When the Selmanaires self-released the Tempo Temporal EP in January, pressing the songs on vinyl was not an option because of simple economics. So they decided to buy scores of blank tapes for 50 cents apiece and dub them by hand. But why would a band in the year 2010 go through all of the trouble of hand-assembling such a clunky, antiquated format, just to offer an alternative to the CD? "It was cheap," says Selmanaires guitarist/keyboardist Herb Harris. "We're all disgruntled with the way CDs sound and how easily they get scratched, and we wanted an analog form of the music. Vinyl is expensive, so it became a DIY affair."
The cassette version of Tempo Temporal offers a far richer listening experience than the CD. The analog quality of the music blends with the tape hiss, translating into a subtle but audible difference. Tapes blast a sound that's just as warm and distinctive as the crackle and pop of vinyl, and the trend is catching on. Over the last few years, other local acts such as Deerhunter, the N.E.C., Wizard Smoke and Brainworlds have released cassettes as well, most of which have sold out to small but enthusiastic audiences.
Sure, digital music is convenient, portable and pretty much free for the pilfering, but where's the fun in scrolling through lines of song titles listed alphabetically in the same font on a LCD screen? It doesn't pack the same visceral punch as crate digging. A backlash to the über-utilitarian ways of digital music has been underway for years with the rise of vinyl fetishism, but no one saw cassette tapes making a comeback.
As sales for the much vilified CD continue to decline, record companies have found a temporary savior in vinyl. As a result, the price tags on records have increased. Although cassettes have always been a staple in the trenches of noise and industrial music, the larger indie cannon left them behind until recent years. Cruise by the merch table the next time you go see a touring punk, garage or power-pop band, and you may notice cassettes are competing for space alongside vinyl as the proletariat alternative to CDs.
In February, Pitchfork reported that "despite their recent resurgence in certain indie circles, 2009 was the worst year for cassette sales since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping numbers, in 1991." SoundScan also shows that cassettes were selling a million-plus copies in 2006, but by '09 they had dropped to 34,000.
The resurgence in cassette tape sales exists far beyond the world of SoundScan, where barcodes and quarterly sales reports are the bottom line. While commercial sales may be dwindling, those who are buying them are tapping into the cultural experience. They are cheap to make and they're cheap to buy. Usually, for $5 or $6 you get an album's worth of material for the same cost as a 7-inch. And, after all, they are quite nostalgic. For music buyers who aren't old enough to remember them the first time, fast-forwarding and rewinding is a completely new experience. For those who were around, it's like catching up with an old friend.
But there's more to the trend than low cost and kitsch. "Just because they're cheap doesn't mean you shouldn't make them as good as you possibly can," says Sean Bohrman, co-owner of Fullerton, Calif., label Burger Records. Over the last few years, Burger and Woodsist/Fuck It Tapes in Warwick, N.Y., have made names for themselves by focusing on cassettes. Burger has released tapes by such underground artists as NOBUNNY, King Tuff, Ty Segall and dozens of others, including cassette reissues of the Black Lips' albums 200 Million Thousand, Good Bad Not Evil and Let It Bloom. "We've tried dubbing our own tapes, but they sounded terrible," Bohrman adds. "We go through a company called M2 Com for that, and we get them mastered through a sound engineering teacher in Sacramento, who masters the tapes to be louder. Then we try to hand-color them, cut them and stuff them ourselves; make them as personal as possible. As long as you put your heart into it, people will see it."
As such, cassettes are boutique items, tailor-made for collectors. Whether or not they'll become a commercially viable format again is uncertain. Matador Records owner Gerard Cosloy isn't in a hurry to release the collective works of Cat Power, Pavement or Jay Reatard on cassette, but he hasn't ruled it out.
"If we thought we could sell enough to justify the hassle [and] cost of doing so, I don't see why not," Cosloy says. "We've talked about it, but [bands like] Times New Viking are pretty good at making their own cassettes and selling them on the road. There's no point in our ruling it out, but the moment in which it would've been seen as a fun stunt or something reverse-innovative was a year or two ago, not now."
Beyond the commercial viability, cassettes offer their own cachet. At a time when oversaturation has devalued music, cassettes give listeners a way to stand apart from digital malaise and to have fun with the ritual of listening to music again.