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Meet the Cassette Labels That Are Returning Dance Music to Its DIY Roots

There's a low cost for high fidelity.

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19 November 2015, 10:24am

Wikimedia Commons

Between the undisputed popularity of streaming services and the resurgence of vinyl, cassette tapes fall into a cultural no-man's land. They aren't vintage enough like, say, a Super Nintendo, nor as advanced as an Xbox One; they're more akin to the thoroughly shelved first-gen Playstation — a technological mole-hill, collecting dust somewhere between classic and modern. Yet, cassette labels are still emerging, running, and thriving.

They are cheap to produce, disgustingly cheap in fact, a definite part of the medium's lifespan. A run of around 200 tapes will only set you back a mere $700, according to Richard MacFarlane of 1080p Records. Not bad for something you can physically touch, smell, or even throw out the window of your car, before backing over it repeatedly — which, I can tell you from experience, is still way more satisfying than dragging a folder to the trash icon.

Cassettes' low cost also breeds ballsy output — DJ Scotch Bonnet and Giant Claw immediately spring to mind as delightfully oddball. With lower overhead, taking risks can become more appealing. Whereas the weird and wonderful world of tape releases was once dominated by punk, noise, and industrial labels, nowadays some of the most interesting electronic music out there is being crammed into those cumbersome looking rectangles.

Aesthetics aside, they still sound better than you might think too. Granted, they'll never sound anywhere near as good as vinyl, but they're still miles ahead of MP3s.

If you're still unsure why anyone would run a cassette label in an era littered with technological advances, read on! We reached out to some our favourite tape imprints so they could weigh in on the subject.

1080p (Vancouver, BC)

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THUMP: What's it like to run a cassette label in a digital age?

Richard MacFarlane: It was always my aim to split things 50/50 between digital and cassettes with 1080p. I wanted it to be viable for the artists and myself financially and also to get the music into as many channels as possible, which is why digital distribution is super important. I noticed once I started to release vinyl just how small the tape "market" is comparably. You can sell out a run of a few hundred records easily in a day, whereas a run of 200 tapes will take a month or two at best.

Apart from financial reasons, what's the draw of cassettes?
Obviously tapes are a niche format but they're still a really good one. They sound really great; they're small and cheap to ship; they can be manufactured very quickly. They extend a DIY or grassroots culture of exchange and are the perfect platform for any artist to make their early experiments on. I still always feel hung up on how bad it is to create more physical objects at this point in time, i.e. environmental costs of shipping and manufacturing, but I guess it could be worse.

Orchid Tapes (Queens, NYC)

THUMP: What's it like to run a cassette label in a digital age?

Warren Hildebrand: When I started the label in 2010, independent blog and MP3 culture was in full swing. Starting a project that focused mainly on the physicality of releasing music felt like a really punk way to cut through the endless tapestry of music files cycling through Blog-spots and RSS feeds. Being able to put time and effort into making artifacts that would actually be in someone's room and not just on their Macbook screen felt like a good and necessary companion to the rapid-paced accessibility of internet-based music discovery.

With the rise of streaming services in the past few years and people's reluctance to spend money on digital versions of albums, I think that buying something like cassettes or limited edition vinyl is a way that people can feel like they're still directly supporting artists and small labels and getting a version of the music they like in a physical form.

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Apart from financial reasons, what's the draw of cassettes?
The draw of cassettes for me originally was that it was like a canvas within a canvas; you spend all this time making music that you're proud of and then you get excited again about making the format it occupies look cool. There are so many different ways that you can bring in your own ideas when it comes to customizing every element of a tape release: the colour and design of the actual tape, how you dub them, the J-cards and how you print them / what information you choose to include, even the packaging that you ship them in.

Orange Milk (Columbus, Ohio)

THUMP: What's it like to run a cassette label in a digital age?

Seth Graham: Orange Milk isn't the first small label I've run, I used to do DIY releases before the Facebook and Twitter world, and that was slightly different. We started the label on the idea of releasing Caboladies' Crowded Out Memory on LP. We just decided to do tapes as well, because it allows us to release records without having much risk. We just try to make sure we convey a sense of value with every release — with the artwork and how we present it. I like how cassettes allow for more intuitive and carefree curation/documentation of how we feel artists are contributing to the evolution of the music world.

Apart from financial reasons, what's the draw of cassettes?
I don't want to sound like a jerk here, but I think cassettes are mainly to satisfy the physical release and to allow decisions in curation to be driven towards what we want to release over what might sell. I do like that cassettes pretty much allow anyone to try their hand at composing an audio piece and releasing it. In a way, the cassette world is a way to get your foot in the door of the music world, I like that democratic aspect of it. I don't think it's about the fidelity, I just think it's a cheap way to have physical media that literally says, "Hey, I exist." The same could be said for any physical media, but with tapes, it feels special, like a toy or a token, something you can put on your shelf and identify with. I really think that is what art/music comes down to for most, what shapes their identity, and people want a physical token of that identity to see feel, remind and reinforce.

Tesla Tapes (Salford, UK)

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THUMP: What's it like to run a cassette label in a digital age?

Paddy Shine: I've only been running Tesla Tapes for a few years, so I can't compare it with what it would have been like before the digital age. There's the really obvious benefits of Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Mixcloud and social media in reaching audiences worldwide. Plus, you can have the physical analogue thing, with the easily downloadable digital version. There's something there for the collectors and folk that just want to have the music on their hard drives or whatever. I like that. I don't really care about formats too much myself because at the end of the day it's about the music and the music reaching as many folk as it should. So yeah, I'm down with the digital age, but I'm definitely drawn to the old-school physicality of tape and the ritualistic approach to listening and buying music. Cassettes have been a part of my life since I was like five years old or something, I don't even consider it 'a thing' that people still release stuff on tape.

Apart from financial reasons, what's the draw of cassettes?
All the most influential music for me from my youth was passed to me on tape: compilations from friends and crazy old punk uncles, mixtapes of hip hop and jungle hastily recorded from radio shows, and buying shitloads of bootleg tapes. They were always affordable and they always stacked up nicely in my room. I remember being very pleasantly surprised that there were still really good tape manufacturing and duplication companies in the UK and that it was so quick, easy, and cheap to get them done up. It seemed like the perfect way to start putting out all this great music I was surrounded by. Sonically, they are interesting. So much lo-fi stuff sounds like it's made for tape. I personally like to get things mastered specially for tape. Stephen Bishop from Opal Tapes has done loads of that for me, he really knows his shit and Sam Weaver of Cuspeditions helps me out with getting things sounding right to go on a tape. Tapes are great. You can be rough as hell with them and just red it out, but they still retain the sound quality or just end up sounding better by being a little bit fucked up.

NNA Tapes (Burlington, Vermont)

THUMP: What's it like to run a cassette label in a digital age?

Toby Aronson: Within the culture of music that we operate the cassette just seems to be a bit of a norm. We see our record label in a more curatorial and music promotion light. The format is important for collectors but we want to be able to present music to music fans as well as collectors.

Apart from financial reasons, what's the draw of cassettes?
They've strangely become more reverent in the digital age it seems? Why... not sure. It could be because they are small, durable, fun, nostalgic and can easily contain that download code no problem.


Daryl Keating is on Twitter.