By Adam Lovinus
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By Mike Seeley
On merch tables and indie record stores across Southern California and beyond, a relic of the past has been resurrected: new music released on cassette tape. Whereas a few years ago this phenomenon seemed limited to crazy retro-heads such as the guys running Burger Records in Fullerton, cassette-tape culture has trickled into a more ubiquitous existence, so much so that independent music artists and record labels have singlehandedly saved the cassette-manufacturing industry.
"In about 2007, most of our cassette business had dried up," explains Michael McKinney, CEO of M2 Communications, the parent company of Cassette Works, an audio-duplication house in Pasadena. "We had reduced our capacity enough to just handle the few remaining clients that still used cassette tape, but Burger Records really got things going again a few years ago. They are our largest and most consistent client."
And it's not just Burger Records peddling tapes. Lolipop Records in Echo Park, founded by Laguna Beach transplants Wyatt Blair and Thomas Bolas, and Sick City Records in Silver Lake, run by former Burger cohort Brian Flores, have stocked their shelves mainly with independently released cassettes. It's a trend that shop owners see as something that has yet to reach its full potential.
In the past year or so, Cassette Works has begun to take orders from bands and labels around the world, with clients in Canada, England and Australia. "At this point, the demand is still growing," McKinney says. "In the past, we did mainly spoken word to the tune of about 300,000 to 500,000 tapes per month. Now, our main cassette clients are independent bands and labels."
So what in the name of Kurt Cobain is going on here? It's 2013, and cassette tape is the medium of choice for independent rock artists and record labels to release their new material. While the knee-jerk reaction is to write it off as the latest hipster fad, consider for a moment that maybe it makes perfect sense—beyond the whole "throwback lo-fi authenticity" aesthetic that bands that release on cassette typically embrace. A $5 cassette is optimal merch-table fare for the indie-rock set.
But first, let's concede that analog is cool. This is a necessary postulate for justifying the cassette tape's resurgence.
The vinyl renaissance of the '00s taught us that hearing music from a big, colorful, touchable vinyl record offered an added sense of meaning. The inherent ritual of the vinyl experience—handling the art object, manipulating the machinery, lighting a candle, letting the record spin and actually listening to it without the temptation to mouse-click to the next track, then flipping it over 20 minutes later to listen to the B side—added to that sense of meaning. Then there's the intangible "warmth" that audiophiles testify cannot be replicated by digital formats. There's some higher-truth shit going on here, like in that scene from Almost Famous in which the kid digs through his sister's LP collection to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel's "America."
As a result, by the middle part of the past decade, vinyl pressing took off to the point at which the demand started to overcome the supply, a dynamic that still exists and was one of the prime motivators for Sean Bohrman, owner and co-founder of Burger Records, to explore releasing new material via cassette back before he laid out his shingle. "There are not enough record manufacturers in America to cater to all the record people," Bohrman says matter-of-factly from behind his computer, on which he's fielding online orders for the latest Burger release. Since starting the label in 2007 and opening up the brick-and-mortar shop in 2009, Bohrman and Burger Records co-founder Lee "Noise" Rickards have put out 575 cassettes, compared to "50-some-odd" records. "There was tons of awesome music being released, and none was being released on cassette, so we saw that opening and took advantage of it."
"The Burger guys are definitely the OGs around here," says Lolipop's Wyatt Blair, whose label and shop stocks about an 80:20 cassette-to-vinyl ratio at its Echo Park storefront. Not unlike Bohrman and Rickards, when Blair started Lolipop in Laguna Beach in 2009, recording onto cassette was done out of necessity for his band, Mr. Elevator and the Brain Hotel. "They were totally shitty," Blair recalls of his first tapes. "We were doing them with a boombox and running off all the art at Kinkos and using a Sharpie to label each one individually. I really liked that. You know, it just started as a hobby, as a fun joke."
As Lolipop's roster grew, Blair outsourced tape duplication to Cassette Works as well. He recently acquired a professional-grade machine and has done the past three Lolipop releases in-house, art and all. "I personally like the way they look when they're handmade," he says.
Drinking Flowers is set to come out with a second run of their EP on Lolipop, having sold 300 cassettes over a couple of months. The band's front man, Alex Galindo, says that the economic feasibility is what attracted his band to the format. "A huge part of it for us was logistics and cost," Galindo says. "Vinyl is pretty expensive to dole out. It was, like, $1,000 to put out 300 or so vinyls that aren't going to suck."
This sentiment is echoed by nearly everyone in the cassette game. "No one has money in this culture we're talking about," says Blair, who doesn't have a home and resorts to couch-surfing and occasionally sleeping at the store or in his van. "[Cassettes] are so cheap to make and so cheap to buy. You can get a whole album for $5."
A run of 300 professionally mastered cassettes comes out to a little more than a buck per unit, translating into a nice profit margin for a band on a tight budget. Unlike CDs, for which a band must buy a run of 1,000 units for that kind of per-unit affordability, tapes provide small-run cost-effectiveness.
"Anybody can make a CD—that's why it lost its charm," adds Bohrman. "If someone makes you a CD, I dunno, you throw it in your car and don't really worry about it because you can make another one really easily. If someone makes you a mix cassette, you're going to take good care of it because someone took really good care in making it. I think that's how people feel about it."
This speaks to another agreed-upon reason bands are drawn to making a cassette. "Novelty plays into it," Galindo says.
Blair expands on that notion. "I have a giant crush on cassettes. They're really cute; they're easy to hold," he says. "I'm sure other people think it's dumb, but whatever. It's the counterculture right now. It's a win-win. It helps the bands, it helps the labels, and people like listening to it. It's good that that's going on."