Music Features

Pressing “rewind” in an era of technological “fast forward:” D.I.Y. Cassette Culture finds relevance in the shadows of digital media — Part 1

“Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you can help.”

Cassette versions of In God We Trust, Inc., the 1981 EP from Dead Kennedys, wore this text on its B-side, (or backside if you consider the message). 

At 14 or 15 years old, I can remember reading this message on a copy of the cassette I’d borrowed, (coincidentally with the full intent of dubbing it onto a blank tape), and thinking it was one of the most righteous things I’d ever seen, the band having left that side completely blank, its 15 or so minutes of actual music recorded on Side 1. 

In God We Trust, Inc. has remained a significant album in my life for a few reasons:

1). The music, obviously.

2). The potential to be creative with cassettes became evident.  Thinking about it now, the band was able to manipulate the format, simply leaving a side of it blank and thusly manufacturing a political and anti-commercial statement.  In some ways, the tape itself made a bolder impression than the music.

3). The state of the record industry and the threat of its demise at the hands of cassette junkies eager to get their little hands all over purchased music so that it could be mass duplicated is laughable now.  But seriously, how prophetic.

4). It was my introduction to cassette culture in relation to what some would now consider “filesharing.”  I was officially tied to a primitively propagated but forward thinking lot who utilized available technology to influence its own primordial music education with a portable and versatile format.

“As a child of the 80s the cassette was the format,” says Mike Donovan, member of the San Franciscan lo-fi band Sic Alps and founder of the Folding Cassettes label.  “I always bought cassettes new and dubbed them for friends.  Later making mix tapes for cute girls became the art form.”

Cassettes:  A means to fortify your music collection inexpensively, trade music, carry music and reproduce your own personalized albums all while keeping intact its physicality.  The cassette is a relic that some still hold near and dear and it’s resurfaced in an age accustomed to digitized, intangible and disposable media.  In the tradition of Do-It-Yourself underground philosophy, outsider artists and labels are finding ways to reinvigorate the format.  “From my perspective there isn’t any attempt to make an impact on the physical or digital models that larger labels/artists and the majority of music on the whole follows,” states Nathaniel Ritter, owner of the cassette label Brave Mysteries whose roster includes Rose Croix, Wormsblood and Love Cult.  “It is a way provide a tangible product, an artifact if you will, to dedicated followers of underground music.”

The mission of many of these labels and artists is to keep music physical.  Though vinyl has enjoyed a reawakening thanks to the immediate “hipness” factor the format’s adopted, the cassette offers a cheap alternative to releasing music via download only.  “In a lot of ways, releasing anything in the physical realm is purely to combat the digital.”  Kevin Stebner runs Bart Records, which has put out cassettes from obscure acts like GreyScreen, NEEDS and Sissys.  “The really important thing for me is to put out music in actual physical form. Digital media is essentially disposable. I wanted to stray from that (though some Bart releases do come with downloads). There is just something about the physicality of an actual music format, something one can hold and look at. There is so much more to ‘music’ than just the sound vibrations that enter your ears, but also the artwork you hold in your hand, the lyrics you ready, the play button you press.  Or, at a show, it's more than just the sound coming out of the speakers, but it's also the sight of movement of fingers over guitar strings, the jostling of the people around you. So with digital, there is no physicality in just some text on the top of the iTunes screen. So, even if it's just a disgusting piece of pink plastic, there's at least that interaction and physicality in it.”

“The ironic thing to me is that cassettes offer artists and labels the same thing that downloads do: a form of distribution for music that is cheaper and more flexible that manufacturing LPs or (to a lesser extent) CDs,” says Bruce Adams, owner of Flingco Sound Systems (FSS).  “The difference being that cassettes give artists the possibility to package music in very individualized ways.”

“Portable, easy to produce and inexpensive, you can make as many as you want, you can tape over them if you want so they're better for the environment, they look cool, if you lose a Walkman you don't lose ALL of your music.”  Ben Parrish, owner of the cassette label Dog Daze Tapes, released DEMO in 2010, a cassette compilation of the demo tracks that comprised singer/guitarist Marnie Stern’s debut album for Kill Rock Stars, In Advance of the Broken Arm.  “When I started Dog Daze I wanted to do a few things,” Parish explained.  “Keep things in print, pay artists fairly, not have to sell all my belongings to fund releases, etc.  The cassette/digital combo seemed like the easiest way to do that.”   

Karl Hofstetter of Joyful Noise, though, feels that digital music has allowed for physical media to regain its footing in the digital age.  “Digital music has worked against the CD (and will eventually cause its extinction),” he begins.  “But it has contributed to consistent and substantial increases (in) vinyl sales.  I believe it's the main reason for the cassette resurgence. The need for the super-fan to have a physical object isn't going away, it's just no longer essential to have the object in order to hear the music. The fact that physical mediums are now a luxury and not a necessity is resulting in physical music becoming more limited, more elaborate, and more specialized. And the cassettes are a part of this movement. We also package nearly all of our releases with digital download codes, so the preferred practical media is being combined with interesting and worthwhile physical objects.”

Joyful Noise reissued Bug, the classic album from Dinosaur Jr., on a limited run cassette.  The selling point with this reissue was that, in the time of its initial release in 1987, cassettes were preferred and Bug had been originally released that way.  “This was (I think) the first cassette reissue on its original format ever,” says Hofstetter.  “I was kind of amazed at the amount of people who told us they still had these albums on cassette, or (that) they owned them at one time. I think for those people who grew to love Dinosaur Jr. in the 80s by listening to the cassette, it was really special for them to see it back in the original format. And in that sense it's probably more ‘authentic’ to them than a CD reissue.”

[Click here to read Part 2 of Pressing "rewind" in an era of technological "fast forward"]