can be – but on occasion I would run through an idea and capture that on tape, too…I may not make any tapes for several months, but then make a batch of 20-30 over the course of a few days. They run anywhere from 10-25 minutes or so and are usually made from recycled cassettes.”

Fella estimates he has created 300 to 500 tapes for the “Singular Set” series over the years. Prices range from free, to an average of $4, to as high as $8 when a tape is significantly longer than usual, or it includes any bonus material, like Fella’s writing.

Like Stephen Bishop of Opal Tapes, Fella notes that it is possible to make a (small) profit with non-existent overhead and engaged collectors. But the real appeal is in his belief that the cassette is the most direct way to get his music from point A (his head) to point B (the listener’s ears). When he records directly on to a tape and hands that tape to someone at a show, there are no middlemen in the equation. It’s a direct and personal conversation between the listener and himself.

“One might come out a specific way and I will feel compelled to give it to someone that I think will specifically enjoy it. If someone orders a bunch of things from my label or distro and some of it is in that sort of vein I might throw one in their package. They are good to have around. Bedroom currency! Recycled analog trinkets, whatever! They are cheap, but do offer a connection that is specific and special and I know that if I was at a show and an artist was selling something similar, I would buy a few without thinking twice.”

Plastic Memories

The arguments against tape have all been made and their conclusions borne out in the marketplace. Despite hip-hop’s affectionate use of the word ‘mixtape’, Rick Ross is not in fact buying 2-packs of Maxells from the 7-Eleven to dupe his favorite tunes. Digital media rules the day.

In cassette culture, we find the same metaphor that drives all those post-apocalyptic sci-fi blockbusters: humankind has focused so much on building the newer, faster, smarter machine, that we don’t even notice when they begin to take over our lives, potentially ruining them. Despite countless technological advancements designed to make our lives more ‘convenient’, news stories that suggest we’re more depressed than ever keep popping up like clockwork.

Cassette culture isn’t about being part of a world-wide Web, but about having something to say to the person next to you. It isn’t about the quantity of music that you possess, but the quality of the experience you have listening to that music. Digital music immediately removes at least two of the four senses present in experiencing traditional physical media. Gone completely are touch and smell, and what we see is often reduced to what fits on a tiny computer screen. (If you gained some perverse pleasure out of chewing on your tapes or licking your vinyl, you would be out of luck there, too.)

Although we may hear primarily with our ears, just as we taste primarily with our tongues, you wouldn’t eat a gourmet meal while blindfolded, with your nose plugged. If you did, what would your memory of that meal be? What value would you ascribe to it? That last question becomes even more important within the context of the ongoing global debate on music piracy: Is piracy the cause of a perceived devaluing of music, or the result? When our musical lives are forced into the ether – into ‘clouds’ and the file folders of millions of identical brightly colored boxes – when music exists as only so many ones and zeroes, should we be surprised when listeners have trouble assigning value to it?

In the movies, a small band of rebels rises up to fight the machines. In real life, they trade 80GB iPods for 8-song cassettes.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Industry Trends, May 2013, Most Popular, New Releases, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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