Cassette tapes are back in the mix
Cassette tapes are back in the mix
The format's low cost and no-sweat portability have made it attractive
beyond the nostalgia set.
By August Brown, Los Angeles Times
August 1, 2010
>> "When the vinyl LP began its modest but highly publicized commercial comeback a few years ago, the format felt easy to love again. With sprawling artwork, pristine sound quality and the adoring ritual of flipping album sides, its return united young bohemia and their boomer parents alike.
Not so for the lowly cassette tape. To mainstream music fans who spent
the '80s detangling spools with a paper clip, listening to heat-
damaged sounds warble out of the speakers and blindly fast-forwarding
and reversing to get to a favorite song, cassettes might be the most
despised, instantly discarded and fidelity-challenged medium to ever
vie for mass popularity.
"Tapes remind me of Dollar Stores and K-Mart," said Chris Jahnle, the
22-year-old co-founder of Kill/Hurt, a new Hollywood record label
specializing in small batches of outré noise-rock released on
cassettes dubbed in his living room. He's no Luddite Jahnle works in
a major label's digital marketing department, and co-founder Katrina
Bouza just wrapped up an internship at the hotly tipped L.A. indie
label IAMSOUND Records. They know that "tape is like the weird uncle
no one talks about," Jahnle said.
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And yet across pockets of America and especially among shoestring
record labels, DJs and boutique stores in Los Angeles, this weird
uncle is again a welcome guest. A tiny but busy tape-based music
culture is growing from roots in economic necessity, thrift-store
crate-digging and, yes, a pride in being difficult for its own sake.
But cassettes also carry a different nostalgia, one not tracked by
SoundScan. They evoke high-school mixes from nascent crushes and trips
to the beach soundtracked by sun-bleached tunes recorded off the
radio. The emotional archaeology of trawling through shoeboxes of
cracked cassettes has a resonance that iTunes doesn't offer.
After all, Jahnle said, "Mp3s sound terrible anyways, so why not have
something that sounds terrible that you can hold?"
Originally marketed for dictation and portable voice recording, mass-
produced cassettes became a format for distributing music in the U.S.
in the '60s. Their notoriously sub-par fidelity improved throughout
the '70s, and with the rise of the portable Sony Walkman in the 1980s
and as automobiles came equipped with standard cassette decks, the
tape became a second viable mainstream format alongside vinyl LPs and
later compact discs. (The less said about the 8-track tape of the
1970s, the better.)
Like Mp3s, tapes compensated for their relatively degraded sound
quality with portability and, notoriously, the ability for fans to
record and share music. This sparked a small panic now impossibly
quaint among record labels worried that home taping would gut retail
But even as the compact disc usurped it as a mass medium as early as
2007, pre-recorded cassette albums constituted only 0.05% of all
SoundScan-reported album sales, and in 2009 only 34,000 were sold
those convenient features kept the cassette alive at the musical
For artists in fringe genres such as noise and garage-rock who want to
document their music but only expect to sell a few copies, home-dubbed
tape remains an economical godsend. By trawling eBay with a few
hundred bucks, an artist or novice label head can buy used duplication
equipment and bang out a hundred copies over a weekend.
"Tape fits in with a belief system of how intimate music is made,"
said Britt Brown, co-founder, with his wife, Amanda Brown, of the
Eagle Rock-based Not Not Fun, which releases much of their catalog of
psychedelic, noisy rock by bands such as Pocahaunted and Robedoor on
cassette. "And I've never seen such voraciousness as in people who
want a limited-run tape."
That fetishistic quality is part of what has sustained the format.
Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, a longtime tape aficionado, curated a
2005 book, "Mix Tape," dedicated to the art and culture of homemade
tape culture. For years, the L.A. label Deathbomb Arc nurtured a
subscription club of home-assembled tapes for artists such as Lucky
Dragons in editions of 100. Not Not Fun has released cassettes wrapped
in medical gauze and cassettes taped to beer cozies (with a lukewarm
beer inside it).
Demand is high enough for labels like the La Puente-based Bridgetown
Records and Fullerton's Burger Records to put out dozens of strange
and abrasive projects a year and turn a self-sustaining profit. The
cost of professional duplication is also low enough usually less
than a dollar a copy with artwork that editions of a few hundred
make economic sense, unlike with CD or vinyl duplication.
The office of Burger Records is a clear case of how the long tail of
cassette culture can eke out a small, thriving business. Founded by
Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman in 2007, the label's principals have a
kind of spacey, goofy energy that's lost to modernity and are most
animated when enumerating favorite forgotten '70s punk acts or
trawling through vintage surf-movie VHS discards. The retail arm of
Burger, on an exurban stretch south of Cal State Fullerton, offers
reams of coveted and kitschy vinyl and ratty couches for weekly movie
But Burger's ear for big hits in small genres gives its releases a
reliable cachet that larger labels salivate over. "We sell out of
every single tape we do, and I know Sub Pop is listening to everything
we put out," Bohrman said. Burger usually issues batches of 250 and
charges $6 a copy, though some high-profile releases by bands like the
Black Lips get 1,000 pressed.
Their business model doesn't allow for huge profit margins. But their
acumen is dead on. The aforementioned tastemaking Seattle indie label
Sub Pop signed two Burger-anointed acts (Jaill and Happy Birthday),
and Burger throws high-profile parties at festivals such as South by
Yet like with vinyl, there is an upper threshold of sales that tape
culture will support. You'd be hard pressed to find a store in 2010
selling new cassette decks, even if Los Angeles has a unique advantage
in this culture, where unlike in New York, most local fans of
squalling noise-rock also own junky '90s sedans with tape decks.
But tape culture rewards magpies of tossed-off stereo equipment and
thrift-store digging. Mark "Frosty" McNeill of the L.A.-based DJ
collective Dublab recently revamped his cassette-DJ night at Silver
Lake's Hyperion Tavern, which highlights the weird universe of found
"Tape was really cheap to make, so you can find things like voice-
therapy cassettes and far-out Third World pop," said McNeill. "I
remember Ariel Pink gave me a tape of his stuff that had clearly been
dubbed from one tape to the next, so it was one of the worst-quality
things I'd ever heard, but that also made it also one of the
The format, however, will probably stay resigned to Internet mail
order. Only niche outlets like Los Feliz's Vacation, the Fairfax
district's Family bookstore and Chinatown's Ooga Booga make shelf
space for new releases. Duplication companies still in the business
work mainly for Christian audiences dubbing sermons or academic
presses printing lectures.
"Tape orders have definitely picked up from almost nothing in the last
couple years, and it's been almost entirely indie bands," said Michael
McKinney, the president of M2 Communications, the Pasadena-based CD
and DVD duplication plant where Burger presses its cassettes. M2
issues between 6,000 and 10,000 tapes a month at around 70 cents
apiece, McKinney said, a number clearly down from its '80s heyday of
hundreds of thousands but up from its '90s and '00s doldrums of
The second wind of mass-produced cassettes may have a mechanical
expiration date as well, as the motors, gears and tape heads (which
read and amplify the information on the cassettes) used to manufacture
the format become scarce. "It's a novelty, and it will die down,"
If the format is to continue thriving, it will be in homes like the
Browns', where a life's worth of tapes spill from every cabinet, and
at stores like Burger that will haunt the dreams of obsessed record
nerds decades in the future. The reasons tape failed in the mainstream
is why it's thriving in the margins today it's cheap but durable and
It's not the stuff of huge industry money, but it still holds an
"I get so nervous around iPods," Amanda Brown said. "If someone made a
hot-pink ghetto blaster, I swear that every kid at Hollywood High
would have one."<<
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