It’s the 21st century and cassette tapes are back. Actually they’ve been back for a little while, couple-three years anyway. This has kind of crept up on me, but I live in the woods, so it’s to be expected.
I noticed this as the beardo mothership that is Hydrahead Records has been issuing more cassette releases, which causes me to fight the reflexive urge to buy, since it’s Hydrahead. Talking with Jason, he told me there were hell of cassettes on sale at the NE Ohio indie rock extravaganza he went to some weeks back.
For me, the question is why cassettes now? To my mind cassettes were both a bad format and one that had never acquired the cachet of records. So are cassettes really bad? Yeah, they are. When they were introduced they had major advantages over records in portability and record-ability. Being the only game in town, they were a vital part of the growth of a lot of different types of music. Then when CDs were introduced, they died a quick death. The broke, they unwound, they wore out quickly, and the sound was never as good as CDs or records unless you dropped some major cash on a Dolby-S tape deck.
Are tapes cool? Maybe. They weren’t to my generation, the ones that discarded them.* Vinyl was cool to us. Generation X wanted nothing more than to live out some theoretical construct based on our parent’s hippie years. Even though our older siblings grew up at the end of the mainstream vinyl years, we embraced records as ‘cool’ and ‘indie.’ It’s not then, though, it’s now. So I took a look at tape labels and tape releases.
First we have the aforementioned Hydrahead, they’re putting out some grindcore and noise releases and a couple Xasthur tapes. I have a hard time coming to any conclusions here, you have what you have. It probably does fit in the the larger picture though.
Then you have a whole mess of labels like American Tapes, Brown Interior Music, Retirement Records, Lost Sound Tapes and 1019 records. After listening to the some artists on these labels and checking out their websites, I found myself shivering with douche chills as I stood in the clammy shadow of Calvin Johnson and K Records. I’ve never bought the whole ‘bad on purpose because it’s childlike, innocent and pure’ shtick that guy is selling. I’ve never been one to say that you need any formal training or education to make music (or draw or write for that matter) and I listen to a lot of stuff that sounds like crap to a lot of people. That being said, I can’t get behind making crappy music because someone thinks it’s cute. Add that to the crappy arts and crafts handmade packaging, eye-searing 1995 web design and runs of 10-20 and my math comes out to trying too hard. Real talk, The Shaggs are an example of what Confucius was talking about when he said ‘Sun even shines on a donkey’s ass, sometimes.’*
That leaves the other part of the pie chart with Earjerk records and Woodsmoke Music. Earjerk is a drone/ambient label. Woodsmoke is a (currently defunct) doom/black metal label. Woodsmoke doesn’t have a link because they’re so kvlt they don’t even have a website! Analog recordings, analog correspondence!*
In the 1990s when Alternative blew up, the cozy subculture of independent music that had grown up in the 80s was blown wide open practically overnight. Tons of bands got signed to the majors in the hopes of finding the next Nirvana. Big indie labels got major distribution deals and what was obscure just 2 years before was now to had for the taking at Best Buy and Camelot Music. As a result of the perceived threat of cultural invasion by new fans, the scenesters of the day began a full scale arms race for increasingly obscure releases and artists. It was the only defense in a world where dilettantes could have anything on Sub Pop for only a trip to the mall.
Now, in 2010, in the very FUTURE ITSELF, the internet has made musical obscurity nearly impossible. Vinyl, having been established as ‘cool’ again for nearly two decades is honestly extremely entry level. Stuff you’ve never heard of, like Hashad* is two clicks away from download on iTunes. The internet even lets a guy that lives in the woods write about this stuff. Every band on those labels that I checked out to write this, I checked out on MySpace. The real music snob aficionado of today is down to the last option, tapes.
So are tapes cool? They’d like to be. The tape revival thing strikes me as a last desperate gasp to be kvlt or create indie cred. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but not so bad that I’m not going to buy some drone tapes from Earjerk and one of these to rip ‘em with.
* Weirdly, boom boxes remain totally cool.
* Confucius actually said “Even a blind squirrel will sometimes find an acorn.”
* See how I clam up when it’s music I like?
* Hashad is a dude I know, very good ambient electronic, you should totally buy that album.