The flip side of the cassette tape revival
In popular culture, the cassette tape seems at the dawn of a new revolution. Well-known bands like Dinosaur Jr. and Eagles of Death Metal are releasing and re-releasing albums on cassettes. The Boston Globe and The New York Times published articles about the renewed interest in the format late last year.
But, in the Seacoast, cassettes have always been around. Nate Rubin, drummer for the Newmarket-based punk group Heavy Pockets, remembers seeing contemporary local bands putting out tapes as far back as 2008.
“IAMJAPAN (a now defunct punk band) made a tape collecting everything they’d made,” said Rubin. “It seemed kind of goofy to me at the time, but they had been going to punk shows for a while and it seemed pretty normal to them. I remember they made fun of me for thinking it was weird.”
Since then, vinyl and cassettes have seen a rise in popularity among bands and fans alike. Cassettes, more so than CDs and mp3s, go hand-in-hand with vinyl for small bands trying to connect with an audience and get their music out there. Both formats offer something physically appealing for fans. The artwork and liner notes on a tape or LP give music collectors something to drool over.
While vinyl has become the star attraction, cassettes benefit the bands in ways that LPs don’t. Unlike vinyl, which you have to send to a pressing plant, cassettes can be made in large quantities for relatively cheap. Rubin and Heavy Pockets bassist Zac Mayeux started recording cassettes under the name Cat Dead, Details Later Records as an economical way to put out their music.
“We bought a tape duplicator together, and we can put tapes together all by ourselves with pretty minimal effort,” said Rubin. “It also makes it pretty easy to put out stuff by other bands without worrying if we can sell all of them or not, which is a nice thing to be in the position to be able to do.”
“We can sell (the cassettes) for like $3 or $4, and it allows people to at least have the music.”
— Ezra Cohen of Charles
Ezra Cohen, bassist for New Hampshire band Charles, said the appeal of tapes is the immediacy with which bands can distribute the music.
“Vinyl’s become more popular, but because of that, it’s been tougher to make because there’s so little equipment and so many people trying to put out their records,” he said. “Plants are so clogged up. That’s why it takes six or seven months to get your record back. Cassettes haven’t had that yet. You can send them right in and have them in a month.”
Cohen also noted that tape duplicators, which can record up to three tapes at a time, are still surprisingly cheap to buy.
“We can sell (the cassettes) for like $3 or $4,” said Cohen. “And it allows people to at least have the music.”
Of course, producing tapes that inexpensively can result in lower sound quality. According to Cohen, some bands circumvent the issue by offering codes in each cassette to download or stream the albums online. That way, you’ve got a format that’s entertaining and car-friendly, but you’ve also got the digital files tucked away for when the tapes go awry.
“Even if you don’t have a tape player, you’ll still get the download code and the album for $5, which isn’t bad, really,” said Cohen.
CDs can be made relatively cheaply as well, but they are more fragile and are not as prized for their artwork, Cohen said.
“You can put together cool packaging with (tapes), put some cool stuff inside (the cassette cases). With a CD, it’s pretty much just a disc,” said Cohen. “I feel like you can do more fun stuff (with tapes).”
Charles and Manchester-based indie rock band Pleasure Gap are both participating in a cassette promotion for the Boston-based record label Midnight Werewolf Records. The label is releasing three tapes by three bands in three months.
“When I hear my band on cassette, it’s like I hear a band from the early ’90s. I hear the rustic time travel in the sound.” — Ryan Egan
of Pleasure Gap
Pleasure Gap singer and guitarist Ryan Egan said nostalgia stimulated the band’s interest in making a cassette.
“When I hear my band on cassette, it’s like I hear a band from the early ’90s,” said Egan. “I hear the rustic time travel in the sound. You hear this retro-ish sound that you can’t capture with anything digital. It doesn’t belong, but it feels comfortable and happy.”
Despite the rise in popularity of cassettes, many bands doubt that tape players will ever come back in the way that vinyl players have.
“You’ll see brand new vinyl players that have options to play cassettes,” said Sean Merkle, Pleasure Gap’s bassist. “Really, you could just go to a Salvation Army and buy cassette players for like $5.”
Bull Moose in Portsmouth has a shelf for modern cassettes that are priced as low as $7 and include everything from the recently released Ryan Adams cover album “1989” to Blink-182’s 1993 album “Buddha.” There is also a back room with shelves full of older tapes sold for 25 cents each. Bull Moose stores even hosted a Cassette Store Day, similar to Record Store Day, an annual nation-wide event where record shops promote limited-run items and special releases.
Bull Moose manager Garrison Nein, who used to be in a punk band called Transistor Transistor, said it wasn’t uncommon to find cassettes at merch tables during local shows as far back as 10 to 15 years ago. He said he’s seen “limited-run, tour-only cassettes” used for promotional purposes or as collector’s items.
“In my experience, it’s all under the umbrella of collecting music,” he said. “It’s just another way to get it out there. Something about the sound you get from that is obviously unique. Whether that’s good or bad is totally subjective. It’s like a fetishistic object about this band you care about. It’s fun.”
Some tapes are also appealing because they are rare. During Record Store Day last year, Bull Moose received a shipment of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack on cassette tape. The tapes sold out within a couple of days, Nein said.
Still, most musicians are uncertain of how long the tape craze will last.
“It’s convenient (because) it’s easy and cheap to get all the equipment now, but I doubt that many new tape decks will continue to be made,” said Rubin. “It’s so easy to record and copy music now, no one needs tapes. They’re just fun!”