For love of Cassette Tapes

By Brian Tucker

Nearly eight years ago I bought a used vehicle. It still runs great. So does the cassette deck and radio. About six years into ownership it dawned on me to use the factory cassette deck for more than just an iPod. Digging through boxes to locate my old mixtapes and tapes (bought when School Kids was still on Kerr Avenue), there was a lot to enjoy but eventually it was back to podcasts.

In the last year or so I’ve continued to keep stumbling across used cassettes in music shops and especially thrift stores. I was finding variety too, from metal and middle of the road stuff to soundtracks to movies I’d never even seen on the format. Did I want the soundtrack to 1999’s The Phantom Menace on cassette to play in my car? Don’t know.

But I liked having the option, especially when much later I came upon David Shire’s score for 2010 on cassette and it only cost a buck at Yellow Dog Discs. Ditto for diving into bands I only dipped a toe in before, like the small bounty of Rush albums I found at Gravity Records. Seems like cassettes, one of the few objects from our past that still looks sort of futuristic and turned fifty in 2013, is still around and viable, especially to young bands, the middle aged, and the curious.

“It’s not much of a risk, a dollar for a cassette,” David Arnold said, who works at Yellow Dig Discs. “People still have decks, radios. They’re still around, so they can take advantage of technology they have. It’s almost an opportunistic music experience.”

At a thrift store in Scotts Hill I found a huge stack of cassettes for 25 cents each and it felt like highway robbery. It was if someone unloaded recently discovered tapes left over from high school. They were nearly new, once located in someone’s first car. What stood out was a thread – metal and radio rock from the late 80s to very early 90s – Metallica’s And Justice for All, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind (heavier than one might think), Saigon Kick’s The Lizard (pretty good and weird by the way), and even Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss and The Breeders’ Last Splash.

I would find another large stack again at a thrift store in the Shallotte area, where someone dropped off their collection of Broadway show tunes in great condition. For ten cents each I expanded my horizons, taking home The Fantasticks, The King and I, and Cats, along with soundtracks to Fame and Satisfaction which starred an unknown Julia Roberts.

In January 2014 Vanyaland.com ran a story about Matt Guess finding a twenty year old mixtape. The twenty nine year old IT technician for Wake County is a “hobbyist musician and vintage electronics enthusiast” and part of Raleigh’s shoegaze/rock band White Cascade. While searching for blank cassettes to use, Guess found a mixtape made by a woman in Raleigh to a man named Robbie in Wilmington. Playing it he heard the woman’s messages to Robbie along with songs collected for him.

The story perfectly illustrates the mixtape as connection from one person to another, from recording the songs to the whole package. For Guess, the appeal of cassettes is both nostalgic and tangible. Growing up in the 90s he remembers them everywhere even as the medium was in decline. Looking for new music he’d sit patiently by the radio and record songs on cassettes.

“Since the advent of digital mp3s and file-sharing many music fans are trying to put together a more tangible personal music collection, be it vinyl or cassettes, or even candy gummy skulls with USB sticks inside them (see The Flaming Lips 2011 release),” Guess said. “Also, when you put together a mixtape on cassette it is recorded in real time, meaning you have to sit there and enjoy the music as it is being dubbed. No dragging and dropping folders. Every second counts.”

That physical connection in part led to recycling cassettes and the low cost of producing new ones. Bands, up and coming (and some big acts), have released music on the format. At shows it’s not uncommon to see all formats represented. Last summer at the last show at The Soapbox the band Edmonton sold copies of their EP with handmade packaging. Dan Deacon, a musician whose video was shown during Cucalorus this year, released music on cassette.

Guess shares a large interest in the Triangle Area music scene, noting the strong DIY nature of bands and that cassettes are perfect for them.

“They offer a novel token for fans, always paired with digital downloads, of course,” Guess said and whose group released their music on cassette and digitally. “We handled the production, recording, art design, printing, duplication, and distribution ourselves. I view the cassettes as a physical trophy, or reminder, of all the hard work that we put into each musical project.”

Two members of SoftSpot (Sarah Kinlaw, Bryan Keller), a group based in Brooklyn, are from Wilmington. The band performed at last year’s Cucalorus Film Festival and this summer returned to perform in conjunction with some of The Soapbox’s final shows. SoftSpot released two albums on cassette along with vinyl, CD and digital formats. Their most recent, Ens, is a full length album of dreamy and experimental synth pop.

“We chose to put NOUS and eventually Ens to tape because we genuinely like the sound,” Kinlaw said. “It’s cost effective and we actually enjoy duping them. We’ve run into quite a few people, especially in the south, that still drive cars with built-in tape decks and they’re really excited we have tapes available on tour. I suppose there is somewhat of a resurgence in Brooklyn where we live but we chose to press our music to both tape and vinyl because we genuinely enjoy the process and sound.”

The format isn’t another example of something old claimed by hipsters either. In Chicago last September I visited a comic shop while waiting for a bus. They sold a comic called Gunwolf that came with its own soundtrack – on cassette. The clerk explained it was in conjunction with the first International Cassette Store Day (that took place in the UK and modeled after Record Store Day) that saw special releases from Deerhunter, The Flaming Lips and more totaling twenty-eight.

In the October Rolling Stone magazine’s Jon Dolan reported about 90s nostalgia, mentioning cassette sales as their highest since that decade. It further noted that the format was a smart and obvious choice for bands to release music if they don’t have a lot of money. The same goes for record labels.

doctor gone

Doctor Gone Records, a local label out of Carolina Beach run by Travis Burdick (of local band Deadly Lo-Fi) is a relatively new start-up, releasing mostly local music. The first was In Person in 2012, by surf-rock guitar band The Carvers called. The second was early 2013, a re-release of albums (and unreleased material) by another local band, Rural Swine. Burdick eventually released his own band’s spooky garage rock music this year.

“Kellie (Everett) and I used to talk about releasing a limited cassette for Deadly Lo-Fi stuff because it just seemed right for it,” Burdick said. “I knew a few people were doing it because I had a Pinche Gringo cassette I bought from Zap Cassettes four or five years ago.”

About three years ago Burdick began to do his research, finding a few places to produce cassettes and it was cheaper than initially expected. This also led to thinking about starting a label to highlight local music. Taking a line from one of their songs, Doctor Gone Records was born.

“I always loved the fun of a cassette and that it is unique and more memorable than a CD,” Burdick said. “People tend to take notice or at least maybe remember your band name or label name because you were the crazy guy selling cassettes. Since I can include digital download codes with the cassettes for free I figured that would still help me sell them to people without cassette players. Most people drop their CD into iTunes anyway these days and then toss it aside.”

More with Matt Guess

What is the appeal of cassettes for you as a medium or perhaps as nostalgia? Does the latter even factor in?

Guess: For me, its part nostalgia and part tangible quality. When I wanted new music I sat patiently by the radio and waited for the latest hit to come on and when it finally did I recorded it directly to cassette. The mechanical imperfections of tape, saturation, hiss, Dolby and fluctuations in playback speed impart a very special character to the music, and compared to the perfect and pristine digital productions of today, people might prefer to the cassette sound as lo-fi or vintage. In fact, back in the day, these systems were considered to be top of the line Hi-Fi playback systems.

Why do you still seek them out, to have something different or tangible or is it about sound quality? 

Guess: I won’t go into too much depth here but the golden age of cassette quality was somewhere in the late 80s, early 90s. Thicker tape, better frequency response, and lower hiss (noise). In the mid 90’s as tapes began to decline in popularity production costs were cut and the quality began to suffer. Today none of the big companies manufacture high quality Type II cassettes anymore, and the best bet on a budget is to look in thrift stores for lightly used consumer tapes from yesteryear.

Did the medium factor in making music or distributing your music (with White Cascade)?

Guess: I’m big into the local music scene here in the triangle, and the bands around here are big on DIY as I’m sure they are in other scenes. It’s no longer a secret that you can easily acquire a boatload of cheap blank cassettes from various sources. Often, churches who are upgrading their sound systems and simply trying to get rid of them. You can usually get a good duplicator thrown in as well without much trouble. Actually selling the cassettes at shows was always the hard part. So, it isn’t about money.

White Cascade self-recorded and released our first two EPs on cassette and digital (online). We handled the production, recording, art design, printing, duplication, and distribution ourselves. It’s not a money maker but we didn’t go broke either. White Cascade will continue to put out cassettes alongside our future releases.

How hard has it been to locate cassette tapes – blanks or those made by bands/musicians? 

Guess: New release cassettes can be found at local shows, some independent record stores, and don’t usually make their way very far from the local scene. They are often traded among bands and swapped at shows. We often give them away. Keep in mind, the only people putting out tapes are small DIY indie bands who are doing it for fun.  

About avenuewilmington (314 Articles)
A website hosting articles about Wilmington music history (its bands and bands visiting the area), articles from my ILM based base publications Avenue and Bootleg magazine (2005- 2009) and articles from other publications (Star News, Performer, The Tonic)
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