Folks have been talking about the return of vinyl for the past decade, but the cassette tape is having its own comeback. From the launch of Cassette Tape Day three years ago to the emergence of hundreds of tape labels around the country, music lovers have proven that there’s still a profound love for the old-school format. And it’s one that can also work hand-in-hand with the digital world. Take, for example, Academia Tapes Plus. The local cassette tape label will celebrate three years of success this weekend.
Local couple and musicians Greg and Ellen Elias started the punk label together after realizing they had friends who were making good records but not putting them out anywhere. Rather than let the musicians sit on perfectly great tunes, the couple saw an opportunity and began releasing singles. Though the songs dropped digitally at first, Academia soon decided to break out the tape machines. “I’ve always recorded my own music on four-track and have always had tape decks around the house,” Greg tells us over a couple of PBRs. The City Paper met up with the couple recently at the Recovery Room — the same venue that’s hosted several Academia release shows. Having cassettes at the merch table for gigs is a key motivation for producing tapes. “If you really care about supporting someone, and there’s an option in that range between a button and a shirt, or a button and a record, then it’s a good thing,” Greg says.
And he’s right. Many showgoers want to support artists but may not have the funds for a $25 vinyl. And it really doesn’t matter if they have a tape deck, because labels like Academia also include digital downloads with the purchase of a tape. And for folks who dig leaving a show with something in their hands, it’s a win-win. “People like having an artifact and something to look at,” says Greg, who transfers high-quality recordings from his PC onto a top-of-the-line tape deck. “And I think, too, when you sit down with a record or sit down with a cassette, you have to interact with it,” Greg adds. “With either one of them, you’re using a machine, and something about that is appealing.”
The minimum order for vinyl is also usually far more than a modest label like Academia could reasonably move. On average, they put out a run of 50 cassettes per release, which the label sells out of pretty easily on Bandcamp and at shows. “I can spend 70 bucks, and I have a whole run of tapes, I have the download codes, the money for shipping the tapes to the band — and it’s easy,” he says. “It’s like the cost of a night out. Don’t go out one night a month, and you can put out a record.”
So where do labels like Academia get all those blank tapes? Believe it or not, they’re far from obsolete. If you look around, you’ll see that both tapes and tape decks are everywhere — and not just at thrift stores. Companies still make brand new tape decks, and you can buy plenty of blank cassettes in bulk at sites like tapes.com. Snag a few for your own mixtape purposes at anywhere from Walgreens to Walmart to Urban Outfitters, the latter of which also carries recently released cassettes by the likes of Father John Misty, Ryan Adams, and Lana Del Rey.
Those releases are possible because traditional labels have caught onto the trend and are teaming up with tape labels. Locally, Hearts & Plugs artist Gold Light released a run of tapes courtesy of Academia last year. On a larger scale, acts like the Black Lips, the Flamin’ Groovies, and Weezer have dropped cassettes with one of the biggest tape labels in the country, California’s Burger Records. Specializing in garage rock and rock ‘n’ roll acts, these guys are great examples of how well the cassette-tape format is thriving at the moment.
Since Burger launched in 2007, the label has released over 1,000 titles, with over 90 percent of those being cassette tapes. Each run is different, but the label has been known to produce as many as 1,000 tapes for one release. Right now, they’re averaging about 200 titles a year, though one year they hit the 300 mark — most likely due to their tape-a-day experiment, the very promotion that inspired Greg and Ellen to begin Academia. If Burger could do it, they could too, they thought.
For Burger founders Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, cassette tapes never went out of style. “We grew up on tapes,” Rickard says. “We knew pop culture stopped manufacturing tapes in 2000, so we started making them in 2007. They’re just affordable, and they sound good to us. And it was a way to get music heard cheaply.”
But more than that, cassette tapes are also about creating something that could reverberate through the community. “We’re investing in our friends’ dreams and aspirations,” Rickard says. “We work with so many cool, obscure bands people don’t hear otherwise. Even just very local stuff from our neighborhood — it’s like we’re documenting a time and place, and that’s pretty special in its own merits.”
Another California label, Collected Recordings, also proudly uses cassettes as its chief format, and it has Charleston roots, too. It was co-founded by Charleston native Maxton Stenstrom, who moved to Los Angeles to go into the music industry with his business partner Luke Kim. Last month, Collected Recordings rereleased, on tape, Street Chasers by Holy City artist Contour, a.k.a. Khari Lucas. For Stenstrom and Kim, cassettes are superior to CDs. “Tapes were immediately our choice as we started the label,” Kim says. “On our end, it was the cheapest format to work with and ensured our up-front costs would be manageable.”
The love of cassettes is also celebrated with all-tape podcasts (like the experimental/avant garde/noise podcast on tabsout.com) and tapes-only DJs, like Awesome Tapes from Africa — that’s the name of the DJ and L.A.-based label by Brian Shimkovitz. He started it all in order to highlight unique African music he’d discovered. “I had been living in Ghana on a Fulbright grant doing research on the hip-hop movement there in the early 2000s, and I came back with hundreds of cassettes,” he says. After that, he started a blog to bring attention to the artists and has since turned into a self-proclaimed stalker, spending hours every week tracking the musicians down so they can make a profit. Thanks to his efforts, many of them have been featured on NPR, and now the goal of Awesome Tapes from Africa has changed somewhat. “I recently ceased pressing cassettes,” he says. “My main goal is to make these artists money, and selling cassettes doesn’t make them money.”
Clearly cassettes aren’t for everyone, but for guys like Academia, there’s still a very real place for tapes in the modern world. “I think there’s always going to be an interest in older formats, and even more than cassettes, there’s going to be a shift back away from everything just being online and at your fingertips,” Greg says. “I do think that some of the tactile stuff was really important, and there is still something different about reading a book rather than e-reading.
“Over time, more people will notice that there is an experience that you’re not having anymore with an object, with music,” he adds. “And I think that tapes sort of allow you to keep that tradition alive.”
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