The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday May 28th


Bands go old-school and return to tapes

Cassette tapes staging a comeback: At a glance it sounds like a Portlandia sketch, but pause to consider the idea. According to local labels and musicians, tapes are still alive and hissing.

Jphono1, T0w3rs, the Toddlers and more have released cassettes in the past few months, while Carrboro’s DiggUp Tapes and Grip Tapes, of Graham, champion the format. Local record store owners, including Ryan Richardson of CD Alley and Charlie Hearon of All Day Records, have noticed an uptick in cassette releases by local artists.

“They’ve become kind of a novelty item,” Richardson said. “There are a few independent labels that have made cassettes available.” But he expressed trepidations about tapes’ value as a retail vehicle.

Renewed interest in the medium seems counterintuitive — a widely reported harbinger of cassettes’ death came in 2011 when the Oxford English Dictionary removed “cassette tape” from its concise dictionary. But the cassette’s assets give it a distinct niche in the media landscape.

“They’re the best merch out there,” said Derek Torres, who plays in the Carrboro band T0w3rs and runs DiggUp Tapes alongside Nathan White and Brian Corum.

“You see a band and you buy their vinyl at the beginning of the show, and then you realize that you have to carry around a 12-inch record for the rest of the night,” he said. “But tapes you can fit in your shirt pocket.”

Also important is that cassettes are cheap. “I’ve seen current bands (Thee Oh Sees, Cheveu) who sell tapes that have two records on the same tape,” Hearon said via email. “That’s a lot of jam for $5-7.”

Torres, a bona fide cassette enthusiast, has become the Triangle’s go-to guy for tape production. It’s a labor of love — he duplicates cassettes 10 at a time, in real time, right in his own bedroom — but he sees their appeal as more practical than nostalgic.

“Our culture really values new things, which means that there’s a lot of old things out there,” he said. “If you already have something that works, use it.”

Torres was able to build DiggUp Tapes’ duplication system entirely out of thrift store hardware.

“I had a big hunt one day,” Torres said. “I went all the way down as far as Burlington and back to every single Goodwill, every single Hospice, every single Salvation Army, and I just went and tried the decks out, made sure they worked, had a $120 budget and bought all the things I needed.”

But the nostalgic value of tapes isn’t to be discounted. In the early 1990s, cassette tapes were the medium of choice for punk bands and garage rockers as a result of their lo-fi sound. Many bands in the Triangle’s celebrated indie- rock scene made their names through cassette recordings.

“With punk rock, there’s this sense of the immediacy of the sound itself and of the music — concerns about fidelity of the sound recording aren’t necessarily as important,” said John Brackett, who teaches courses on rock ‘n’ roll history in UNC-CH’s music department.

“With the majority of the bands, it’s about the idea of getting the sounds on tape and getting that out immediately to a wider fan base.”

Also, he said, the personal process of recording and duplicating tapes gives them romantic appeal.
“It adds kind of an authenticity to it, because you can kind of hear the degradation with each successive generation of tape duplication,” Brackett said.

“The tape has a history that you can trace back to the original people, to the band itself, and then the subsequent generations of tape duplications to get to where it is today, in your own hand,” he continued.

But as Richardson sees it, the appeal of tapes is quite simple: “It’s just a fun way to make your stuff available to friends.”

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