In 2010, Billboard Magazine's annual album sales evaluation read thusly: physical sales were sinking like a septic tank full of concrete, except for vinyl. Sales of records were up 14 percent to 2.8 million units that year. Don't go proclaiming vinyl an industry savior. It's hardly enough to resuscitate the flagging physical music industry back to its '90s heights, but the vinyl resurgence has been acknowledged even by big-time retailers. Best Buy and FYE have been stocking not only classic vinyl reissues but also shilling USB turntables that can convert my grandparents' neglected Lawrence Welk LPs into shiny invisible MP3s I'll never play.
A less heralded revival is the reemergence of the cassette tape, the supposedly lowly medium that rode the ebb of the vinyl wave but was trampled by compact discs in the early '90s. As the vinyl uptick has gained recognition in the last few years, boutique tape labels like Night People and Not Not Fun have established a proving ground for emerging acts like Dirty Beaches and Peaking Lights.
According to Billboard, 60 percent of vinyl sales in 2010 were generated by indie acts with the rest constituted by classic heritage artists. Both vinyl and cassette tapes have unique sonic and visual qualities that "cool kids," music lovers, and rabid collectors appreciate. So why haven't tapes trickled into Urban Outfitters, giving ghetto-blasters a nostalgia sales bump?
Perhaps it's just a matter of time. For now, tapes remain a hand-assembled staple of small-time independent labels. In keeping the cassette alive, these three Phoenix-area tape labels point to the cost-friendliness of tapes, their modest and intimate ethos and, of course, their unique acoustic properties.
Melissa Marriott says she founded Le Horror with her friend Brett Thomas in early 2010 as an active way to put out songs by Thomas' acoustic project, The Prevailing Nothing. "[Thomas] was going to put out his tape anyway," Marriott says, "and he'd been trying to encourage me to do something in the music scene that was more participatory."
"It was something I knew I was capable of doing," she says.
Capability is key. Not only do they take up less space in the tour van, but cassette tapes act as a financially feasible release for bands either writing between albums or, most often, working toward their very first full-length. "Cassettes are a lot less overwhelming for some people, especially if you think you don't have enough material to fill up an LP," she explains.
Christian Filardo not only curates all the music released on his label, Holy Page, but also designs every aspect of the packaging, essentially creating an on-going visual art project.
A studio art undergraduate at ASU and occasional .gif artist for our sister blog, Jackalope Ranch, Filardo recognizes the appeal of big vinyl album art but likes to think of tapes as a more tactile canvas to explore. "A tape has the J-card, the case color, the tape label, the color of the actual tape and whatever other shit you can fit inside the case," he says.
Beginning with his older brother Tom's solo pop project (Tom, formerly of Asleep in the Sea), Holy Page has twelve tape releases from artists across the country, some assembled with materials like homemade paper stock, stickers, and baseball cards. "This tape thing is probably channeled by my younger obsession with binders of cards-- being able to organize my cards and look at them and say something about each one," he says.
While sometimes playfully aping the look of classic cassette covers, Holy Page tape art most often involves natural landforms in heady prisma-colors, spliced with heavily-Photoshopped images that betray their JPEG nature. "I feel like Holy Page gives off the vibe of a person from the '80s who went into the future and got access to a computer."
The various Holy Page logos act as the project's stark centerpiece, using heavy religious symbols like crosses and the Star of David. Filardo says his use of religious ideograms is an attempt to redefine the context of these common forms. A book next to a cross doesn't necessarily mean it's a Bible, he says. "I want to kill visual stereotypes and create my own dialogue through the means of distributing music."
"It's coincidental, but all the bands I've been working with want to put out tapes," says Tago Bella founder Jacob Howard. "I feel like it's a new revival of the medium."
Tago Bella is a cassette-only label consisting primarily of dark and heavy Arizona locals: Howard's own band Drainbow, ambient noiseniks Wolves of Isle Royale, Tempe black metal band Fanapth and New York Krautrockers Sun Spells (featuring Owen Marshall from Phoenix's Whisperlights).
Howard says the atmospheric sound of a tape has a similar appeal to the crackling warmth of vinyl, but there is an added intensity that nicely supplements Tago Bella's heavy sounds. "It adds flare that wasn't intended to be on the track," he says.
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To note the difference, Howard cites a passage from the book Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture edited by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. "It adds this intense feeling just because of how they're recorded and dubbed," he explains. "[Moore] said you can hear the pressure placed on the tape as it was being recorded."
The acoustic properties of cassettes feel especially mystical for Howard. He isn't afraid to admit that the science behind how sound waves get transferred to magnetic cassette tape still eludes him. "I don't even quite understand how it works," Howard laughs.
Drainbow and Wolves of Isle Royale have a cassette release show scheduled Saturday, January 14, at Trunk Space.