Cassettes are hip again

Indie bands embrace cheap, collectible medium to win new fans

Cassettes are making a true comeback, thanks to the efforts of more than a few local bands.

Obsolescence is subjective. Many people no longer have decks to play them in, but, like seemingly everything else associated with the ’80s, the cassette is making a comeback.

In Canada, the modern cassette craze began in Batchawana Bay, Ont., with the label Scotch Tapes. In 2009, the company released a soupy-sounding cassette from a Chuck Berry/Ramones-worshipping act out of Oakland, Calif. called Nobunny. Popular punk message board Terminal Boredom took note, and two hours later all 99 copies had sold out. The music on the tape sounds like it was recorded through heavy wool socks, but that didn’t deter collectors. Within a few months, copies of the tape were selling on eBay for five times the original $8 asking price.

Fast forward two years and Victoria is now full of devoted followers of the cassette craze. In the past year, local bands have released over two dozen tapes. Nearly half-a-dozen labels in town with names like “Bunghole” choose to almost exclusively release cassettes.

Fan Club Music Club is responsible for many current releases. The label, launched by Medicine Hat ex-pat Thomas Di Ninno and his brother Robert in summer 2010, has released 10 cassettes.

“We’re almost sold out of everything we’ve done so far,” Di Ninno says. “I guess it’s kind of a trend right now.”

Selling out tapes in Victoria isn’t abnormal. This is due as much to the current popularity of the format as it is to the limited presses. Most of Di Ninno’s releases are in runs of 50, but local bands who self-release are often more exclusive.

Open Relationship, an all-girl punk act, sold out the 10 copies of its first demo shortly after it was released last year. The tapes came packaged in a small green envelope with a Belmont cigarette, a tropical orange Durex condom, a pack of matches branded with the band’s name, and a stick of gum with a wrapper also bearing the band’s brand.

Lead singer Fiona Schick says the group chose to produce a limited number because making the cassettes was, “pretty laborious.”

Pop-punk/hard-rock genre-benders Babysitter have sold hundreds of copies of their tapes. The band’s first three cassettes, all sell-outs, have been reissued twice as “combo tapes.” Including these combos, the band has put out 11 cassettes since playing its first show in September 2010.

Most tapes have been self-released efforts in runs of 30 to 50. Lead singer and guitar player Kristian North says the band “would like to be putting out everything on vinyl, but it’s not as cost effective.”

North’s feelings are shared by his peers.

“I remember when I first started the label I wanted to only do vinyl, and I was like fuck tapes. I don’t want to do tapes. It’s the last thing I want to do,” says Di Ninno. He was soon swayed toward the format after realizing vinyl was costing him as much as $5.50 per unit to press, but he could make tapes for as cheap as 25 cents.

North admits cassettes don’t exactly mark a “high point in audio formatting,” but low price, mixed with ease of creation, makes the format attractive.

“Anybody can go to Value Village and buy a tape player with high-speed dubbing, and put out 30 or 50 tapes in a super easy and cheap manner,” says North.

But isn’t putting out CDs cheap and easy, too? Sure, but they don’t sell.

Tiemen Kuipers is the owner of Talk’s Cheap — a punk rock record store at the corner of Pandora and Government. “I can have a cassette on the shelves and sell 10 copies of a cassette demo. You have the same quality thing on a burnt CD and you sell two.”

Di Ninno has experienced a similar phenomenon. Although he’s selling out all his tapes, two of the CD releases listed on his label’s website are yet to move a single unit online. And they’ve been out for almost a year.

Collectors, such as Aaron Levin, prefer to consume cassettes because of the “array of erratic personality and behavioural flaws,” the format so commonly captures.

“It’s so much more convenient to play an MP3, but it’s so much more interesting and cooler to own cassettes,” says Levin.

Levin is the founder of popular underground Canadian music blog Weird Canada, and the owner of nearly 1,000 cassettes. He refers to his collection as, “on the small end” in comparison to those of his buddies.

Levin clearly loves cassettes, but for Kuipers the format is more of a novelty. His new cassette label, Heart Attack Rhythm, only releases music by punk bands that use drum machines. “Why not do the most ridiculous thing ever?” Kuipers says, “It’s a novelty for a novelty label.”

North has a hard time imagining kids buying cassettes at shows and rushing home to plunk them into their tape players. “These days I don’t even know if people buy music to listen to it anymore,” he says. “A tape obviously isn’t the best format.” Instead, he feels people buy tapes simply to have a physical representation of the band they like.

Kuipers doesn’t get buying a tape if you’re not going to listen to it, but he’s sure people do it. With so many tapes coming with download codes, he figures there are people out there with “pristine tape collection[s] that they’ve never played.”

These admissions make you wonder whether tape love is just another hipster trend. North admits it’s sort of ironic, “like people buying ’70s tourism T-shirts,” but that’s not where it ends. North says you really have to work toward a vinyl release, but with tapes you can pump out as many as you want, as often as you want. The freedom of the format allows you to follow a band in real-time. It’s a feeling, North says, people don’t get from digital because no one hustles out to download an album.

He says the DIY nature of tapes enhances the connection between bands and their fans. “It’s kinda cool to think that you buy a tape from a band, and that band actually just sat around in their living room drinking beer, making the tapes themselves.”

“It might be hip, but that just helps us get the music out there,” says Di Ninno, “It shouldn’t matter if it’s hip.”

North predicts that although tapes are trendy now, bands will get more obscure with their release formats. Babysitter recently played a gig with a Nanaimo band called the Madonna Bangers who had floppy disks for sale.

“That’s crazy man,” says North, “I don’t even know how you listen to a floppy disk.”

Di Ninno hasn’t even fully figured out cassettes yet. “It still seems ridiculous to me. I’m always in the back of my head thinking, ‘Who’s going to buy these?’”

Given the glut of local tape releases that are selling out, he shouldn’t have to worry. Cassette culture in Victoria has never been healthier. M

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