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A sonic rewind

Yes, those dated keepsakes, cassette tapes, are back in the mix.

August 01, 2010|August Brown

When the vinyl LP began its modest but highly publicized commercial comeback a few years ago, the format felt easy to love again. With sprawling artwork, pristine sound quality and the adoring ritual of flipping album sides, its return united young bohemia and their boomer parents alike.

Not so for the lowly cassette tape. To mainstream music fans who spent the '80s detangling spools with a paper clip, listening to heat-damaged sounds warble out of the speakers and blindly fast-forwarding and reversing to get to a favorite song, cassettes might be the most despised, instantly discarded and fidelity-challenged medium to ever vie for mass popularity.

"Tapes remind me of Dollar Stores and K-Mart," said Chris Jahnle, the 22-year-old co-founder of Kill/Hurt, a new Hollywood record label specializing in small batches of outre noise-rock released on cassettes dubbed in his living room. He's no Luddite -- Jahnle works in a major label's digital marketing department, and co-founder Katrina Bouza just wrapped up an internship at the hotly tipped L.A. indie label IAMSOUND Records. They know that "tape is like the weird uncle no one talks about," Jahnle said.

And yet across pockets of America and especially among shoestring record labels, DJs and boutique stores in Los Angeles, this weird uncle is again a welcome guest. A tiny but busy tape-based music culture is growing from roots in economic necessity, thrift-store crate-digging and, yes, a pride in being difficult for its own sake.

But cassettes also carry a different nostalgia, one not tracked by SoundScan. They evoke high-school mixes from nascent crushes and trips to the beach soundtracked by sun-bleached tunes recorded off the radio. The emotional archaeology of trawling through shoeboxes of cracked cassettes has a resonance that iTunes doesn't offer.

After all, Jahnle said, "Mp3s sound terrible anyways, so why not have something that sounds terrible that you can hold?"

Originally marketed for dictation and portable voice recording, mass-produced cassettes became a format for distributing music in the U.S. in the '60s. Their notoriously sub-par fidelity improved throughout the '70s, and with the rise of the portable Sony Walkman in the 1980s and as automobiles came equipped with standard cassette decks, the tape became a second viable mainstream format alongside vinyl LPs and later compact discs. (The less said about the 8-track tape of the 1970s, the better.)

Like Mp3s, tapes compensated for their relatively degraded sound quality with portability and, notoriously, the ability for fans to record and share music. This sparked a small panic -- now impossibly quaint -- among record labels worried that home taping would gut retail record sales.

But even as the compact disc usurped it as a mass medium -- as early as 2007, pre-recorded cassette albums constituted only 0.05% of all SoundScan-reported album sales, and in 2009 only 34,000 were sold -- those convenient features kept the cassette alive at the musical margins.

For artists in fringe genres such as noise and garage-rock who want to document their music but only expect to sell a few copies, home-dubbed tape remains an economical godsend. By trawling eBay with a few hundred bucks, an artist or novice label head can buy used duplication equipment and bang out a hundred copies overa weekend.

"Tape fits in with a belief system of how intimate music is made," said Britt Brown, co-founder with his wife, Amanda Brown, of Eagle Rock-based Not Not Fun, which releases much of their catalog of psychedelic, noisy rock by bands such as Pocahaunted and Robedoor on cassette. "And I've never seen such voraciousness as in people who want a limited-run tape."

That fetishistic quality is part of what has sustained the format. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, a longtime tape aficionado, curated a 2005 book, "Mix Tape," dedicated to the art and culture of homemade tape culture. For years, the L.A. label Deathbomb Arc nurtured a subscription club of home-assembled tapes for artists such as Lucky Dragons in editions of 100. Not Not Fun has released cassettes wrapped in medical gauze and cassettes taped to beer cozies (with a lukewarm beer inside it).

Demand is high enough for labels like the La Puente-based Bridgetown Records and Fullerton's Burger Records to put out dozens of strange and abrasive projects a year and turn a self-sustaining profit. The cost of professional duplication is also low enough -- usually less than a dollar a copy with artwork -- that editions of a few hundred make economic sense, unlike with CD or vinyl duplication.

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