Cassette County: Three Local Cassette Labels
In 2010, Billboard Magazine's annual album sales evaluation read thusly: physical sales were sinking like a septic tank full of concrete, except for vinyl. Sales of records were up 14 percent to 2.8 million units that year. Don't go proclaiming vinyl an industry savior. It's hardly enough to resuscitate the flagging physical music industry back to its '90s heights, but the vinyl resurgence has been acknowledged even by big-time retailers. Best Buy and FYE have been stocking not only classic vinyl reissues but also shilling USB turntables that can convert my grandparents' neglected Lawrence Welk LPs into shiny invisible MP3s I'll never play.
Kapala's Moon Rivers on Tago Bella
A less heralded revival is the reemergence of the cassette tape, the supposedly lowly medium that rode the ebb of the vinyl wave but was trampled by compact discs in the early '90s. As the vinyl uptick has gained recognition in the last few years, boutique tape labels like Night People and Not Not Fun have established a proving ground for emerging acts like Dirty Beaches and Peaking Lights.
According to Billboard, 60 percent of vinyl sales in 2010 were generated by indie acts with the rest constituted by classic heritage artists. Both vinyl and cassette tapes have unique sonic and visual qualities that "cool kids," music lovers, and rabid collectors appreciate. So why haven't tapes trickled into Urban Outfitters, giving ghetto-blasters a nostalgia sales bump?
Perhaps it's just a matter of time. For now, tapes remain a hand-assembled staple of small-time independent labels. In keeping the cassette alive, these three Phoenix-area tape labels point to the cost-friendliness of tapes, their modest and intimate ethos and, of course, their unique acoustic properties.
Melissa Marriott says she founded Le Horror with her friend Brett Thomas in early 2010 as an active way to put out songs by Thomas' acoustic project, The Prevailing Nothing. "[Thomas] was going to put out his tape anyway," Marriott says, "and he'd been trying to encourage me to do something in the music scene that was more participatory."
"It was something I knew I was capable of doing," she says.
Capability is key. Not only do they take up less space in the tour van, but cassette tapes act as a financially feasible release for bands either writing between albums or, most often, working toward their very first full-length. "Cassettes are a lot less overwhelming for some people, especially if you think you don't have enough material to fill up an LP," she explains.
Le Horror's locals-only roster includes the solo work of French Quarter's Stephen Steinbrink [disclosure: I play in French Quarter] and the dark baroque-folk of Baron Nieces. The size and practicality of tapes often reflect the humility of the artists. "It's a more reachable goal for a lot of bands, and for us, because obviously we're not making a ton of money," Marriott says.
The DIY self-sufficiency of the cassette aesthetic is a modest alternative to self-hype. Marriott's own band, vintage post-punks Vegetable, have experienced the disorienting, sometimes uncomfortable manner in which bands try to court bigger labels to issue their newest material. "It's really weird to approach someone and say 'Hey, you wanna listen to this and see if you can put it out?'" she said.