Tape collectors keepin’ it reel

By Arts & Culture Reporter

Walking into a local thrift shop, a casual shopper may pass an old cassette player and a stack of tapes and think nothing of it. In 1975, when boomboxes featuring cassette decks were introduced to U.S. consumers, the cassette became the go-to source for portable music listening until being all but completely phased out by CDs in the mid-’80s. Although still a popular medium for alternative music junkies, it seems like the cassettes virtually vanished by the mid-’90s. 

To the average shopper, they may seem like a waste of space, but for the flourishing underground music scene, cassette tapes are riding the lo-fi wave of ‘90s nostalgia back to the forefront. Similar to the resurgence of vinyl, the cassette tape is gaining popularity at a time when digital downloads and streaming have completely transformed the music industry.

This shift can be seen in the Chicago music scene, too, as Chicago-based record labels and stores are embracing cassette tapes’ return. 

Dustin Drase, owner of Plustapes, 2409 W. Leland Ave., a Chicago-based record label that focuses exclusively on the cassette tape format and whose slogan is “Tapes Will Never Die,” is one of Chicago’s main proponents of the cassette tape medium. He has released dozens of cassette-based albums, including bands like Radar Eyes and Outer Minds. Drase said he knew there would always be a market for fans of cassettes when he decided to open Plustapes in 2008.

“The culture’s always been there, but when we started doing it, it was kind of at this interesting tipping point where a lot of people were getting excited about the medium again for various reasons—for nostalgia, for cost, for immediacy,” Drase said.

Adam Hirzel, manager at the Chicago record store Saki, 3716 W. Fullerton Ave., which opened in 2010, said although the medium’s popularity might have died down since its pre-CD-era peak, it has always been around in one form or another. 

“Just like vinyl, it never really stopped,” Hirzel said. “There were always people putting out tapes.”

Plustapes and Saki are just a few of several music shops that specialize in cassette tape distribution. Within Chicago and throughout the country, cassette shops are popping up, with California’s Burger Records leading the way, selling more than 300,000 cassettes since its opening in 2007.

Burger Records, which has released hundreds of albums on cassette tapes, including albums by Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Black Angels, received widespread recognition for its selling of cassettes in 2014 after GQ named it “The Year’s Coolest, Weediest Record Label.” 

Sean Bohrman, co-owner of Burger Records, said one of the ideas behind starting his company was to provide young musicians with an inexpensive promotion method.

“Cassette tapes are much cheaper to make than CDs and LPs, and the turnaround time is much quicker,” Bohrman said. “That already goes a long way toward getting stuff out for bands to sell at shows. If a band is going on tour in a week, we can have a tape ready for them to sell on tour and make some money for gas and spread the word around, which is what it’s all about.”

Drase said the profit from cassette tapes is comparable and sometimes even more lucrative than vinyl record pressing, making it easier for young bands to get their name out to the public. Drase said a professional pressing plant can manufacture a run of tapes for less than $200, but it is just as easy to get more blank tapes and duplicate an album for around $60.

“It’s a very immediate sort of thing,” Drase said. “The turnaround time on tapes is a lot faster. The price point is a lot cheaper, too. You could sell a tape for $5 and make a $3 profit, whereas on vinyl, it’s going to cost $6–8 and if you sell it for $10, you’re still making the same amount of profit as on a cassette tape, but you spent three times as much money.”

The guiding mission of the cassette community is helping out the little guy. While bigger bands have the accessibility and money to afford their own vinyl record pressings, a lot of smaller acts consider tapes an easier way to build a loyal fan base.

James Francis Swanberg, percussionist in local Chicago band The Lemons as well as a member of Tripp Tapes, said the affordability of cassettes has made making music a more accomplishable goal.

“I do it all in-house now,” Swanberg said. “I’ve got a little Sony machine that can do about three tapes in a minute. If you’re doing it right, tapes are like a buck. I can’t imagine you finding too many that you can mix for a buck. You’re able to support and have something you can hold, even if you can’t play them. So I would say it has definitely helped us secure a fan base.”

Nick Mayor, owner of Chicago shop Bric-a-Brac Records & Cassettes, 3156 W. Diversey Ave., one of the Windy City’s premier sources for tapes, also said he found cassette distribution to be much more financially reasonable for local band promotion. 

“If you want to get a record pressed, even if you got your material mixed and mastered and the artwork is finalized, it’s still going to be another four or five months before your record gets out there, whereas with a cassette, it’s just a matter of weeks,” Mayor said.

For numerous cassette fans, the format was the best way to enjoy the music they loved. Bohrman said a lot of cassette collectors are those who have had their parents’ car passed down to them, and cassettes were the only way for them to enjoy their music.

“If you got a cassette player in your car and you’re a teenager, you’re going to be driving around in your car smoking weed and partying and stuff, so obviously you’re going to want some music,” Bohrman said. “Either you’re going to make a cassette tape yourself or you’re going to buy a new one from us.”

Players are still available at Best Buy and others retailers, and there is also a growing number of people who simply enjoy owning a physical souvenir from their favorite bands, even if they don’t necessarily have the means to play the tapes they purchase.

“It’s the same way that no one really has to buy books anymore,” Hirzel said. “They can just read it on their iPhone, but people like to have their bookshelf, because to them it’s a piece of art. The same way you can have a painting on the wall, you can put a tape on a tape rack or put a vinyl on your record shelf.”

Burger Records is known for some of its hand-painted cassette tapes, in which it hand-designs several tapes for purchase. Bohrman said designing these tapes gives consumers a more personal connection to the music.

“We put together all of our cassettes,” Bohrman said. “We assemble all of them. Knowing that we put everything we had into making it makes people respect the cassette and respect what we do.”

Drase said being able to actually see the music in its physical form is much more fulfilling than having an MP3 stored somewhere in a Cloud service. 

“You don’t spend any time with it, whereas if you have a cassette tape, it’s a physical thing that you see every time you walk past it,” Drase said. “It’s something you have to move and find a spot for in your home and physically put into a tape deck to listen to it. When you do that, it’s an experience as opposed to just a random thing on your computer, which has no real attachment to it.”

When first released in the 1960s, early versions of cassettes were used to record straight from the radio. As the years went on, cassette tapes evolved, and the medium also increased in quality although the problem of tapes damaging and unspooling has never been eliminated.

Many people argue that the lo-fi quality of tapes is not worth a listen when there are more crisp, higher-quality options out there, but according to Bohrman, people’s negative perceptions of  tapes should not affect a tape listener’s opinion.

“I wouldn’t say [cassettes] are inferior to MP3s [which] can sound really, really terrible,” Bohrman said. “People listen to music any way they can. I don’t think [cassette quality] is that bad that it’s going to prevent someone from hearing any good music through it at all. If you are an audiophile, I guess so, but that’s such a small percentage of people who listen to music that if I were to bash cassettes because of what some audiophiles thought, that would make no sense whatsoever.”

Major music labels have also tried to throw their hats into the cassette tape arena with popular acts including Green Day and Skrillex releasing special cassettes for Cassette Store Day in September 2014. The higher-publicized releases have drawn more attention to the medium, although several record shop owners see the move as a cash-grab rather than an attempt to connect with the tape community.

“It’s just another chance for them to maybe make $1,000 or $2,000 off a thing that they can just package in a different way, whereas if you find a band that’s coming off on a small label, you’re like ‘Man, this band is really good. I wish they had a recording,’” Drase said.

Mayor said that even though these popular acts are releasing exclusive cassettes, it would not make much of an impact unless they start to fully embrace the cassette tape medium.

“As far as the Skrillex cassette tape or any of those things, doing it for record store day is kind of a gimmick,” Mayor said. “Until they actually start releasing their proper material on cassette, I don’t think it’s really impacting the perception.”

Although the sudden influx of major acts releasing music on cassettes might hurt the community’s underground identity, Hirzel said as long as the format keeps its most dedicated fans, it will always live on.

“Whenever something becomes more popular, there’s always danger of a backlash, and usually there is a backlash,” Hirzel said. “But I don’t think it matters that much because the people that are going to buy the music are going to do it whether people like it or not.”

Drase said fans and the younger bands embracing tapes feel a stronger connection with the music through cassette collecting, which makes cassette distribution worth it.

“If somebody sends you a Spotify link and you listen to it and you’re like, ‘Oh cool, I like that,’ but you don’t feel like there’s that attachment,” Drase said. “There’s not that ‘this is my band, this is my discovery’ sort of thing. Cassette tapes give you that sense of ownership and connection. There are bands out there that are making music and people aren’t really paying attention to it, so if I can take that and put it into a physical format and bring it to the other people, that’s why I do it.”