Cassette tapes make a comeback

May 21, 2011

Four years ago, cassette tapes were headed toward their funeral. In 2007, British tabloid The Sun declared the death of the cassette, after the announcement that a major electronics retailer in the United Kingdom would cease selling cassette tapes. In 2009, the webzine Pop Matters bid cassettes good riddance: “Some mediums are just meant to die and never experience a revival. Cassettes seem destined to fall into this category.”

Then, last year, cassettes began to rise from the dead. In the fall, NPR reported that cassettes were having a “kind of” revival, with at least 25 labels in the United States putting out new music exclusively on tape. In a lengthy essay in Pitchfork, contributor Marc Hogan detailed examples of the “broader underground resurgence” of cassettes.

So, are cassettes at death’s door or enjoying a healthy renaissance? It depends on whom you ask. Cassette culture has never waned in certain circles, specifically among noise and experimental bands. But cassettes have gradually been popping up in non-underground places. Lady Gaga probably won’t be releasing music on cassette tape anytime soon, but well-known independent bands such as Animal Collective, Deerhoof and the Mountain Goats have all put out cassettes this year.

San Francisco-based rock band Deerhoof released its 10th album, “Deerhoof vs. Evil,” on Polyvinyl — a heavy-hitter in the world of independent labels — in January on three formats: digital, vinyl and cassette. They put out 500 tapes, each retailing for $8, which included a download of the album.

The Baltimore-bred band Animal Collective put out a limited-edition tape release in March (in conjunction with band-designed sneakers) that included previously unreleased solo work by each of the band’s four members.

And in February, the Mountain Goats, a band that built its initial fan base on a prolific string of early 1990s cassettes, released its first tape since 1994. The tape, “All Survivors Pack,” was a free inclusion with the first few hundred CD and LP orders of the band’s newest album, “All Eternals Deck” (the band’s first release on Merge Records).

“I think tapes have their own energy,” John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats said via e-mail. “I get pretty ’70s Californian about this stuff, but I think the means by which a person receives art — literature, film, music — contributes to the experience.”

‘A nice touch’

“John had these demo versions of all the songs on the album, and we thought that’d be a cooler way to get them out in the world as opposed to some digital bonus thing,” said Spott Philpott, label manager at Merge Records. “The early ones were hand-decorated — we thought that would be a nice touch.”

Karl Hofstetter, owner of Indianapolis-based Joyful Noise Recordings, which put out Deerhoof’s cassette, argues that the return of cassettes is a response to the digital revolution.

“I think that, in a strange way, piracy and digital becoming more prominent has allowed for a resurgence of the physical,” he said.

Hofstetter founded Joyful Noise in 2003. He put out vinyl, digital and CD releases until 2009, when he saw a demand for cassettes. He had the idea to approach labels and musicians he liked and ask to release their music on cassette for sale online and at concerts. Now, Joyful Noise is Polyvinyl’s go-to cassette producer. Hofstetter is working on cassette versions of all 10 albums by the Georgia psych-pop band Of Montreal, with artwork by the band’s mastermind, Kevin Barnes.

Lesser-known bands have been utilizing cassettes more often as well, for both their physicality and their cost-effectiveness. District residents Holly Tegeler, 30, and Thomas Collier, 29, are members of a jangly guitar-rock trio called Black Telephone, and in February last year, they released a four-song EP on mustard-colored cassettes, which they sold online and at Crooked Beat Records (where Tegeler has worked weekends since 2005) in Adams Morgan.

“Cost was a big reason for choosing to put [our music] out on cassette,” Tegeler said. “We liked the idea of putting something physical out, but vinyl was too expensive, and putting out a CD felt lame.” Tegeler and Collier are also fans of cassettes — they collect ’90s-era rock cassettes by artists such as Beck, Sonic Youth and the Breeders.

“People say ‘But I don’t have a cassette player’ to us a lot, but that’s not really the point,” Tegeler said, adding that their music is available for free online. “The point of putting out a cassette is that it gives the people who are interested in physical media the chance to actually own a copy of the music.”

Although musicians and labels putting out cassettes are no longer confined to the music underground, the practice hasn’t reached the mainstream — yet. After last year’s news that Sony would cease production of the Walkman portable tape player in Japan, the birthplace of the once-popular device, automotive experts announced that the 2010 Lexus would be the last car to come factory-equipped with a cassette deck. Cassette sales have steadily plummeted in retail outlets tracked by Nielson Soundscan — a tiny fragment of a bleak music market landscape.

However, in the same way that this grim data is not an indication that people aren’t listening to music anymore but rather are consuming it in different ways, there is also evidence that the cassette revival might not be a fleeting trend.

“From about 2005 until 2008, we did virtually no cassette duplication,” said Michael McKinney, owner of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Cassette Works. “Our business had almost completely switched over to CD and DVD production.”

Significant increase

Cassette orders began to trickle in about 2008 and have since increased to 6,000 cassettes per month, McKinney said. That’s a small number compared with the company’s output of 200,000 tapes per month during cassette’s heyday in the 1980s, but a significant increase nonetheless.

“So far, we’ve sold more cassettes in 2011 than in 2010,” said Steven Stepp, president of National Audio Company (which duplicated the Black Telephone cassette) in Springfield, Mo. Stepp’s family founded the company in 1969; their primary business then was magnetic tape cartridges for broadcasting companies. Now, National Audio sells blank and duplicated cassettes, CDs, DVDs and labels online. Stepp said cassettes make up three-quarters of his sales and that cassette sales have increased 30 percent since the end of 2008.

Sean Peoples is one of National Audio’s customers. Peoples runs a label called Sockets Records out of his house in Petworth, where he has more space than his former apartment in Adams Morgan — “There’s a basement involved,” Peoples said on the phone.

He founded Sockets in late 2004, initially releasing music by D.C. area bands digitally as well as on CD and vinyl. But, now Peoples has eschewed CDs in favor of tapes.

Low-cost investment

“I stopped putting out CDs because it felt like a waste,” Peoples said.

He added that a digital product is what he thinks is most important but that there’s still a customer demand for something more. Cassettes, he said, are a low-cost investment — tapes cost him $2 each to produce — and corporeal objects that are documents of the music.

“Having a cassette in hand is a romantic thing,” he said. “It’s a creative way to get attention.”

The attention-grabbing powers of cassettes sparked a marketing idea this winter for Carter Matschullat, owner of the New York-based label Dovecote Records. Several Dovecote bands, including the New York-based synth-pop foursome Hooray for Earth and Pittsburgh-based sample-heavy crooner Wise Blood, were traveling to South by Southwest this year, and Matschullat wanted to drum up some buzz.

An ‘unleakability’ tactic

“We wanted to leak some new music, but not on the Web,” Matschullat said, so they ordered a batch of 500 mix tapes from a small distributor in Florida and created artwork for the cassette case.

The tapes included not-yet-released songs from Dovecote artists (“This [expletive] tape contains an unreleased Wise Blood track,” read the card on one of the tapes.) Handing them out became a game: “We’d leave them on tables and in bathrooms, sometimes in people’s pockets,” Matschullat said.

He hasn’t yet seen the cassette songs in downloadable form online (the label did make digital versions available for streaming).

The cassette “unleakability” tactic was employed by Radiohead in 1997, when they sent promo copies of “OK Computer” to reviewers via cassettes glued inside Walkmen. Earlier this year, Merrill Garbus, who records dance-pop music under the name tUnE-yArDs, sent her newest album (“w h o k i l l” on 4AD) to record stores as a cassette housed inside hand-painted boomboxes.

Cassette tapes are, of course, not unleakable. Low-cost technology now exists to convert cassettes to MP3s. But for those who value the physicality of cassettes — something that can’t be uploaded to the Web — that’s beside the point.

Hooray for Earth frontman Noel Heroux is a fan of tapes. A month after South by Southwest, he ordered a batch of 100 pre-dubbed tapes. He created covers out of his own photos; later, the band sold the tapes at shows for $2 a tape. By the third show, they were almost gone.

“In the MP3 age, everything passes by so quickly, so many listeners don’t seem to care much about what they’re really getting when they purchase music,” Heroux said. “When something is presented in a special package, music buyers can feel more part of the experience. When you’ve got to work more than a mouse click to hear some track, it’s just better.”

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