The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Return of the cassette tape

Go to any indie show in Chicago and you’ll see them, sitting casually on the merch table next to vinyl records, CDs and band shirts. They usually cost about five dollars, significantly cheaper than CDs and vinyl, and more and more bands seem to be releasing them.

It’s old news that vinyl records have been having resurgence in the last few years but it appears that the cassette tape is also having its own comeback.

Chicago indie record label Notes and Bolts has released a few of its releases on tape alongside it’s vinyl 7″s. Lillerne Tapes, another indie label, has released all its music solely on cassette tapes.

Lillerne Tapes founder Gabe Holcombe originally collected and catalogued mixtapes, bootlegs, and zines in 2000. Eventually he started to release his own music as well as the music of his friends in small editions resulting in the project becoming a label in 2007.

 “To me, the appeal is both economic and aesthetic,” said Holbcombe. “I like how cassette tapes sound, I like how they look in their cases, and in general, I find them to be a nice object and means of musical distribution. They certainly are cheaper than records or CDs to produce, and I can release many more cassettes for my money than any other physical music format.”

So far Lillerne Tapes has been successful with some of its releases selling out completely. Its most recent release Gel Set, a music project of native Chicago synth songstress Laura Callier, had a recent release party at the Empty Bottle. 

Cassette tapes – like vinyl – never really left completely. They survived well into the late 90’s with many independent bands using it as a cheap way to spread their music before the Internet. To this day their continues to be a market for the medium

“The market is small, but fiercely attentive and knowledgeable,” said Holcombe.

Kriss Stress founded the label Notes and Bolts earlier last year and runs a popular and regularly updated podcast. The label has recently begun releasing music on cassette tapes as well.

Stress shares some of Holcombe’s views on tapes being a viable cheaper option to release music through.

“Cassettes are great in that they’re cheap to make,” Stress said. “Whether by home duplication or professional duplication, the cost is a fraction of what can be sunk into vinyl. The risk, therefore, is considerably lower, when doing music with artists who have a great sound, but may not necessarily sell a lot.”

There are however those that still those that don’t see cassette tapes having the same kind of revival potential as vinyl in the long run. The medium’s biggest critique is the quality of the sound, part of this being attributed to the old technology and that tapes degrade over time and are extremely sensitive to temperature changes.

But much like any other musical medium, the sound’s quality is affected by a number of other factors such as production value and the equipment being used to listen to the cassette.

“On the production side – if you’re dubbing tapes on a bad deck, then yeah, each copy is going to sound progressively worse,” Stress said. “The equalizer will be off, things will sound boxey. It’ll be a mess. On the listener side, if you’re listening to tapes on a bad deck, or a walkman, then yeah, they’re going to sound bad. But then, so do badly compressed mp3’s, CD’s on CD players with horrible speakers, and vinyl on record players that have a bad stylus, a loose belt, etc. Cassettes sound only as bad as a person allows them to.”

Stress added that labels who release cassette tapes also tend to forgo quality by rushing to cash in on what appears to be a new trend, hoping it might reach the current level of vinyl sales.

“There are a ton of cassette labels out there who are treating the format badly by putting out badly dubbed releases,” he said. “The jcards are printed poorly, the graphics are awful, the mastering of the music is terrible, and so on. It further spreads the notion that tapes are a bad audio format. Those kinds of folks, often times, from what I can tell, at least, are jumping into the cassette game because they perceive it as a trend. For them, it’s their way of getting onto the ‘cool’ bandwagon. Cassettes sound only as bad as a person allows them to.”

But there are those who appreciate the lo-fi degraded quality produced by cassettes lower production values, and want to achieve low sound quality on purpose. Others simply don’t have the money to afford better production values.

Gabriella Hileman, a student at SAIC, is an avid fan of cassette tapes and has used them extensively in field recording art projects. She is also a fan of many bands that first released their music on cassettes.

“A huge reason why so many underground artists use tape is because of that degrading quality, it’s a specific sound that they’re going for,” Hileman said. “Another reason is that they lack resources because they are poor kids that can’t afford fancy tape dubbing stuff let alone a cut a record. Craig Cruiser and Ricky Acid are musicians who are finally getting successful enough to release vinyl but they never could have reached such a broad audience or achieved their signature sounds without tapes.”

It’s not only indie labels that are getting in on the cassette tape revival. Mainstream labels seem to be showing some interest as well.

Just last year The Smashing Pumpkins reissued “Pisces Iscariot,” a b-side compilation album the band released back in 1994. Part of the CD deluxe package of the reissue was a red cassette tape, a replica copy of the band’s original demo tape.

Because of its affordability, tapes have allowed artists a new level of unrestrained creativity.

“Many folks have taken advantage of the format by letting loose with their creativity and composing things that they’d have been far too scared to put out if a riskier and more expensive format like vinyl was their only option,” said Stress

Despite the cassette tapes shortcomings it appears that a vibrant passionate community of fans, as well as the formats low cost and flexibility, will with keep it alive and well in the long run, even if it’s not as profitable as other formats.

As Holcombe explained, “I want to show people that the cassette tape is one of the best and most creatively flexible mediums for releasing music available. I typically break even on every release, and that money goes back into the next release. I don’t think I’ll ever make a huge profit on cassettes, but that was never the real goal.”

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