In spring of last year, Stephen Rose shot an email to Jen Long and Matt Flag about an idea he had. Each of the three headed independent labels that release cassette tapes: Rose had SEXBEAT, Long ran Kissability and had a hand in Transgressive Records alongside Rose, and Flag oversaw Suplex Cassettes. Meeting his colleagues at a pub in Central London, Rose fleshed out his pitch: He wanted to create Cassette Store Day, a special date for music shops to promote cassette culture -- an idea playing on Record Store Day, the annual "holiday" established six years prior.
The trio began hammering out the logistics by throwing around questions: How could it be pulled off? Would it be a reflection of Record Store Day? Should they set up events for stores in London, or tell everyone around the world? How much time would they personally have to work on this? But at the idea's very core were bigger issues that needed to be resolved. "If I step back," recalls Flag, 33, "the first questions [were] probably, 'Is this a dumb idea? Is this even worth doing? Is this best left as one of those funny ideas you had in the pub on a Friday night or is it something that we should actually do?'"
They decided to go for it. The first official Cassette Store Day (CSD) happened on September 7, 2013. A handful of labels released over 50 special-edition tapes featuring a variety of rock bands including At the Drive-In, Fucked Up, Animal Collective and Haim. 26 stores in locales as disparate as London, Brooklyn, Finland, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Italy and Toronto presented special events.
On Saturday, September 27, Cassette Store Day returns, with events being held in stores across the U.S. and Europe in several new locations, plus a ton of new tapes--250 in the U.S. alone. The Gaslight Anthem, Foxygen, They Might Be Giants, Karen O, Best Coast, Madvillain and several other worthwhile punk- and indie-rock-leaning musicians are getting the cassette treatment.
With the cynicism that comes with talking about celebrating and selling tapes in 2014, CSD has modest goals but a bright future.
Don't Call it a Comeback
Do some quick poking around online, and you'll find trend piece after trend piece discussing cassette tapes' apparent cultural revival. Initially geared toward voice recording/dictation purposes, cassettes as we know them today were first produced by Philips in the early 1960s. (The tech for magnetic recordings had been in the works for decades before that.) As sound quality improved and Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979, the cassette's portability and customization steadily made it the format du jour for recording and selling music. After peaking in the 1980s and 1990s, tapes started disappearing, as CDs and then digital music formats took over in the '90s and 2000s. Still, Flag contests the popular idea that tapes died.
"Actually, I don't think they ever went away," he says, referencing their role in mix tape culture and a vessel for releases in underground-friendly genres like hardcore, indie rock and hip-hop. "It's just a format that meant a lot to us, and we still release cassettes for our own labels and for our own bands, and buy them."
Flag sees several upsides to the format: the cute, endearing look; the warm sound quality; their affordability to produce. In England, he says, he could spend £1000 to make 400 seven-inch records, whereas 100 cassettes would only cost £100. This creates a better shot at viability when getting new bands' music out there. Instead of its first release being on a seven-inch, a band could debut via tape before transitioning over. Of course, nostalgia has its upsides, too.
"I still have the rose-tinted glasses with making mix tapes for friends, or being made mix tapes, or taping my best friend's older brother's Dead Kennedys records 'cause I didn't enough pocket money to buy any myself," says Flag, a lifelong Walkman user. "That's how I got into music, so for me, tapes hold a bigger purpose."
When plotting CSD 2013, he felt that the same kind of feelings would hold true for other members of the cassette selling and buying community. The CSD team knew there was a market -- not one in the same sense as digital music, CDs or vinyl but a market nonetheless -- so they got to work, refining Rose's premise.
If You Build It...
Early on, Rose, Long and Flag put circulated a press release around the cassette community to gauge interest in the idea of CSD. (Strangely enough, the label Volcanic Tongue half-jokingly put on an unrelated "Cassette Store Day" in 2012.) Every website they read wrote about it and interest in the idea ballooned. The CSD team received hundreds of emails. While a few labels thought CSD was dumb or ridiculous, shop owners from Argentina, Finland and elsewhere all wanted to be part of the day's events, putting on a tape swap or a listening session. Soon, the team were spending three to four hours every night with laptops in front of them responding to messages from all over. They lost money doing it, what with starting costs like web hosting fees.
"We had some small targets we wanted to hit -- just have a bit of fun, have a few drinks, have a few cassettes released on the day. That all changed when Bella Union and the Flaming Lips said, 'Well, we're going to do a Flaming Lips cassette,'" Flag says, referencing a tape of 2013's The Terror. Though the team was initially happy with small labels doing special releases for CSD, labels like Domino and 4AD joining in meant that the event would gain more exposure, and there would be a more variety in established and unestablished names.
Flag unequivocally speaks of CSD 2013 as a success, noting all the good feedback he heard from people involved. He spent the day at Rough Trade, a popular London record shop, where two of the bands releasing tapes played an in-store.
BBC and Sky News cameras came by to cover it, and the store got a lot of traffic--some of which came from people queuing up in the morning before Rough Trade even opened. Rough Trade, he says, sold more tapes than it had ever sold before, monetarily and unit-wise. As the head of Suplex, Flag had 300 tapes made -- 100 apiece of three releases -- and received about 10 tapes back, which he then sold from Suplex's online shop the following week.
One of the CSD team's strategies for success was emphasizing that labels produce a modest amount of tapes because they didn't want labels to make a bunch of cassettes that would go unsold and leave them with a bad taste in their mouths.
The Prognosis Across the Pond
Being a European-born concept, there was no special representative for CSD 2013's North American events. This time, North America is being handled by Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard of Burger Records, a music store/record label based out of Fullerton, California. Bohrman was initially wary about participating in the 2013 edition but decided to anyway because Burger is so involved in the cassette scene. The record label would sell out of its custom-for-CSD releases, Suicidal Tendencies' debut and Twink's Think Pink, that day, and the store's tape sales doubled the usual amount.
"Stores wanted to participate [this year], and with the success of Record Store Day, I can see why," says Bohrman, 33. "[On] both the Black Friday and the April [versions of Record Store Day], we sell a ton of records. It's definitely beneficial for small, independent records to participate in things like this so it just gets more people in their store and helps sell more stuff, which is a necessity. When you're dealing records, it's do or die with everything you do."
Picking up the slack on the American side has meant contacting tons of stores and labels, but Bohrman finds it rewarding and the future of CSD promising. He feels that it will gain momentum with time, but it's going to take a lot more hard work to make it a credible enough day to silence the critics.
Burger has been making cassettes since 2007 and sold close to 350,000 tapes in the past seven years. The label has encountered criticism and questions for making tapes from the beginning -- "Why do you make cassettes?" and "Nobody has cassette players" -- but Bohrman says that some critics have turned a corner. Like Flag, he finds a lot to love about the format. He notes the price on the consumer's end: it's $5 for a Burger cassette in person, $6 online -- around less than half of what it costs for an LP or CD. Bands, too, have something special and tangible to sell on the road when they make tapes. And for niche record labels, it allows them to make a product that big labels don't have enough of an audience for.
"The cons are that you specifically don't have a tape player so you can't play it, so it makes you angry that it's out there and that it's being sold and that you have no use for it, but you're not thinking about the millions of kids who just got cars from their parents who were driving in the '80s and '90s who have cassette players in their cars," he says, who recalls his own youth spent listening to tapes in his car.
Back on Deck
Flag is also used to the comments about redundancy, outdated technology and the lack of a market for a concept like CSD. "I couldn't count the amount of people on Twitter that said there was no such thing as a cassette store," he says, sighing. "It was funny the first time."
It's easy enough to find critics of the concept online. Per BBC, NME News Editor Dan Stubbs, described CSD as "misplaced nostalgia," and Houston Press' Corey Deiterman called CSD "the dumbest thing ever" because it celebrates a lousy, inconvenient format. Flag encourages a policy of live and let live. "If you don't like something, it doesn't mean you have to not have it around," he says. (Personally, he finds CDs "lifeless.") He doesn't want to convince someone that tapes are better than vinyl because he loves vinyl. Cassettes are not there to rival any other format but rather be relevant in their own way.
Outside of these niche circles, he's hesitant to say there'll be mainstream publicity again because they don't sell cassette players anymore, and the importance of digital music and vinyl's resurgence limits the room for it in major retailers. Cassettes aren't recorded by Nielsen SoundScan sales either, he says, so their sales will do largely undocumented. Still, that's all OK with him. He just wants CSD to continue.
At first, the CSD team didn't originally know if there would be a second edition of the day, but they started planning again in April -- this time without Rose as he didn't have enough time to get involved. Flag hopes to some day have trustworthy CSD representatives spread across major territories -- Japan, Australia, China -- to promote the same images and ideas as the English and American teams. Then the public can decide from whether it will grow naturally or hit its plateau. Perhaps cassettes will come back into a few shops on days that aren't Cassette Store Day. "I want that cassettes become a little bit more of our musical culture again," Flag says, "not the funny little brothers next to vinyl."
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