Spool And Rewind: The Joy Of Cassette Tapes.
Like many others, Clinton's reaction to the announcement last year of Cassette Store Day was of the "What are they going to do next, 8-Track Day?" kind. But he's come to love tapes again. Here's why.
Over the last year or so my relationship with cassettes has changed in a drastic fashion. For years my old cassette collection stayed in the attic, untouched, unloved, kept for nostalgia reasons, mix tapes from old friends gathering dust alongside tapes bought for a pound when Newcastle's Our Price decided they weren't worth stocking anymore.
Then, one early morning at a Car Boot Fair, I decided to take a punt on a cassette player for £5. My initial reaction to inserting one of these old tapes into the machine was, 'How damn good does this sound?' Soon afterwards, the reclusive American singer-songwriter Bill Fox released a rare album of new material on tape only. No vinyl, no CD, no download, just tape. I had to have it, and now I had something to play it on.
I chuckled when Real Estate released 'Days' on tape, but soon I was buying similarly relatively mainstream albums on the format when the record companies decided to do so. York's Bad Paintings label have released the last five Guided By Voices albums on tape. This is great news for spendthrifts like me who balked at paying £14 per week for each new Guided By Voices album. Buying the tape for a little over a fiver was a perfect way to keep up with Bob Pollard & Co's ramblings without breaking the bank, especially as I'm of the generation that just doesn't deal very well with downloads.
But how did such a hook -up come about? "We’re both big fans so we asked if we could do something for Cassette Store Day and both the label and Bob Pollard were in to the idea," says Jonathan from the label. The idea fits perfectly into the label's aesthetics, ethics, and practicalities:
"In terms of actual releases, we’ve done more on cassette than any other format. Firstly, it’s lower risk from our perspective – the investment is a lot smaller than vinyl for example, so we’re able to release more. Cassettes have also allowed us the opportunity to work with some of our favourite artists who might be tied in with other (bigger) labels. Last year for CSD we released one of my favourite albums ever, Women as Lovers by Xiu Xiu. I never dreamt when we started the label I’d get the chance to work with them".
Other underground and experimental labels are finding cassette the ideal format for producing a physical product at a low price. Bradford's Fuse Art Space has launched a cassette label to document performances at their venue, releasing live performances by BJ Nilsen, Petrels and Basic House. Cataclyst is one of a slew of labels bringing out dark techno and outsider electronica via the medium of cassette. Linking in with sites like Bandcamp, such labels can now sell their wares digitally and keep their physical offering alive at low cost.
Low production costs also help bands just starting out, who can sell their music physically at gigs without taking a risk on a pricey vinyl pressing. As one of our customers neatly pointed out on Twitter, if you buy one at a gig you can put it in your pocket and still jump about.
So what else does the music-buying public think? A quick Twitter survey revealed some healthy scepticism:
@normanrecords no one likes tapes. It's just contrary pretending, by hipsters who pretended to like vinyl until vinyl got too mainstream.— Robert Fisher (@no_identifier) August 27, 2014
But the success of labels like Burger Records in California, with tapes from Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin and Black Tambourine (and a release schedule somewhere in the mid-hundreds) proves there is plenty of consumer interest in the format. Here at Norman Records we are seeing tape releases coming in every week, with increasing numbers selling in large quantities. Even out there in the non-virtual world the interest in tapes is growing. Talking to Paul Lowman, owner of York's wonderful pop culture general store The Inkwell, interest in the format is far greater than it was even last year - to the point that he can justify trawling through 50p tape collections in charity shops to uncover gems to sell on:
"We’ve picked up all sorts of crazy, interesting things on cassette. I love golden-age hip-hop on tape cassette – it suits the format. It’s walkman music. We’ve had stuff like 3 Feet High And Rising, Black Sunday, License To Ill. Seeing classic rock artwork in cassette sleeve format is always appealing too."
Paul went on to suggest that the rise in interest in tapes is aligned to the increasing popularity of other physical formats:
"The surge in vinyl sales is part of a wider trend of people re-engaging with the value of all physical formats, of owning a thing, of having their own copy of something and cassettes are part of that movement. I mean, it’s still niche, but if an album is released on cassette and the music makes sense on the shelves here, I’d order it just as happily on cassette as vinyl."
To the point that his shop took part in Cassette Store Day last year. "Last year's Cassette Store Day was just a really fun day here. We had some people being sort of snarky about it, "Who even has a cassette player anymore?" – they thought it was silly. But actually it was the niche-ness, the slight daftness of it, that appealed to me. Record Store Day has become a bit of a monster – CSD feels more genuinely 'indie' and friendly."
Which leads us to the point in all this: Cassette Store Day, taking place this year on Saturday 27th September. Amongst the delights on view are tapes from John Grant, The Wedding Present, Peter Broderick, The Soft Walls, These New Puritans, Gulp, and loads more. Everybody knows CSD will never garner the interest and hype of Record Store Day. But then it's not intended to, and who wants that anyway? It is simply about increasing awareness of cassettes, having a bit of fun, and generally just supporting this wonderful, cheap, physical format.
We could wax lyrical all day but the best summation comes from Mr Van Dyke Parks:
"The Tape Cassette—-
Is the best bet yet
as the go-to medium
Why I Love Tapes...
The reason I love them is the same as why I think they've seen a revival – as a format the cost of producing them is relatively low. Musicians and labels want to make physical releases – cassettes give them that opportunity to put something out without having to have any real financial backing. It's meant that you see new labels spring up all over the place, and that even really young bands can make proper physical releases. I suppose it's quite an unbiased medium in that sense?
Jonathan, Bad Paintings
As the more mature member of Bad Paintings I grew up with tapes as the chosen format at home, which was full of tape compilations that my uncle had made for my dad. I discovered The Ronettes, Elvis and The Beach Boys via tapes so they have always been special to me.
Mike, Bad Paintings
"I like tapes as their form is aesthetically pleasing, they can be beautifully presented (with a little bit of care) and hark back to simpler times when hearing about new stuff often came in the form of a mix tape from a friend. The fact that they are cheap to produce is a bonus too. You should buy one for a friend."
Dan, Faux Discx
"They're fun. They're compact. They're cheap. They have a distinct character of sound. The limits of the shape/size gives the artwork a particular aesthetic. And blank tapes are awesome. You're able to engage with them physically, creatively, in a hands-on way you can't with vinyl or CDs. Anybody can make their own mix-tape. You can record your own music on to them easily. Tapes rock."
Paul Lowman, The Inkwell
"Sound and vision."
Billy Sprague, Sanity Muffin
"Before the privileged technology our youth take for granted, the tape is a reminder of life before more decadent times. There's effort involved in playing, rewinding and mending tapes but seeing the mechanics of rotating spools is enchanting. The format is the essence of everything that was crappy but ultimately cool about the '80s. Stockings from Santa bulging with C90s awaiting many a dubbing session. The halcyon days of Walkman-bangin' Ice-T. The affordable analogue format of the underground as artists continue to struggle while governments destroy economies."
"I fucking hate cassette tapes."
Phil Leigh, Director, Norman Records