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Most of us old enough to have grown up with cassette tapes have fond memories of recording off the radio, copying albums, or making mix tapes. But we also recall that horrible moment when the tape you’re enjoying suddenly grinds to a halt. You press the eject button and try to pull out the cassette, only to find the machine is holding onto the tape. It takes some doing to set the tape free, while you curse your fat fingers and search for a pencil to dig the tape out. Once it’s released, you have to meticulously undo knots and attempt to smooth out the wrinkles in the tape before you wind it back up. But the cassette never quite plays the same, likely to get caught again in the exact same spot.
“Cassettes put into everybody’s hands the ability to move music around in the way they wanted.”
That’s why, at first glance, it’s baffling that millennial music lovers are embracing the cassette tape, as new indie cassette labels are popping up all over the country. Over the last decade, the retro format has gotten so hip that an annual event called Cassette Store Day launched in 2013 and big-name artists like the Flaming Lips, They Might Be Giants, Animal Collective, Madvillain, and Karen O have put out limited-edition tape-only releases for the celebration. With all the digital music you could dream about available at a click and new records being pressed on high-quality vinyl to provide analog warmth, why would you want to get tangled up with tape?
Cassette lovers, old and new, assert that tapes have something that online music lacks—a tactile physical presence. The benefits of cassettes haven’t changed: They’re cheap to make, pocket-sized and lightweight, and easy to mail. Cassette tapes still offer do-it-yourself musicians, who otherwise couldn’t afford to press a vinyl record, an affordable way to make an analog album they can hold their hands. And music lovers willing to make the effort to find a tape deck can amass a physical collection of underground music without breaking the bank, as new tapes go for $6.50 max, whereas CDs sell for as much as $15 and vinyl LPs can go for $20 or more.
In fact, tapes have been a democratizing force since high-fidelity cassettes and home recorders first hit the market in the early 1970s. For the first time ever, ordinary people had the means to record and share their lives’ sounds on cheap and portable devices. Men serving in the Vietnam War and their loved ones exchanged tape letters that put their voices to the words. Such letters could also include songs or ambient sounds like birds, traffic, or construction. Taboo political and religious ideas reached impoverished people who couldn’t read through voice tapes in regions like India, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. Hand-held tape recording devices made it much easier for bands’ rabid fans to record and distribute bootleg recordings of their shows.
This new tape technology was also key to the development of hip-hop music in the 1970s in the Bronx. Aspiring MCs would record a song’s breakdown from a record, and use dual tape decks to dub the break beat over and over, creating a “pause-button tape” to rhyme with. Groundbreaking hip-hop parties featuring pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and DJ Kool Herc were recorded on tapes, and those recordings were dubbed repeatedly and passed around. When theboombox was introduced in 1975, it became a means to share new beats and raps with neighbors.
By the early ’80s, a full-fledged postal network of musicians and artists who recorded and traded original cassette works had spread around the globe. With the renewed popularity of tapes, two recent documentaries are exploring the history of this mail network, which been named the “cassette culture”: 2009’s “Grindstone Redux” by tape-label founder Andrew Szava-Kovats and “The Great American Cassette Masters” by William Davenport, who co-founded the cassette-focused zine “Unsound.”
Of course, the technology for recording on magnetic tape had existed since 1935, but early reel-to-reel machines were bulky and prohibitively expensive. However, long before the first low-quality recordable compact cassettes were introduced in 1963 (followed by commercial music cassettes in 1965), experimental composers were looking at tape as a potential musical instrument. In the late 1930s and ’40s, Pierre Schaeffer, a French engineer and broadcaster working for Radiodiffusion Française, began to experiment with manipulating recording equipment to create music, playing sounds backward, or slowing them down or speeding them up. At the same time, composer Halim El-Dabh was conducting similar tape experiments in Egypt. This genre became known as “music concrète,” and Pierre Henry in France and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany further pioneered the sound in the 1950s. Stockhausen in particular became known for his tape collages of ambient sounds and other music. American experimental composer John Cage also dabbled in tape music.
“How often do you have experiences where you think, ‘Gosh, I got this tape out of this package and I just know that this is going to be different than anything else in the world ever’?”
In 1962, Morton Subotnick joined fellow composers Ramon Sender, Terry Riley, and Pauline Oliveros to create the San Francisco Tape Music Center to explore uses of tape recorders. Eventually, composers like Steve Reich, who worked at the center, figured out how to translate his strange tape compositions into live performances. The German band Tangerine Dream was the first to use tape loops to create repeating sounds in their shows, and its 1970 debut album “Electronic Meditation” established the electronic genre known as “krautrock.” Band member Conrad Schnitzler went on to create the “kassettenorgel” instrument, or “cassette organ,” made up of six cassette decks in the 1980s.
When high-fidelity cassettes and less-massive recorders hit the consumer market in the 1970s, creative types on a budget also attempted similar experiments at home. The ability to record any sound inspired amateur artists to turn those sounds into music—a genre that became known as “noise”—while affordable four-track cassette-tape recorders by Fostex and Tascam allowed pop, folk, synth, avant-garde, and punk musicians to record and mix their own albums at home. Cassette-tape technology was upending the power structures that once controlled ideas: The power of recording and distributing music now belonged to the people, not just industry executives trying to churn out hits.
“The thing that made cassettes so revolutionary is they put into everybody’s hands the ability to move music around in the way they wanted,” says Hal McGee, an artist who’s recorded noise music under various pseudonyms, like Dog as Master, and played with myriad bands including Viscera. “I feel that an album somebody makes on cassette is every bit as legitimate as anything else. People in the ’80s who were cool enough to talk record labels into releasing their stuff looked down on cassettes as an inferior second cousin. That’s the reason I’ve never liked vinyl records. The attitude was, ‘Oh, people who are doing cassettes are not serious. If they were really serious, they’d be doing records.’”
“In the early days, cassette labels put out all these really strange compilations with industrial, noise, weird pop. There’d be fantastic musicians, and people who couldn’t play anything, all in one cassette.”
In a way, it’s understandable that audiophiles would prefer vinyl, as a cassette has to fit all the sound on 1/16 an inch of tape. “Basically, the human ear can hear roughly between 20 hertz and 20,000 hertz,” says Nick Sylvester, who founded the GODMODE label, which offers cassette, vinyl, and digital singles, in 2012. “CDs can go up to 20K rather easily, and vinyl can as well. A cassette starts to lose its ability to capture the super high frequencies after around 12K. The equivalent of that is when you put a blanket over a speaker. And music sounds different on a cassette than it does on vinyl or on a CD just because of the way that the music is being compressed and EQ’d to counterbalance the physical limitations of tape. A lot of early hip-hop took to tape in a nice way: the drum beats just sounded really good when they were smashed on cassette.”
Before cassette tapes, the barriers to making and distributing an album were extraordinarily high. To record an album, you’d have to go to a studio, and the record companies that were paying for the studio time demanded that their artists aim for a certain kind of mainstream success. But new consumer electronics for cassette tapes allowed a do-it-yourself movement to flourish the 1970s and ’80s and reject industry standards.
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“At the time of the DIY movement, you were dealing with the record companies being the complete gatekeepers,” says Al Margolis, an avant-garde composer who’s played with XTSW and recorded under the pseudonyms If, Bwana and Sombrero Galaxy. “If you wanted to make something as a viable ‘product,’ records were expensive. Cassettes would be the way for punk artists to go. If you couldn’t get anything pressed or if you had no hopes of making a ‘commercial record,’ making cassettes was easy to do.”
“When I discovered the cassette network, it was a revelation. Instead of corporate music, you had very unique viewpoints of not just music, but reality.”
That DIY ethos lives on today, in cassette labels such as Sanity Muffin and Two Thousand Tapes in Oakland; Mirror Universe and OSR Tapes in Brooklyn; Chondritic Sound in Los Angeles; Night-People in Minneapolis; Sour Tapes in Boston; Ascetic House in Tempe, Arizona; Spooky Town in Brattleboro, Vermont; and Lost Sound Tapes in Cascadia. While computers also let people record and re-order music any which way they want, many of these cassette labels have emerged out of frustrations with the record industry similar to those of the ’80s. Today, a superficial measure of success might mean having your MP3 single featured on a well-trafficked blog—when listeners might not even pay attention or engage with the rest of your album. They might “Like” it on Facebook and move on.
Sylvester started his cassette-only label as an alternative to New York City’s competitive music scene, where new artists and bands are focused on “making it”—getting accolades from Pitchfork or Brooklyn Vegan, recording a 180-gram vinyl LP at a major studio, or going on a national tour.
“People tend to lose sight of what they love about doing music in the first place when they come here because a certain kind of success seems so within reach—and yet it’s so beside the point,” says Sylvester, who has fond memories of taping his high-school jazz bands and recording songs off Princeton’s college station WPRB. As an adult, he found himself “surrounded by musicians who were making really special, bizarre music that just wasn’t being presented in a way that complemented the sound. I felt like it was music that needed to define the parameters of its own success.”
“If you are putting music out on cassette, you are putting a weird Bat signal into the sky.”
It’s the more niche genres that have taken to the current cassette revival, including psychedelic pop, experimental noise, black metal, garage punk, hardcore punk, and avant-garde experimentalism. Sylvester, who’s written for Pitchfork himself, explains that when GODMODE produces a cassette album, it’s usually in a limited edition of 100. “All of a sudden, the parameters of success are very different: If you can find a hundred people who like your music, first of all, that’s amazing for much of music that we put out. That’s a lot of people to give a new artist a chance and respond to it. It’s important for new bands and artists, especially in New York, to remember that music is meant to be shared with other people, and it’s not about abstract ideas about reaching ‘the next level’ or global fame.
“There’s something that feels very humble about the presentation of a cassette,” he continues. “There’s no promise of high fidelity. A cassette demands more effort for people to listen to it, which makes them more invested in and open to the artist’s vision. Cassettes allow our output to have a handmade quality because we are dubbing everything. We’re literally doing everything from the artwork down to stuffing the cassettes and affixing the labels.”
Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard started Burger Records in 2007 to release their own band, Thee Makeout Party! on vinyl. But when they heard AM’s “Alma Mater/AM” cassette released on the Papermade label, they decided to look into the tape-making process and connected with Mike McKinney’s M2 Communications, whom they hired to produce tapes for Burger. Their scrappy little company ended up leading the charge in the current cassette-tape trend.
“The tapes got our foot in the door, as far as being able to reach out to bigger artists that weren’t releasing cassettes at the time,” Rickard says. “They were releasing LPs and CDs, but no one was doing the tapes. We got to be the first to put out Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, King Tuff, and Nobunny on cassette tape. The cassette’s affordability helped us become as prolific as we are. We need, like, 5 grand to put out a vinyl album. For a cassette, we can just take change and recycle cans and get a hundred couple bucks together. After a couple of years, the tapes started paying for themselves.”
Eight years later, Burger Records, located in Fullerton, California, has put out more than 100 vinyl albums and around 800 cassettes, as well as numerous CDs and VHS tapes, making it one of the fastest growing independent music labels in the world.
“I like that tapes are handy, and they fit in your pocket,” says Bohrman, a 33-year-old who grew up in the ’80s listening to cassette albums on a little boombox and met Rickard in high school. “They’re cheap and quick to make, and we can listen to them in our van. People have tape players in their house and their car, and it’s just a way to listen to music. I’m not an audiophile whatsoever, so I’m of the opinion that music should be listened to by any means necessary. If you’re at a show, it’s easy to throw down 5 bucks to buy a tape from a band or from us instead of putting down 15 or 20 bucks for an LP or a CD.”
In fact, Burger often offers the same albums in four formats—cassette, vinyl, CD, and computer download. “If you’re into music like we are, you celebrate the bands’ catalogs,” Rickard says. “Whatever format we can get our hands on, we’ll buy it. And if it’s our favorite record, we’ll buy it again and again on every format. Making tapes for bands that are on other labels is just really good PR sense for them to have another stream of influence coming for a younger generation. It’s pretty much a win-win situation for everyone.”
Part of the lasting appeal of tapes has come from the medium’s small size and difficult-to-crack casing, allowing tapes to travel cheaply through the mail without worry about damage. In the ’60s, some musicians were fortunate enough to have the money for reel-to-reel machines. Home-taping pioneer R. Stevie Moore, whose dad, Bob Moore, played with Elvis and Roy Orbison, began recording and mailing out tapes from his Nashville home in 1968. For $8, he would send anyone a tape of original music, and this enterprise became known as the Cassette Club.
During the ’70s, British industrial and anarchist punk group Throbbing Gristle used tapes of samples and distorted sounds in their performances. Previously known for their mail-art experiments as COUM Transmissions, the music and visual art group was among the first to send and request tapes through the post, releasing tapes by Clock DVA and Cabaret Voltaire, according to Neil Strauss’ essay in the 1990 bookCassette Mythos. In 1980, Throbbing Gristle put out an attaché case of 24 tapes recorded over commercial releases by the band ABBA. Around the same time, German krautrock band Faust started offering bootleg tapes only through mail, and San Francisco music and performance art group the Residents was selling cassettes to their 100-member fan club by post.
In the ’70s and ’80s, cassette tapes became an essential piece of the underground dissent media known as Samizdat in Soviet bloc countries. Bands inside the Iron Curtain, like Plastic People of the Universe, employed easily concealed tapes to spread their anti-conformist anti-Communist message. When the group was arrested in 1976 for “disturbing the peace,” they were able to sneak their music and messages out into the world using cassettes.
The global cassette-trading network flourished in the early ’80s—with musicians like Australian experimentalist Warren Burt and the Northern Californian industrial group Psyclones, featuring Julie Frith and Brian Ladd, at the forefront. Hal McGee and his then-girlfriend Deborah Jaffe had been recording experimental music in their apartment since 1981, he says, “but at that time, we weren’t aware that there were hundreds and perhaps thousands of other people worldwide who were doing the same thing.”
Fortunately, the technology for home-recording music arrived around the same time as the widespread use of the copy machine, which allowed regular people to also publish their own zines, as well as the paper covers that wrap cassettes known as “J-cards.” Around 1982, McGee’s friend and fellow home-taper Rick Karcasheff introduced him to “OP” magazine, an Olympia, Washington-based zine, which was filled with 50- to 100-word reviews of homemade tape cassettes. Each review would include a postal address so tapers could write to each other to buy or trade cassettes.
“When I discovered the cassette network, it was a revelation,” McGee says. “Instead of corporate music, you had very unique viewpoints of not just music, but reality. Every cassette is a one-of-a-kind artifact because they’re not like digital media. Sure, an artist can make several copies of a cassette, but every copy is slightly different than another. ‘OP’ had little reviews for cassettes that people were trading, and I’d mail my own tape to ’em. And those people sent their tapes back to us, so there was a give-and-take of creative ideas. It was really exciting.”
“A cassette demands more effort for people to listen to it, which makes them more invested in and open to the artist’s vision.”
“OP,” which launched in 1979 as a zine for experimental music, eventually paved the way for cassette-reviewing zines like “Factsheet Five,” “N-D,” “Unsound,” and “Maximumrocknroll.” “OP” was designed to be temporary: Each issue was given a letter, from A to Z, and Issue Z, published in 1984, would be the last. According to Strauss’ essay, Graham Ingels started a column called Castanets, which featured cassette reviews and addresses, in Issue E. Quickly, Ingels was overwhelmed with cassette submissions, and the column expanded to take up pages and pages. When “OP” folded, founder John Foster passed the mantle to two new zines, “OPtion” and “Sound Choice.”
“OP” and its successors similarly changed the lives of Don Campau, a musician who started the labelLonely Whistle Music and hosts the community radio show “No Pigeonholes” on KKUP 91.5 FM in Cupertino, California, and Al Margolis, a New York musician who currently runs the CD label Pogus Productions. Campau would circle the reviews of tapes he was excited about, while Margolis would mark them with checks or crosses.
“There’d be page after page of cassette reviews,” Margolis remembers. “You’d sit down with it, and go, ‘Ooh, this guy sounds interesting. Maybe he’ll want to trade.’ I’d send out letters to people I’d checked. To be honest, it was a lot more fun getting letters and packages in the mail than opening emails. It was like, ‘Oh, what’s this? Oh, they’re interested in trading. Oh, that sounds really cool.’”
“You weren’t mass producing this stuff, so you could put your cassettes in weird things.”
In fact, Al Margolis started his cassette label, Sound of Pig, in 1984 in order to get more cassettes. “I was in a band but that wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “At one point, I bought a Fostex X-15, a four-track cassette recorder. We started recording our music, and then I started recording some of my own stuff. It dawned on me that if I started a cassette label and started making cassettes, I wouldn’t have to buy other people’s music; I could trade. Nothing was really expensive, at $3-$5 for a cassette. But there was so much stuff I wanted to hear.”
Margolis wasn’t alone in this idea. Dozens of homegrown cassette labels sprang up all over the U.S. and around the world, including Chris Phinney’s Harsh Reality; Randy Grief’s Swinging Axe Productions; Gen Ken Montgomery, Conrad Schnitzler, and Dave Prescott’s Generations Unlimited; Joseph Nechvatal’s Tellus Audio Magazine; Charles Goff III’s Taped Rugs; dAS of Big City Orchestra’s UBUIBI; Carl Howard’s audiofile; Mike Jackson’s Xkurzhen Sound; and Andrew Szava-Kovats’ True Age Records. Some of the cassette labels of the era that are well-known today include Olympia’s Sub Pop, which started out of a zine, and Rough Tapes, which was launched by the London record store, Rough Trade.
Hal McGee started the Cause and Effect tape distribution service with Jaffe in 1984, and it became a tape label in ‘85. McGee says that low overhead costs have always been a part of the magic of cassettes. Tapes even allowed high school bands and church choirs to record and distribute their performances locally—something those communities could never do before.
“I remember Debbie Jaffe and I were dirt poor in 1982, living in a mouse- and cockroach-infested apartment directly across from the public library in downtown Indianapolis,” he says. “We’d go to the downtown drugstore and get these big bags of cassettes for like 25 cents a piece—like you’d pay $5 and you’d get 25 cassettes, just loose in the bag, not even in cases. Back then, we were recording stuff on one of those Panasonic mono shoebox recorders that people were using for lectures. A few months ago, Debbie sent me 54 cassettes of original recordings that we had made in our crappy little apartment that we later chose for actual releases on the Cause and Effect label. Some of the tapes have failed, but it’s amazing how great some of them sound.
“Back then, we could make one copy or make 125 copies, depending on the need,” he continues. “That gave audio-format access to anybody who could afford a cassette recorder and blank cassettes. Before that, about the only thing that we had were vinyl records, and very few people I knew could afford to get a record pressed. With cassettes, you didn’t have to lay out a bunch of cash to make a very personal expression.”
Since do-it-yourself musicians didn’t have access to professional audio equipment, they would simply adopt the cheap electronics they could buy at the store.
“When the people I’ve known over the years have been making their home-made music, they’re making it on consumer-level equipment for the most part,” McGee says. “They’re making it on equipment that was never intended by the manufacturers to be used really in a serious way. Those companies thought, ‘Consumers are just going to make copies of their favorite record albums, then play them in their car or make mix tapes for friends,’ which is legitimate. But so much of the tape music scene has been about repurposing or reimagining the uses of consumer audio products.”
McGee and Jaffe “felt that there was so much great music being done on cassette that was not being promoted or distributed as well as it could.” he says. “So we started a distribution service called Cause and Effect in late 1984. In our first catalog, we distributed more than a hundred cassettes of experimental music from all over the world. Within a year or so, it turned into a label where we asked specific artists to do cassette releases for us. In the three years that Cause and Effect was in operation, we sold, traded, and gave away more than 5,000 cassettes just out of a homemade operation, dubbing the tapes ourselves, going to the copy shop, making covers. We wore out a lot of cassette machines, I’ll tell you that.” Artists released on Cause and Effect include Merzbow; Nurse With Wound; Controlled Bleeding; Robert Rich; If, Bwana; and Algebra Suicide.
“When cassettes are in the machine playing, they look like little machines themselves with the gears and wheels moving.”
None of these labels set out to make big money or achieve fame. In fact, the rewards of the cassette network were on a human level—forming relationships with like-minded artists around the world. Some tape networkers made deep, life-long connections. Campau met his second and current wife, singer-songwriter Robin O’Brien, through the cassette network. Margolis and his wife met a couple that would become their friends and housemates—for more than 20 years. “For me, it’s never been about just the music,” Campau says. “It’s been about the human interaction outside of the music industry.”
Through trading tapes, cassette label founders like McGee, Campau, and Margolis discovered fellow experimentalists living in remote towns and rural areas, creative geniuses who toiled alone in their basements, and punk anarchist artists in the far reaches of the globe. Making friends with these musicians, they would enlist them to release full tapes or to be included on compilations—which would let other networkers sample a wide variety of sounds and ideas from around the world. For example, Sound of Pig put out 300 tapes including artists like Minóy, John Hudak, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Merzbow, Morphogenesis, X Ray Pop, Smersh, Savage Republic, and Attrition.
<img class="wp-image-62402 size-full" style="margin:0;padding:0;border:0 none;border-radius:3px;" src="http://cf.collectorsweekly.com/uploads/2015/05/cassette_minoy_soundofpig.jpg" alt="A 1986 Sound of Pig release by esteemed cassette-tape artist Minóy. (Listen at dieordiy2.blogspot.com)” width=”600″ height=”356″ />
“In the early days, cassette labels put out all these really strange compilations,” Margolis says. “There’d be industrial, noise, weird pop. There’d be people who were fantastic musicians, and people who couldn’t play anything. And they could all be in one cassette at the same time. Then over time, I think people self-sorted into their own scenes. As more and more people started labels, I think they defaulted to ‘Well, I’m really interested in this one kind of music.’ So labels became a little more homogenous, but their cassettes were still pretty interesting because people were creating some weird-ass shit back then.”
For Campau, tapes also gave him new material for his KKUP community radio show, which he’d been hosting the San Francisco Bay Area since 1971. “I was already doing an eclectic format on my show, but when I got excited about the home-taper scene, the light bulb went off in my head. ‘Wait a minute, why don’t I just turn my radio show into a showcase for home-tapers?’” he says. “After that, it was pretty easy to make connections because not only would I send somebody my tape, but they’d also get radio play. I met a lot great people and heard a lot of great stories that way.”
Back then, even college radio stations would be reluctant to accept home tapes, because DJs would have to do more work to queue up the particular track they wanted to play. But Campau wasn’t the only DJ who relished homemade tapes. Radio shows that solicited cassettes included: Fabio Roberti’s “Strength Through Failure,” Dave Mandl’s “World of Echo,” and William Berger’s “Lo Fi” at WFMU in New York City; Little Fyodor of Walls of Genius’ “Under the Floorboards” at KGNU in Boulder and Denver: dAS of Big City Orchestra’s “uBradio” at KZSC in Santa Cruz; Dave Prescott’s “No Commercial Potental” at WZBC in Boston; and Don Joyce of Negativland’s “Over the Edge” and John Gullak of the Mutant’s “The No Other Radio Network” on KPFA in Berkeley.
“We were playing a wide variety of genres of the home-taper scene,” Campau explains. “It wasn’t about the style of music you did; it was the complete underground nature of what you were doing. It was about forming this community and exposing it a little bit.”
“With MP3s and streaming audio, there’s a taste-and-go mentality. It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll listen to a few seconds, ehhh, no! What’s this over here on this screen? I’ll click on this.’”
While doing his show, Campau noted that while the tapes sounded wildly different from one another, the ’80s home-tapers tended to look alike. “At the time, home-tapers were 95 percent white guys in their suburban bedrooms, and they tended to have a bit of a loner or outsider element to their music,” he says. “Now there’s a lot of women and non-white guys sending me home music. But at the time, I received thousands and thousands of tapes, mostly from white guys. I could see that some of them had music-industry intentions. Others were just geeks in their bedrooms who hoped they didn’t die of loneliness.”
If a networker really loved a cassette, he wouldn’t just ask to add a song to a compilation, he’d ask the artist to collaborate on a new music piece—and thanks to the nature of tapes, no one had to get on a plane to do so.
“The great thing about a cassette is you can interact with it and change it,” McGee says. “I have actually received cassettes in the mail over the years from artists where they purposely left the second side blank. He said, ‘Okay, mine stops on side A. You put your stuff on side B. Record anything you want.’ There were numerous cassette chain-letter projects in which people would send a cassette and say, ‘The first five minutes on this tape is my stuff. Put your stuff after that and then mail it to somebody else and keep it going.’”
Because the artists starting the chain often sent a tape with the same five minutes of music at the beginning to different people, each tape they sent out would take a new direction. “Every tape you did would be different, depending where you started from,” Margolis says. “It gives you all of these weird possibilities. I know people are doing that kind of swapping these days with the Web and putting it online. It doesn’t seem quite as much fun as, ‘Ohhh, I’ve got a cassette. What can I put on here?’”
One artist in particular, Zan Hoffman, was known for sending around these chain-letter tapes and making musical collages from the tapes he received. Another artist, Minóy, would constantly remix and change his pieces so that every recording of the same tape title would be unique.
“Zan Hoffman, what an idiosyncratic artist!” McGee says. “It was a one-of-a-kind event when you got a Zan or a Minóy tape in the mail. How often do you have experiences like that in life where you think, ‘Gosh, I know this is a special moment. I got this tape out of this package and I just know that this is going to be different than anything else in the world ever’? It’s a silly way to put it, but I think in the landscape of the Internet, music just becomes a blur of data. It’s to a point where it has no impact other than, ‘Okay, great, click.’”
Margolis says that even when home-tapers would record and trade commercially produced albums, they would find a way to make them unique. “Sometimes, there’ll be just that little blank tape at the end there. I have some friends who don’t leave any bit of blank tape. They add talking parts or something weird or ‘Okay, I’m sitting outside. Here are two minutes of the birds singing.’ Even with copies of commercial albums, every tape is different.” McGee says he and Jaffe would dub albums they check out from the library, like Woody Guthrie recordings, and later record their own music over those tapes. In between tracks, Woody would still peep through.
The covers of most tapes from early cassette labels have a punky DIY look to them, thanks to black-and-white copier machines and brightly colored paper. Margolis says in the beginning he would make booklets to go with his cassettes, but that got to be too much work. He even bought a Ricoh Copier for his house, which allowed him to churn out Sound of Pig J-card covers and sticker labels.
“There’s always been a kind of amateurish element to the homemade cassette thing, but that’s what makes it great,” McGee says. “Sometimes we say the word ‘amateur,’ and we think, ‘Oh, well, it’s not professional, it’s not polished, it’s just people who aren’t as serious about it as a professional would be.’ That’s ridiculous. The word ‘amateur’ itself has ‘ama’ which means amour, or people doing it for love.”
Inspired by the earlier mail-art movement, many home-tapers went wild with their tape packaging. Statutory Tape’s compilation, “Rising from the Red Sand,” for example, came in a red vinyl booklet. Margolis has also received tapes in boxes, a tape in a papier-mâché ball, a tape dipped in oil, and a tape wrapped in chicken wire.
“You would stab yourself, getting it out of the package there,” he recalls. “You could be as creative as possible because you weren’t mass producing this stuff. It could be a one-off or 10-off, so you could put the cassettes in weird things. No one was expecting that ‘I’m going to make a billion of these.’ The only limitation was how many you could do monetarily. But otherwise, it’s just up to your brain to come up with something.”
Typically, a cassette-network package came with other treats besides the tape and its container. “The fun thing about sending for these packages was you would just get all this stuff,” Margolis says. “You would get a cassette, or a bunch of cassettes, and mail art, zines, fliers, and other material related to the cassette. You’d get posters, 8.5-by-14 paper, 8.5-by-11 paper, pictures, postcards, and little slips of paper from thumbnail size to whatever. Sometimes someone would send you 50 copies of a flier, and you would just pass those along as well.” All these odd-shaped objects have led to a bit of an organizing problem for Margolis, who has three crates of cassette and cassette ephemera that don’t fit neatly onto a shelf. McGee keeps these bits and pieces in two file cabinets.
As interconnected as the 1980s cassette network was, it was also an endless sea of cases and J-cards. Margolis says it would be possible to meet networkers who’d never traded tapes with the same people he did. “It’s always occurred to me is that everybody involved in cassette culture only saw the tip of the iceberg and only from their own perspective,” Campau agrees.
“Whatever format we can get our hands on, we’ll buy it. And if it’s our favorite record, we’ll buy it again and again on every format.”
As compact-disc technology, first introduced in 1984, grew more popular, tape networking lost some steam. “There seemed to be a lull in the late ’80s,” Margolis says. “I don’t know if that was due to CDs coming in or just the flagging energy of the home-tapers. For me, it felt like the energy kind of ran down. Around that time, the job market changed. A lot of the zines dried up, and ‘Sound Choice’ was spotty about coming out. ‘Option’ went more and more into slick, popular-type music. I got tired, and at one point, I just stopped.”
But cassette culture never fully died, and the home-taping network has resurged at least twice times since. “I think we’re on the third or fourth trip through the cassette revival,” says Margolis, who later began putting out the music he loved on CD through his Pogus label. In 1989, Gen Ken Montgomery—who ran the Generations Unlimited tape label with Dave Prescott and Conrad Schnitzler—opened the first sound-art space in New York City, called Generator Sound Art Gallery, which served as the go-to cassette-culture hangout until it closed in 1992.
And despite the late ’80s lull, McGee couldn’t get cassettes out of his brain. McGee and Jaffe split up and dissolved Cause and Effect in 1987, while Jaffe continue to release music and art under her solo project,Master/Slave Relationship. In 1988, McGee relocated to the Tampa Bay area in Florida to work at a Holiday Inn restaurant. “After a few months of that, I got the old itch because my mailbox was empty every day,” he says. “I couldn’t stay away from doing the cassette thing for very long because I was addicted to cassettes in my mailbox, quite frankly. So I started up a magazine and label called ‘Electronic Cottage,’ whose focus was on homemade experimental music on cassette and somewhat on record.
“There’d be page after page of cassette reviews. You’d sit down with it, and go, ‘Ooh, this guy sounds interesting. Maybe he’ll want to trade.’”
“I did six issues of the magazine,” he continues. “The first four issues were in editions of a thousand copies each, which I got offset printed by a printing press in Tampa. But I brought home the printed sheets, and I collated and folded and stapled all 1,000 copies of each issue, sitting on the floor or had them laid out on a table. I’d have my mom come over and help me collate them and fold them. ‘Electronic Cottage’ was pretty well distributed, and people were able to find it in record shops where they lived. I mailed it all out myself, carrying big bags of stuff down to the post office in Apollo Beach, Florida. The first several issues of that sold out.”
McGee kept “Electronic Cottage” going until 1992, and then took a break from music. “From mid-’92 until about mid-’95, I tried to get my act together on a personal level and delved a little bit into ‘alternative religion,’” he says. “But after about three years of that, I was like, ‘This is all fine and good,’ but I started getting that itch again, for cassettes in my mailbox. So I sent letters to people that I had known and asked them if they were still doing tapes. They put me in touch with new people, and the networking started all over again. Cassettes were still going strong in 1995.
“One of the most notable people from the mid-’90s cassette scene was Brian Noring, who lived in Des Moines, Iowa,” McGee continues. “He, to me, is one of the quintessential cassette-art guys. Noring ran a label called the FDR Tapes, and he performed on no less than 200 releases, not just solo music but also in collaboration. His label did a lot of compilations and put out tapes by lots of other artists. Another notable artist back then was Jay T. Yamamoto who lives in Aiea, Hawaii, one of the few Hawaiian home-tapers I’ve ever been in touch with. He’s one of the most unique cassette artists of all time, and people need to find out more about his music. I was excited to be in touch with new people in the ’90s, but it seemed a little different.”
During this time, McGee put together the “Tape Heads” compilation series, each featuring 90 minutes of tape by about 20 artists from around the world, for his Hal Tapes label. In 1998, he completed the eighth cassette in the series, which he knew would be the last. At that point, recordable compact discs, CD-Rs, were easy to come by, and CD burners were growing more affordable to regular people.
“I felt, at the time, that the ‘Tape Heads’ compilation series was a last gasp of the cassette scene because home CD burners had just become available,” McGee says. “I thought, ‘Oh, well, eventually this is going to supplant cassettes because digital media is easier to work with,’ supposedly. But much to my surprise, cassettes kept on going. And there are still lots of people doing it now. But it’s, again, different and the same.”
But the CD-R format, which eventually replaced the mix tape, turned out to be a technological letdown. “CD-Rs are just such an unstable format,” Margolis says. “When you made 10 cassettes, the 10 cassettes generally played. If you made 10 CD-Rs, 8 of them played and 2 of ‘em skipped. So that partially explains why people are going back to cassettes—it’s a cheap format that actually works.”
Home-tapers were 95 percent white guys in their suburban bedrooms. Some of them had music-industry intentions. Others were geeks who hoped they didn’t die of loneliness.”
Campau says that in the late 1990s, he had to make a decision about what kinds of music formats he should accept for his show. “I’m fine with home tapes or CD-Rs, what is obviously home-recorded stuff,” says. “But how about a band that is doing a cool underground sound but has gone into a small local studio? What about a band that has a manager, but they’re on an independent label? My decision was I’m going to stay as open as I can. I’m not going to play major labels. I’ll play anything on an independent label as long as it seems to have independent attitude. If there’s too much of a gross music-industry feel, I’ll stay away from it.”
In 1999, Napster pioneered online peer-to-peer music sharing but ceased operations after a series of lawsuits about copyright infringement. But the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which also campaigned against home taping in the ’70s and ’80s, was fighting another losing battle. Napster opened the gateway for music becoming more accessible through online downloads and streaming. By the 2010s, with streams and downloads on sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud and cloud services like Pandora and Spotify, even CDs have become irrelevant—much to Margolis’ chagrin.
“I love the Internet, but there’s so much music,” he says. “There’s too much everything. I bitch and moan about the fact I run a CD label and no one’s buying CDs, but so many people are making music. Part of the motivation behind cassette culture was the idea that anybody could make music. Now, with the ease of using computers and recording, anybody with the inclination can make music. All the limitations have been erased, which, on one hand, is exactly what we were all trying to do—to take away the power of record companies as gatekeepers. On the other hand, it’s like be careful what you wish for. I’m very happy but sad, too.”
According to McGee, the Internet—which most people connect to through the same machines they use to do drudgery for school or work—has killed much of the romance of music from far-away places.
“Is access to everything a good thing?” McGee muses. “The pre-Internet age, the analog age, was the age of scarcity or lack. One of the great things about getting a tape back in the ’80s was that it was like this mysterious thing that landed in my mailbox from somebody in some far-off corner of the world. I would get tapes that were sneaking through from Communist Bloc countries. In 1986, I got a cassette from some guy from Hungary who used the name Art Deco. His letter said, ‘I’m not sure if this letter will reach you. I have a friend who is allowed to go to Vienna, Austria, on business, and he’s going to try to mail it for me. Please spread my music in the West if you can.’ I was like, ‘Wow!’ Same goes if you got a tape from someone in Japan: It was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is it?’ Now it’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, email.’ You can look up anything. We tapers have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Are we complaining about having everything? Yeah, we are, kind of.
“The whole problem with MP3s and streaming audio is there’s a taste-and-go mentality,” he continues. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll listen to a few seconds, ehhh, no! What’s this over here on this screen? I’ll click on this.’ And you’re gone from it. A cassette, when I listen to that, it’s about experiencing time in a different way. I put a cassette in and sit in a chair, and the music unreels in time. The Internet is great and all that, but it’s destroyed a lot of things that I valued. When we did cassettes back in the ’80s, we were buying commercial-length tapes, 60s and 90s, and we’d build the whole thing up. Oftentimes, all the songs or all the pieces would cohere together into some kind of overall concept. A lot of people did side-long works, 30-minute-long things. Now it’s just like, ‘Oh, yeah, here’s my new track, 2 minutes, 37 seconds,’ which is the whole hit-single mentality all over again.”
“The naysayers are not optimistic. They don’t think that they can find a tape deck, and they’re not even looking.”
When music isn’t connected to a physical object, McGee feels it’s more likely to get lost in the ether. “Internet music is too scattershot,” he says. “It’s everywhere, and at the same time, it’s nowhere. It’s too easy to forget it. A buddy of mine will say, ‘Hey, check out my new track. Here is the link on Bandcamp.’ If I don’t look at that email again, I’ll forget it. But if you’ve got a cassette there, boy, it’s something to remind ya. It’s something to hold in your hand, and it’s yours and it’s personal and it’s, for lack of a better word, real. The great thing about cassettes is they’re so tactile. When they’re in the machine playing, they look like little machines themselves with the gears and the wheels moving. When you’re holding the case in your hand, you’re looking at the homemade artwork.”
Of course, everyone is on the Internet now. Margolis uses it to promote his Pogus CD label. At his site, the Living Archive of Underground Music, Campau is posting every one of his past radio shows, which featured original songs from home-tapers, starting from 1984. He’s also uploading his own music and featured tapes from his favorite home musicians. McGee is selling “homemade experimental music by Hal McGee and friends, 1981-2015,” on cassette, CD-R, and downloadable MP3s at his Kassette Kult Tapespage on his HalTapes site.
Despite his reservations, McGee tried to turn the Internet into a positive force for home musicians, with his International Email Audio Art Project, a 12-hour-long compilation of 720 one-minute tracks from artists all over the globe. “I was able somehow to find the art in it and make connections between artists. It takes imagination, just like anything. Can we reimagine the Internet as something that has meaning? Is it possible? I don’t know. You get out of it what you put in to it. But there’s a lot of resistance. It’s just this endless monotonous stream of ‘Here’s my new track’ emails and clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook.”
“It was like this mysterious thing that landed in my mailbox from somebody in some far-off corner of the world.”
Campau says he’s grateful the Internet has allowed him to reconnect with musicians he was mailing with 25 years ago, particularly people who are more reclusive. “Is the Internet inherently superficial? I don’t think that it has to be. We know it’s the greatest library ever on earth.” But Campau still relishes the fact he has one of the world’s largest physical collections of home tapes, comprising every tape he’s received since 1984, and he’s listened to almost all of them. “I’ve traded over 10,000 different tapes,” Campau says, reflecting. “Christ, that’s a lot of work.”
These days, even collecting music on your computer or iPod is starting to become a passé, niche hobby. “The cloud is anti-collecting,” Margolis says. “It makes the music devalued, which is tough for an artist. If you can just find everything anywhere and not pay for it, how does an artist make a living? Where does the money come? Of course, making music is not about the money, but if you like this label, if you like these artists, how do they continue to make art that you would like to hear and see? This so-called anti-consumerism movement is pushed by the computer industry, which is making an absolute fortune off of it. They made it impossible for artists to sell CDs and records and books, but they’re certainly profiting.”
Nick Sylvester of GODMODE, who is 32, says his apartment is cluttered with physical books and records. “It is funny just what a weird comfort it is to be surrounded by things that you love,” he says. “You can feel this weird flutter of emotion going through your collection. The albums are like parts of your life that you don’t necessarily want to revisit, but it’s always good to remind yourself that they happened. I think collectors, in a way, they’re not necessarily collecting the thing itself in a certain point. They’re probably collecting an idea of themselves.”
Lee Rickard of Burger Records, who’s 31, says that he’s never had a passion for technology because, growing up, his family never had the sort of money you need to buy the latest gizmo. To him, the physical nature of collecting cassettes is where the magic is.
“Before I was in school even, I found a Buddy Holly and the Crickets ‘Best Of’ tape, no artwork, just a dirty white tape with smeared blue ink,” he says. “It changed my life, and it set the standard as far as what I appreciate about music and its sincerity and passion. Love is in the details. Growing up with cassettes and records, you develop a passion where you’re going to take the time to listen to an album and flip it over and play the other side. You’re going to stare at the cover, and you’re going to read every word and connect the dots between production, studio, and playing credits. We grow our minds through studying. Some people study science; I study rock ’n’ roll.”
Making a mix tape, as opposed to burning a mix CD-R or building an online playlist, requires more of a time investment. “The person who made a mix tape at least spent the amount of time it takes the cassette to play making it,” Sylvester says. “Say you made a 120-minute cassette: Forget about collecting the songs and all the artwork and labeling. You basically sat in front of a machine and recorded it. You’d wait for each song to end and then you’d hit stop. When you received a tape like that, you felt the weight of somebody’s investment in those songs and in the time they put to make something for you. When you could burn a CD in three minutes, it changed the way that people related to sharing music with each other. There’s something great about the speed with which people can share music, but you do lose the weight of a person’s time in selecting and presenting that music to you.”
“There’s something that feels very humble about the presentation of a cassette.”
McGee says he often speaks with musicians who share their music on the Internet who don’t want to invest the time in making cassettes. “I tell them, ‘While you’re dubbing the cassette, think of the person that you’re going to send it to. As you’re cutting out, folding, and stuffing the cover inside the cassette case and preparing the package, think about that person and write a letter,’ he says. “Writing letters is something people don’t know how to do anymore. Back in the ’80s, we didn’t have email and Internet, I would hand-write 10-page letters to people. I knew that I was going to send this cassette and letter to someone in England, France, or Spain, and I wasn’t going to hear back from them for several weeks. I had to get all my thoughts together to tell them everything I wanted to and take my time with it.”
Campau understands the reason musicians send him MP3s, which he has to burn to a CD just to play on his “No Pigeonholes” radio show. But he also doesn’t appreciate getting impersonal mass emails, where the artists didn’t even take the time to address him personally.
“With the postal rates, if you’re in Japan or Australia or even anywhere in the U.S., it’s hard to send out a lot of music,” he says. “I’ll be the first to admit that we’re in a different day. Here’s something that bugged me for a while but I got over it: I’ll be in the BCC line of an email from some band that says, ‘Here’s our new MP3 single, and man, it’s hot,’ or ‘Pitchfork says that it rocks’ or whatever. I’m trying to stay open to this, but my name is just another name in 250 emails. It’s like, ‘Hi, Don, I don’t have time to ask you how you are or how the family’s doing. I don’t really care about who you are, but here’s my MP3, play it on your show, and then let me know how it is.’ It’s like, OK, this is a different kind of community than I’m used to. I want to be a supporter of independent music, but there is a limit to what I can do.”
Many cassette devotees in their teens and 20s are too young to be nostalgic for cassettes because they grew up with digital music. Sylvester theorizes that those particular music lovers approach cassettes as almost an archaeological experience. “When you make the decision to study old stuff, you start understanding the world in a new way, “ he says. “On a simpler level, I think that younger people who like cassettes probably are just interested in experiencing how people before them used to engage with music. It’s outdated, but it is a new experience to them. In the same way, you can put an Oculus Rift and experience virtual reality that way, or you can go to Disneyland, go through rides with all these weird animatronic machines, and experience what virtual reality was like in the past.”
Margolis says the latest cassette movement has a whiff of fetishizing past technology. “Obviously, people are into the music,” he says. “But it used to be only about the music. If it was on a cassette, you bought a cassette. If it was on a record, you bought a record. Same goes if it was on a CD, or if it was a download. Now, you talk to people who say, ‘I only buy cassettes.’ ‘I only buy vinyl.’ ‘I won’t listen to a CD.’ I even had people tell me, ‘I won’t even listen to vinyl. I only take cassettes.’ It’s all gotten a little screwy. It’s gone from about the music to about how you get the music.”
McGee says he’s running into the same problem. “I know a handful of people who say they’ll only listen to cassettes,” he says. “But then there are a lot of people who have no cassette player. They don’t want to listen to stuff online, so I’ve got to send them CD-Rs. And then there are certain people who don’t have a CD player or a cassette player, and only listen to music online. My challenge now is to try to reach all those people and maintain that cassette feeling.”
Around 2007, the latest cassette revival started to bug McGee. “I felt that cassettes had become just this kind of culty kind of item that people were just doing because it was cool or hip,” he says. “I questioned the motivations of certain artists much younger than myself for doing cassettes. My opinion has changed somewhat, but I still feel that there are very few people who are doing cassettes these days that really get it.
“But I need to avoid the temptation to say that, ‘Oh, well, people aren’t doing it for the right reasons,’” he adds. “It’s cool that people still like to use cassettes. But what I dislike is, ‘Ooh, man, I’ve got a limited edition of 23 copies. You’ve got to get it quick before the limited edition sells out.’ That turns it into something that’s a bit too precious. Cassettes were great because you could make as many or as few copies as you wanted. If there was only demand for one, I made one. If a hundred different people wanted it, I made a hundred.”
In 2007, he penned an online essay, “Hal McGee’s Microcassette Manifesto,” in which he explains, “Online music was to me the perfect and logical extension of what we were doing with our homemade cassette releases back in the ’80s. … A couple of years ago I encountered a lot of resistance to and downright hostility toward online music in discussions on the Noise discussion boards. …. People 20-30 years younger than me were resisting what I saw as natural ‘progress’—online music—and were, in my mind, regressing somewhat by insisting on physical container audio formats. I think that it was natural for me and people of my age group to pass through the stages that I did, because we started making our homemade music at a time that was pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-email, pre-MySpace, and pre-Facebook. We hand-wrote letters, dubbed tapes, went to Kinko’s and printed tape covers, packaged up the tapes, went to the post office and mailed them, etc. … I must say, that as much as admire the general spirit of today’s’ cassette resurgence, I also take a dim view of it. To me it’s like reaching for something that isn’t really there anymore. And much of what I see in today’s cassette labels is a sort of preciousness, a fetishistic clinging to physical objects almost as if they are totemic magical devices.”
McGee decided to take this fetishism to the next level. “If people thought that cassettes were lo-fi, microcassettes are even more so,” he tells me. “But microcassettes are even more personal. It’s very difficult to duplicate microcassettes in any reliable or reasonable way. I did a 10-volume microcassette compilation series called ‘Dictaphonia,’ where instead of having people send me cassettes, they sent me microcassettes and I made compilations on microcassette and sent it back to the artist in that format.
“With regular cassettes, you just hook up one deck to the other, and you can make a fairly reasonable copy,” he explains. “For microcassettes, I had to have a friend of mine make a special device to go in between the two microcassette recorders. It was just ridiculous, but that was my commentary on cassettes. I still record a lot of stuff using microcassette, but I now put it out on cassette or on CD-R or MP3.”
Today’s cassette revival, almost by definition, leaves a lot of people out. First of all, you have to have a cassette player to listen to a tape, and many folks ditched theirs by the year 2000. Second, while cassettes are sold online and more rarely in independent record stores, you often can only obtain a particular cassette by attending an underground music show and dealing with a band member directly. But Sylvester explains the spirit of the cassette underground today is not meant to be exclusive.
“The people involved want the world to feel smaller and want to feel connected to the artists who are making the music,” he says. “I imagine that weird spotlight that went into the sky for Batman. If you are putting music out on cassette, you are putting that weird Bat signal into the sky. There are certain people who are going to see that and be like, ‘Oh, fuck, that’s one of my people.’ It’s a very specific relationship to music that young people are craving, even if they might not realize it. It might end up manifesting itself in a way that isn’t cassettes. Right now, cassettes are one way to have that closer, more personal, less mediated relationship to music.”
Believe it or not, cassette players can be readily found, on eBay and in mom-and-pop electronic stores. Drugstores like Walgreens or CVS sell knockoffs of handheld Sony Walkmans. Rickard says his record company is working on its own tape deck, which will be known as the Burger Buddy.
“This so-called anti-consumerism movement is pushed by the computer industry, which is making an absolute fortune off of it.”
“The naysayers are not optimistic,” he says. “They don’t think that they can find a tape deck, and they’re not even looking. if you want a stereo or a boombox, you go thrift-store hunting, you go to garage sales and estate sales, and you just keep your eyes open. According to the Law of Attraction, if you’re not thinking about something, you’re not going to see it. If you open your eyes and your mind, of course, you’ll find whatever it is that you’re looking for. And a lot of kids are driving around in old cars, so tape decks are still relevant for them.”
But the old guard warns that musicians should be wary of new tape recorders. “Old cassette recorders were built to last, but 20-25 years ago, the manufacturers realized they weren’t selling new machines, so they lowered the quality,” Margolis says. “My dubbing deck I bought in ’88 or ’89 has finally just died. When I was doing Sound of Pig, I dubbed hundreds of cassettes on it. Now when you buy a cassette recorder, it will last you a year before one side breaks down and the springs pop out. It’s like, jeez, man.”
McGee says he doubts today’s cassette decks are built to do hundreds of dubs as he does. “I bought two new TEAC double-cassette decks back in July of last year,” he says. “One of them died after about two months, and I can’t figure out why. They’re only 200 bucks, but I expect to get more than 150 dubs out of the machine before it dies. That makes it expensive to record tapes.”
“You can feel this weird flutter of emotion going through your collection.”
Of course, the sound of cassettes has always been a lower quality than vinyl and now digital music, but that’s part of the appeal. “For that reason, there is a distancing quality to cassettes that is interesting to me,” Sylvester says. “Digital can feel very in your face. But you can fix anything; I’m not going to say digital sound is cold because that’s bullshit. Digital can sound however you want it to sound. But the music that I have enjoyed on cassette does have a quality to it where things sound just slightly farther away from you. Even if it’s brand new, the distancing quality can make the tape feel like it’s this lost artifact that somehow survived some weird, long journey from another world.”
Rickard, however, doesn’t cushion his distaste for digital music. “If you’re into downloading binary code, there you go,” he says. “You have fun on the computer, good luck with that. It’s going to sound shitty, and that’s unfortunate. But for the real heads that are digging deep and getting their fingers dirty, our aural senses are through the roof. Our lives are enriched because of music.”
His partner at Burger Records, Sean Bohrman, however, loves the Internet, and Burger includes download codes with their vinyl releases, but not with their cassettes. “I’m of the opinion that music should be listened to by any means necessary,” he says. “The Internet connects the world so you can hear so much music that you would have never had the opportunity to hear before. I’m all about using the web to further the Burger cause.”
Still, for underground bands, a cassette makes the ultimate calling card. Because they’re so cheap to make, they can be given away. “You’re not going to break the bank,” Rickard says. “The average cost is about $1.50 a tape, and it gets people’s attention.”
The recipient also ends up with a tangible music format in his or her hand, Rickard explains. “It’s not a download card, a piece of paper that’s going get crumpled and thrown away,” he says. “All your senses are working. You’re getting music. You get to enjoy the artwork and feel the band’s vibe and try to get as much information out of the credits as you can. At Burger, we do a lot of limited runs, and they’re all pretty much instant collectibles.”
Of course, there’s also the issue of the tape getting jammed, which, Margolis says, gets less fun to deal with as you get older. “I had one get stuck like that recently. I had to take the cassette apart, and the tape was spun around,” he recounts. “It was like a Mobius strip, and I thought, ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ I fixed it, but I must have spent half an hour on it.”
That’s why, Sylvester says, he’s happy that a lot of music offered on cassette comes with a digital download as well, something he felt was important to offer through his GODMODE label.
“People call the cassette revival hipster bullshit because they think cassettes are cool because they’re shitty; like ‘I like it because it can break,’” he says. “I’m hesitant to say that because I think that younger people’s relationships to physical stuff is very different. While I find the idea of the revival romantic, I’m also relieved that the music that I have on cassette is also available in other formats.”
Rickard gets testy when you bring up the mechanical woes of cassettes; he asserts their reputation for breaking is unwarranted. “If you want to play this game, CDs can get scratched and skip, same with the records,” he says. “If you leave your tapes or records or CDs in the sun, yeah, they’re going to warp and be ruined. But if you treat everything with caution and love like you should care for things that you care about, everything will be fine. I have tapes from the ’60s that still play. I have records that Lord knows how old they are, and they still play. I have first-generation CDs, and they still play. You can’t say that for all the burned CD-Rs we made 15 years ago—they’re fading, and they just don’t work anymore.”
“Are we complaining about having everything? Yeah, we are, kind of.”
Some new tape labels even take advantage of the perceived weakness of the cassette medium. Margolis says he recently met a guy with a cassette label in Riga, Lativa, that dubs new music onto old 1970s cassettes. “Part of the idea was that each time you played a tape, pieces were flaking off, so the music changed every time,” he says. “I thought that was just one of the funniest and greatest concepts I’ve heard.”
According to a 2013 “San Francisco Weekly” article, the label Beach House Tapes issues works by musicians whose “sole endeavor is exploring the decay of magnetic tape.” The newspaper writes that many of Beach House’s noise and experimental releases explore what label co-founder Collin McKelvey “calls the ‘phenomenon of an object’ — the cassette’s odd, malleable qualities. Magnetic tape is altered by the elements it encounters. These artists enjoy the continued development of their music as each tape undergoes organic changes that result in warbling, distortion, and tonal fluctuation, which uniquely alter each listener’s experience.”
In addition to putting out new music, Burger Records has kept busy reissuing classic albums by artists like the Pharcyde, Dressy Bessie, the Adolescents, Rikk Agnew, Christian Death, the Weirdos, Redd Kross, and Weezer on tape. “Just today we were talking to Billie Joe about doing the first Green Day albums on cassette,” Rickard says. “That’s without us going after these people. They’re just coming to us and seeing if we want to do it, which is super cool, because we grew up with a lot of these bands.”
A couple years ago, Bohrman and Rickard started a Burger Records subsidiary called Wiener Records, a manufacturing and distribution service. Bands that aren’t signed to Burger can pay to have cassettes manufactured, sold at the Burger Records store in Fullerton, and promoted on the Burger website. “It’s caught on,” Rickard says. “We’ve done over 60 cassettes so far and counting.” They plan to expand the Wiener Records service to vinyl as well.
The original ’80s tape networkers are still trading to some extent today. McGee says he’s even been enjoying home-made CD-Rs by an experimental artist named Ryan J. Boyd in Whittier, California. “The first package he sent me was several cassettes of his great experimental music that to me sounds like it was recorded in the 1980s,” McGee says. “But he also sent me CDs, and those come with hand-done covers. They have the same feeling as a cassette, but they’re just these flat coasters. What’s important for me is that they have the personal idiosyncratic expression that started in the cassette movement. The challenge these days is for home musicians to keep that feeling in the digital age, but more people are able to do that.”
In the meantime, Campau, McGee, and Margolis are working to catalog and share the work they’ve done over the decades online. But if anyone gets the idea that they’ll be able to amass and archive all of cassette culture, they should throw in the towel right now.
“With cassettes, you could put together probably a complete archive of Sony Records releases,” Margolis says. “But when it comes to the cassette-networking tapes, every person you’ll talk to will have something different that someone else doesn’t have. I think certain things can probably be completely collected, like, ‘Okay, I have every one of these coins.’ That’s never going to happen with cassettes.”