Amoeba Berkeley's E-Lit shows some of the cassette tapes at Telegraph Ave store
Everything comes round again, and sometimes more than once, including the long dismissed but never fully forgotten cassette tape format. Yes, once again the old analog cassette, once a symbol of listening to music on the go in the 70's or 80's (on Walkmans, in the car, or on boom-boxes) is currently enjoying yet another re-resurgence in popularity and/or curious interest by music collectors and small music labels. Even in the six years since I wrote a previous Amoeblog on the topic (Return of the Cassette that tackled the state of the cassette revival in 2007 and tied in with Thurston Moore's Leaderless: Underground Cassette Culture Now NYC exhibit at the time) interest in cassettes has increased substantially.
Attention to cassettes in the media has grown too. Two years ago the Wall Street Journal did a nice piece on their renaissance. And for the past few years there has been a growing number of small indie specialty labels putting out cassette only releases. Among these are such Bay Area labels as MegaKut and Sanity Muffin (run by Amoebite Billy Sprague) and New Jersey punk label Baldy Longhair Records (see magazine ad for the label right). Blogs have been popping up all over on various aspects of the cassette tape including one how to repair a broken cassette.
Cassette tape design iPhone cases have been a popular item by a generation that likely have never used a tape but are attracted to its retro image and love of its aesthetic if no patience for the time consuming rewind to get to one song. The same logic applies to use of the faux Walkman (see pic above left) with an iPod insert. But even if one seriously takes up collecting tapes nowadays for the past year or so on the market there has the cassette to iPod converter to make that hobby even more accessible and format interchangeable.
All around sales are up and new cassette releases are getting more common among music collectors - even if still somewhat under-the-radar. As with most current day record/vinyl releases, new cassette releases similarly tend to come with a download card for where buyers can also DL mp3 copies of the music on the tape. And to further confirm the return of the cassette today, September 7th 2013, has been made the first annual Cassette Store Day - a day modeled after Record Store Day - created by some UK tape fans that will be a mostly UK event for its premiere year but some US stores are participating too. Of course at Amoeba Music, where we have been down with the cassette since day one and never stopped carrying the format, it is always cassette store day. But the increasing interest in the format that first took music fans have been increasingly seeking out cassettes for various reasons from a retro interest trying to collect releases long out of print including the long gone Cassingle format.
Many cassette fans simply appreciate tapes' hissy (anti-digital) fat analog quality - something that is instantly identifiable and at once gives an old era feel to a piece of music. "A lot of younger folks today never grew up with cassettes as a major format so there's a fresh discovery going on among young folks [with cassettes]," said Billy Sprague who I interview in more detail below. Another Amoebite E-Lit, who is seen in a video clip above at Amoeba Berkeley's cassette tape section, noted that for labels issuing cassettes the manufacturing cost is more expensive than CDs. But people still want cassettes of new and previously released material. I know one guy in New York who is an avid collector of just mid to late 80's hip-hop cassettes since he figures that the music was made for cassette (or vinyl) at that time and hence this is the best way to hear and enjoy it.
Ryan Miller, who co-owns RapBay rap music distribution company out of Oakland, notes that, "Over in Japan they're buying more cassettes." His company's US mail order market for cassettes is mostly limited to particular jails and prisons where authorities have banned CDs - only cassette versions allowed - which has led to certain new rap releases been pressed up on cassette. There have been some older hip-hop releases been reissued on cassette too such as last year's limited edition (and costly) Raekwon release Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (Deluxe "Purple Tape Box").
Compact Cassette overview by The Museum of Obsolete Objects
In retrospect the lifespan of the cassette tape or "compact cassette" as it is officially known was relatively short - limited to three good decades of widespread popular usage. An invention of the Philips electronics company in the early 60's it took a full decade to catch on in wide popularity to then enjoy a good run during the seventies and eighties decades with boomboxes and the Sony Walkman propelling their use. After peaking in the late 80's (the same time CDs were starting to get more and more commonplace) consumption of cassettes began to wane through the next decade and up to the end of the 90's when most agree the tape died off with CDs and later MP3s replacing the format entirely. Fast forward to recent years and new cassette manufacturing numbers are up substantially in terms of new releases been pressed on tape. Meanwhile blank tapes are still been made and can be purchased at Amoeba and offer a nice alternative to digital recording.
The aforementioned Wall Street Journal (WSJ) story (text and video - see below) on the return of the cassette was done by Bay Area based WSJ contributor Lauren Rudser. I caught up with Rudser to ask how her personal interest in the bygone format came about? "I was interested in doing a piece on cassettes because it's the format I grew into music with: many of my "formative" albums I listened to on cassette on my Walkman on the bus to and from school - in Jr. High especially. I'd borrow CDs from the library and record them into cassette," she told me via email. "I was stoked to learn that the format not only wasn't completely dead, but experiencing a resurgence in popularity. I wanted to learn why - and who was championing the boost. And were their reasons for loving cassettes similar to mine," she said noting how "with the trend in vinyl sales over the past decade, I was interested to see if cassettes would follow in their analog brethren's steps."
It seems that the cassette tape is following, albeit in smaller numbers, the activity of the vinyl record and has proven that it will not be discarded anytime soon. But as I stressed in the 2007 Amoeblog on the topic of the tape cassette this is not a comeback per se since the tape never fully went away. As those musicians and labels long entrenched in the beloved analog format (mainly noise, experimental, and psych music purveyors) the format most associated with the 70's and 80's has always been with us. It never fully went away but rather it slipped more under-the-radar into speciality and collectable corners, just like vinyl did, and has proven that it will never go away for good. The Bay Area, so often a leader in musical subcultures, has long been involved in the cassette tape renaissance with many small labels issuing albums or EPs on cassette. The Bay's MegaKut label is home to such acts as the old school throw back hip-hop styled Rime Force Most Illin' for whom cassette releases, like last year's "The Force Is Slammin' are the perfect choice of audio format. Another Bay Area cassette release is Satantic Tambourines by San Francisco producer Al Lover of Fist Fam (part of the extended Gurp City hip-hop collective) that was released by Impose Records. Then there is the Oakland based Sanity Muffin label. Below are Amoeblog interviews with both Billy Sprague (Sanity Muffin) and Al Lover. Immediately below is a great video from about six years ago of DJ Ruthless Ramsey utilizing cassette decks in same manner as battle DJs do with vinyl.
DJ Ruthless Ramsey Scratch Tape Decks
Amoeblog: Why did you choose a cassette only label?
Billy Sprague: Cassettes are a great and cheap way to get an analog version of your music out into the world. We love the format, size and sound.
Amoblog: How expensive is it to make a cassette per unit these days and how many plants are out there that manufacture tapes?
Billy Sprague: It all depends on your packaging plan, we print the covers ourselves or get postcards printed up which fit the cases perfectly! There's a handful of duplication companies out there but we invested in our own dubbing machines early on and do everything in house. Tapes rarely cost more than $2 to $3 each to make and we charge roughly double that.
Amoblog: Is there any type of music that sounds superior on cassette over other formats?
Billy Sprague: We are releasing a lot of music that was originally recorded on cassette, 4-tracks mostly so it makes a lot of sense staying with the original recording medium. To us, everything sounds great on tape!
Amoblog: How much has the cassette market changed in recent years?
Billy Sprague: Interest is surely on the rise. I think people are moving away from their CD's and more interested in analog such as vinyl and tapes. But many people never really shied away from them. were trying to release beautiful looking and sounding tapes to help garner this interest.
DJ Platurn + Billy Sprague etc. on cassettes - WSJ report c/o Lauren Rudser
Amoeblog: You had said before that "only a few super nerds like myself dig on tapes" but that number is steadily growing. Tell me about your tape release Satanic Tambourines as an example. What kind of music is it and how much did the tape sell?
Al Lover: It's a six song "EP" and is instrumental hip-hop in a sense; break heavy beats with samples run through multiple effects pedals, a little more tripped out then your average beat tape. A couple soul samples and then some of stuff most folks probably wouldn't think to sample. The Cramps, Spacemen 3, stuff like that. I also did an edit of loops sampled from some of imposes' previous tapes and played it under the beats adding another layer of weirdness. It's just me and the MPC on there, unless you count the folks who I stole the music from. As for sales - I think only a few hundred, limited edition!
Amoeblog: You released that tape via the magazine Impose, right?
Al Lover: It is the magazine/blog as well. They started the label under the same name. I been sending them music and they always dug it and posted it on their site, then asked me if I wanted to put out the tape. It was the label's choice to do the tape. It was my first release that I hadn't put out on my own so I'm not picky. I love tapes anyhow.
Amoeblog: Are you an avid tape collector yourself and do you think there is a difference in the sound?
Al Lover: I do have a good collection of older rap tapes from the late 80's early 90's. I prefer to collect records though. Old rap sounds best on tape to me, for sure. That's how I grew up hearing it.