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Sonic Rewind

A Surprising Comeback for Cassettes

by August Brown

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

2 August 2010

These music cassetes are on the racks for sell at Burger Records in Fullerton, California, on July 22, 2010. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/MCT) 

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 percent 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 over a 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.

The office of Burger Records is a clear case of how the long tail of cassette culture can eke out a small, thriving business. Founded by Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman in 2007, the label’s principals have a kind of spacey, goofy energy that’s lost to modernity and are most animated when enumerating favorite forgotten ‘70s punk acts or trawling through vintage surf-movie VHS discards. The retail arm of Burger, on an exurban stretch south of Cal State Fullerton, offers reams of coveted and kitschy vinyl and ratty couches for weekly movie nights.

But Burger’s ear for big hits in small genres gives its releases a reliable cachet that larger labels salivate over. “We sell out of every single tape we do, and I know Sub Pop is listening to everything we put out,” Bohrman said. Burger usually issues batches of 250 and charges $6 a copy, though some high-profile releases by bands like the Black Lips get 1,000 pressed.

Their business model doesn’t allow for huge profit margins. But their acumen is dead on. The aforementioned taste-making Seattle indie label Sub Pop signed two Burger-anointed acts (Jaill and Happy Birthday), and Burger throws high-profile parties at festivals such as South by Southwest.

Yet like with vinyl, there is an upper threshold of sales that tape culture will support. You’d be hard pressed to find a store in 2010 selling new cassette decks, even if Los Angeles has a unique advantage in this culture, where unlike in New York, most local fans of squalling noise-rock also own junky ‘90s sedans with tape decks.

But tape culture rewards magpies of tossed-off stereo equipment and thrift-store digging. Mark “Frosty” McNeill of the L.A.-based DJ collective Dublab recently revamped his cassette-DJ night at Silver Lake’s Hyperion Tavern, which highlights the weird universe of found sounds.

“Tape was really cheap to make, so you can find things like voice-therapy cassettes and far-out Third World pop,” said McNeill. “I remember Ariel Pink gave me a tape of his stuff that had clearly been dubbed from one tape to the next, so it was one of the worst-quality things I’d ever heard, but that also made it also one of the craziest.”

The format, however, will probably stay resigned to Internet mail order. Only niche outlets like Los Feliz’s Vacation, the Fairfax district’s Family bookstore and Chinatown’s Ooga Booga make shelf space for new releases. Duplication companies still in the business work mainly for Christian audiences dubbing sermons or academic presses printing lectures.

“Tape orders have definitely picked up from almost nothing in the last couple years, and it’s been almost entirely indie bands,” said Michael McKinney, the president of M2 Communications, the Pasadena-based CD and DVD duplication plant where Burger presses its cassettes. M2 issues between 6,000 and 10,000 tapes a month at around 70 cents apiece, McKinney said, a number clearly down from its ‘80s heyday of hundreds of thousands but up from its ‘90s and ‘00s doldrums of virtually zero.

The second wind of mass-produced cassettes may have a mechanical expiration date as well, as the motors, gears and tape heads (which read and amplify the information on the cassettes) used to manufacture the format become scarce. “It’s a novelty, and it will die down,” McKinney said.

If the format is to continue thriving, it will be in homes like the Browns’, where a life’s worth of tapes spill from every cabinet, and at stores like Burger that will haunt the dreams of obsessed record nerds decades in the future. The reasons tape failed in the mainstream is why it’s thriving in the margins today — it’s cheap but durable and easily duplicable.

It’s not the stuff of huge industry money, but it holds an allure.

“I get so nervous around iPods,” Amanda Brown said. “If someone made a hot-pink ghetto blaster, I swear that every kid at Hollywood High would have one.”

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