Fans of DIY music can’t help but have noticed in recent years the seemingly unlikely comeback of the cassette, with tapes turning up on merch tables and traded among musicians.
Underground music blog Weird Canada regularly reviews new cassette releases, and here in Montreal, cool bands like psych-punks Ultrathin, lo-fi rockers Baked Goods and noisemeisters Drainolith have released tapes in the past year.
Personally, I’m a fan of the cassette, though I can readily admit that nostalgia—for the days of the Walkman and actual mixtapes—plays some part in my appreciation.
But many are skeptical about the cassette resurgence. They’ll point out that hardly anyone even has a tape player anymore, and accuse cassette connoisseurs of fetishizing the obscure and anachronistic for its own sake.
So, is the cassette a legit listening format or just an objet de hipster? And are tapes just an obscure trend, or a chance to offer a reliably solid object in an age where music is more ephemeral than ever? More to the point, as a DIY musician in an era where release formats are up in the air, is it worth considering as an option?
At the back of a nondescript industrial building on Nuns’ Island, I visited the warehouse of Duplication.ca. Otherwise known as Analogue Media Technologies Inc., the Montreal-based company celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Co-founder Denise Gorman tells me that the company—which also makes CDs, DVDs, vinyl and print but never stopped offering cassettes—has lately been scrambling to keep up with the tape resurgence. “The demand, especially over the last six months, has increased from receiving two orders every couple of days to receiving five to 10 per day,” she says.
Ashly Dupe, whose Duplication.ca business card proclaims her the company’s “Official Tape Girl,” also plays in Dead Wife and other local bands. “There’s this thing where people wanna go back to analog,” she explains. “So instead of spending all this money on records, the only other real way to do that is to produce a tape.” Many bands also include a download code with their tapes.
A local music impresario who prefers to remain anonymous, perhaps for fear of offending the cassette community, opines that “basically cassettes sound pretty bad, so it still suits lo-fi genres where sounding bad/low sound fidelity is acceptable: black metal, harsh noise, local demos.”
Matt Smith, Duplication.ca’s Cassette Technician, who also plays in local bands No Negative and Thee Nodes, admits that an intentionally lo-fi sound is part of the appeal to some of his customers. “What’s cool about tapes is the way they wear out: the way a record gets scratchy, a tape gets warped and warbly. It’s really funny too, because I’ve been noticing that some people put a worn-out tape effect on their digital master. It’s this weird backwards route, but that’s the time we live in.”
However, Smith is quick to point out that cassettes don’t have to sound bad, citing metal veterans Warlord, who recently re-released their 1983 EP Deliver Us as a tape. “They got it specially remastered for cassette by someone who knew what they were doing, they got it on high-bias cassette, they put it in the proper shells that support high-bias tape, and it sounded amazing.”
So, is it worth printing up a tape to add to your merch table? Clearly, it depends on your genre and audience. But as Smith points out, “It’s small, it’s cheap, we do small runs and the turnaround time is really fast.” So as far as experimental formats go, it’s lo-fi but also low-risk.