You've probably noticed that vinyl records aren't just for snobby purists anymore. Watch David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, or even Jay Leno (if you must), and you'll see them hold up an old-school vinyl record rather than a CD when they bring out musical guests these days.
Now that the vinyl trend has moved out of the underground and into the mainstream, another antiquated format is ready for its rebirth among the music elite. In Cleveland, small local labels like Big Purple Records and Tape Haus are serving up cassette-only releases by bands like This Moment in Black History, Sun God, and Wooly Bullies.
Go to a concert, and you'll spot rows of tapes lining the merch tables. But don't call it a comeback. "Just like vinyl, tapes never really went away," says Jon Rybicki, co-founder of Big Purple. "Indie bands have been doing tapes since tapes have existed."
Cassettes may have never gone away, but the question is why not? The lousy sound quality and primitive technology don't even come close to the other options. And nobody recalls winding up loose cassettes or splicing together damaged tapes with fondness. But the bad memories are apparently outweighed by the nostalgia. "I learned about so many amazing bands from trading mixtapes with friends," says Joe Spagnuolo, owner of Tape Haus. "Those tapes shaped my musical development."
"Taped music has a bright warmth to it," says Austin Eilbeck, founder of In the Pocket Tapes, a Columbus-based cassette duplicator that, along with Shout Out Loud Prints, has supplied many Cleveland bands and labels with tapes and artwork. "There's that hiss that you somehow tune out halfway through the tape. Imagine if you could never hear a tape again. You would lose a feeling along with it."
Like vinyl, cassettes are attractive to fans because of their tangibility and collectability. As more and more music becomes a series of digital codes available anywhere and at anytime, many listeners see the cassette as a welcome change from digital music's disposability.
"I've purchased a few things from iTunes, and each time, it didn't feel like I actually bought anything, even though the money was taken out of my bank account," says Spagnuolo. "It just felt empty to me. I'd much rather walk into a record store and buy physical copies of my music. I still geek out when I buy a tape or record and take it home to comb over the liner notes and artwork, just like I did when I was 15."
The resurgence of craft culture is also a factor in the rising popularity of cassettes. "The unique ways to present a tape are very appealing to artists and crafty folk," says Eilbeck. Tapes are packaged in everything from lime green shells to the deep plum hue that Big Purple uses for its releases. Artwork is often stamped directly onto the cassettes, and packaging ranges from vibrant, full-color cardboard "O-cards" that slip over the tapes to classic hard plastic cases.
Aesthetics and warm, fuzzy memories may seem like viable reasons for the cassette revival, but there's a more practical one at work here too: Cassettes are cheap to produce.
"Tapes are the medium of the proletariat," says Rybicki. "You can still get blank tapes for under a dollar apiece, and you can get a tape player that records them at a thrift store for under $20. You can even buy a bunch of prerecorded tapes and tape over them. What other media does that?"
"For someone like me who doesn't have the money to press seven-inches or LPs, this is a great way to help promote bands I love," says Spagnuolo. "When you press vinyl, you have all of these factors — like having stampers made or extra costs for colored vinyl. With cassettes, those extra costs don't exist."
Even with all of their selling points, tapes are still pretty much a niche-market thing. Spagnuolo admits that many of his friends and co-workers are confused by his label. "Some people hate that we release tapes," he says.
But the detractors don't seem to have much clout with the culture's fans. Big Purple and Tape Haus plan to release cassette-only albums by local acts the Fucking Cops and Little Sister soon, while In the Pocket continues to help Cleveland labels and bands turn colorful, collectible cassette dreams into reality. Before long, perhaps even Conan will be flashing tiny cassette covers to late-night music fans.