“I grew up collecting and listening to cassette tapes and records,” said Phil Shaheen, drummer for Los Angeles indie band Tijuana Panthers. “I like the fact that cassettes are in again and that cool little labels are putting them out.” The band released its album, Max Baker, as a limited-edition tape through Kill/Hurt, a Hollywood cassette-only label.
It's true, cassettes seem a little ridiculous at first. They're bulky, you have to flip them in the middle of an album, and cassette players aren't widely available. But cassettes provide benefits digital media can't, and they're back.
At 70 cents a tape, an artist can get small batches of music in the public's hands for less money than a CD or vinyl record. Michael McKinney, president of M2 Communications, a Pasadena duplication company, puts out between 6,000 and 10,000 tapes each month. Orders have picked up, mostly due to indie bands.
Several record producers in L.A. provide cassette releases. Chris Jahnle and
his girlfriend Kat Bouza, founders of Kill/Hurt, started the company dubbing small batches of noise-rock cassettes with a giant grey duplicator they snagged for $200 from eBay. Cassettes naturally have hiss, treble, and distortion, qualities that go along with the mood of garage, punk and other noisy genres, said Bouza.
For Mark McNeill, a self-proclaimed music nerd who co-founded the local Internet radio station Dublab, the attainability of cassettes attracts artists. “A lot of tape labels are pressing them at home one by one … I think that kinda low-entry barrier and ease of creation are great and make it desirable to make tapes.”
It's not only small indie bands putting out cassettes. Within the past year, Animal Collective, Wilco, and Of Montreal have all made tapes. The Shins plan to release their album, Port of Morrow, on reel-to-reel in March.
“I'd like to see more new music released on cassette,” said Blake Mills, a local artist who chose cassette for his album Break Mirrors. “Holding your favorite songs in your hand reminds us there's a value to the physicality of music … That value is lost on downloaders and music streamers.”
A cassette can create a personal attachment to the music because it can't easily be dumped into an MP3 player and the listener can't skip around to different tracks — and suddenly, the album takes on a whole new meaning as it most easily listenable as a cohesive unit (of course, that could present a challenge to artists who are accustomed to the new model of making standalone singles). “The value of CDs has really gone down over the years, and there is a huge resurgence of alternate media,” said Annie Lin, co-founder of the San Francisco Mixtape Society. Both Eagle Rock's label Not Not Fun and Fullerton's Burger Records have issued cassettes, too.
Then there's the interaction with cassettes, which for many brings up feelings of nostalgia. As Matt Carr, founder of the music blog Everybody Taste and Washington, D.C. record label Analog Edition, says, “You can literally see the magnetic tape travel around the spool, and when it gets stuck, you can fix it with a pencil.” (Remember your dismay when a tape player ate your tape? Okay, so that's the downside.)
But as technology continues to change the way we share music, making digital recording more efficient but less personal, musical counterculture will return to media of the past. Who knows, in the future CDs could provide the same comfort and nostalgia tapes do today. Hey, the return to cassettes sounded a little ridiculous at first, too.