The humble cassette—a rectangular, hiss-prone format remembered mostly as a vehicle for amorous adolescent mixtapes—is alive and well in the independent and experimental undergrounds, reigning supreme as the outsider medium du jour. To wit: Pop chameleon Beck is reportedly covering Sonic Youth’s EVOL on tape. Prior to blowing up with 2009’s LP/CD-only Wavvves, the California fuzz-rock act Wavves released its 2008 self-titled effort as a cassette on the Fuck It Tapes label. And last year, Dirty Projectors and Deerhunter released limited-edition cassette runs of Bitte Orca and Rainwater Cassette Exchange, respectively.
These are small-scale releases, but the demand is real. Deerhunter’s 750-copy run, for instance, sold out on tour. “A cassette is like a little painting in your hand,” says musician Ted Lee, who operates the Massachusetts-based avant-garde label Feeding Tube. “You can hold it, and you can believe it’s there. It’s magnetic tape, which sounds great to my ears—cassettes are so alive.”
In the CD-obsessed mid-90s, record labels slowly turned their backs on the tape. Retail cassette selections shrank—but didn’t die. Department stores still peddle a modicum of tape-friendly stereos, mini boom boxes and Walkman knockoffs; blank tapes can be had everywhere from flea markets to specialty websites to your local barely-hanging-in-there mom ’n’ pop record store. The hazards remain, but even for those of us who’ve accidentally melted cassette copies of, say, Fugazi’s Red Medicine in a lethally humid VW Jetta, the tape retains a curiously enduring mystique.
Old-school tape-dispensers like Olympia, Wash.’s K Records—which began, for reasons of practicality, as a cassette-only label back in 1982—are still in the game. In February, K released Angelo Spencer’s rollicking new album Et Les Hauts Sommets album on cassette (among other formats). “The cassette tape format is appealing to people because it is a mechanical object, a pocket-sized plastic and metal machine that can reproduce the sounds of the Olympia underground at high volume,” says K co-founder and Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson. “It is versatile: Both the blaster on the street and DJ in the club can let it fly and then, the people dance. Erase it, record your own album on the blank slate. Infinite possibilities at a minimum price and maximum joy.”