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Why Cassette Labels Are More Important Than Many Can Understand

Opal-tapes-logoAs part of our 9th Anniversary, we asked our regular contributors to share their favorite Hypebot posts. This one comes from Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith.

Though numerous individuals have directly scoffed at the idea that cassette labels are anything other than an obscure novelty, a closer look reveals a mostly underground world of experimental music that is gradually moving towards releases that are more accessible to the mainstream.

That doesn’t mean we’re about to see an outbreak of experimental music in arenas and on the charts but what is becoming clear is that something important to music is happening and the business infrastructure is gradually emerging to support those who want to become more visible.

Recognizing That Cassette Labels Are Not Just A Novelty

My interest in cassettes as a music format was initially somewhat of a novelty and a way of taking the gradual mainstreaming of vinyl and contrasting that process with something that seemed more out in left field. But the more I find out, the more I realize that many cassette labels are connected to an aesthetic underground developed, in part, by musicians involved with drone, noise and related experimental music.

Cassettes from these labels are far less likely to sell via outlets that would be recorded by SoundScan and unlikely to be of interest to many of those who are more focused on such genres as hip hop and EDM that have already moved from the underground to the mainstream. Yet some cassette releases are crossing over into dance music and that’s one area where related artists are beginning to gradually reach a larger audience via the web and live shows.

Cassette Labels: Hiding in Plain Sight

I was recently turned down for an interview by a guy who runs a cassette and vinyl label where I live in Asheville, NC. He doesn’t seem to want or feel he needs coverage in a music industry blog. And he’s right. He doesn’t. Hypebot and most other music industry outlets have very little to do with his world.

But he and the artists on his label are networked nationally if not internationally via the web and a shared interest in experimental genres including drone and noise. So it’s not that surprising that I’m not the only writer starting to dig deeper into the world of cassette labels nor is it surprising that I’m finding such writers via linkmaster Adrian Fusiarski.

Cassette Releases Moving Slowly Towards the Mainstream

Scott Wilson, writing for Juno Plus, has been digging into the scene and is finding that cassette releases are moving out of underground styles:

“I’m acutely aware that there has been a thriving underground network of artists and labels disseminating their material through tapes for some time, particularly in the synth and drone scenes. But over the past few months I’ve found tape releases increasingly crossing over into my current musical interests, turning them from things I read about to things I want to buy.”

“Of course the same tired arguments will be dragged out when discussing limited tape releases – the difficulty of playing them, the supposed elitism – but the fact is that more effort goes into the average tape release than the average download-only collection of half-baked remixes, and if you’re willing to put the effort in, you will undoubtedly be rewarded. Besides, if you really wanted to be frustratingly elitist, you’d start a Mini Disc or Betamax label.”

He goes on to describe what he considers some of the more important cassette labels including a reference to Oli Warwick’s recent interview with Stephen Bishop who runs Opal Tapes out of Redcar, England.

Cassette Labels Are Much More Than a Vehicle for Nostalgia

The interview with Stephen Bishop is a fascinating read that looks at what he’s accomplished focusing on cassette releases of music that’s also made available online (note: Opal Tapes also release vinyl). He’s building a small one-man operation that sustains him financially by focusing on releases that he believes will sell even if in relatively small numbers. He’s in the thick of the slow movement from the underground to the mainstream. And the success of his label is now opening up DJ opportunities that are anything but push play.

If you’re familiar with such cassette releases as that of Dinosaur Jr. it’s understandable to mistake what’s happening as a form of nostalgia combined with a novelty offering for superfans. But the majority of cassette releases that comprise the output of cassette labels doesn’t fit that mold. Their music seems less about referencing the past and more about exploring what they want to hear now with an acute awareness of what has come before.

What Those Who Scoff Are Missing

Most of the criticism I’ve seen on Hypebot regarding cassette releases and labels has been noticably beside the point. Some seems to come from people that won’t believe anything’s important in music if it’s not on their radar. Others seem obsessed by SoundScan figures even though they should know better than to dismiss an emerging movement based on such criteria.

Two examples should help make my point though I don’t expect to change anyone’s opinion.

Hip Hop’s Growth Evaded SoundScan for Many Years

If you’re familiar with the history of hip hop and its movement from a fringe phenomenon to a mainstream powerhouse, you know that many of the early sales of hip hop music did not occur through outlets surveilled by SoundScan. And though a lot of those guys claiming to have moved tens of thousands of units out of the trunk of their car were fronting, it is true that street sales, sales at shows and sales out of small shops escaped and continue to escape the supposedly all-seeing eye of SoundScan.

Part of hip hop breaking through to the mainstream had to do with demographic changes in who bought hip hop and related changes in what was happening at major malls all over the country that share data with SoundScan. Hip hop’s audience grew in a way that eventually led to stores in malls selling not just hip hop music but “urban” clothing styles. Mall demographics also changed so that malls that I went to in the 70s in the South that were predominantly visited by white people became much more multicultural in terms of who shopped there by the 90s.

Those shifts baffled a lot of white business people who nevertheless found ways to cash in.

EDM’s Rapid Growth Has Already Made Many Forget Its Recent Obscurity

EDM has had a different yet related trajectory. After rave culture and electronica went briefly mainstream in the States, it receded back into the underground. As EDM reemerged as if out of nowhere to those of us not paying attention, we discovered a huge number of artists of which we’d never heard. At the same time, old-school electronic music fans bemoaned the death of their underground.

To claim that EDM is only important now that such artists are playing larger venues, selling albums, getting sponsorships and attracting corporate vultures of all types, is to ignore what was happening under the radar that formed the foundation of current popularity.

Cassette Releases Are Moving From the Experimental to the Accessible

Cassette labels are very much part of a thriving underground that is not going to appear on SoundScan’s radar nor on the radar of people not involved with related genres of music. That is the kind of thing that throws off those who have ridden their knowledge of hip hop or EDM to become tastemakers even though they should know better than to dismiss something based on lack of visiblity or SoundScan data.

Yet this too will change as more accessible forms of music emerge from the cassette label underground. As Scott Wilson notes, his article:

“makes the point that much of the artists it cites as making this new kind of techno – including Container, Vatican Shadow and Mark Lord – have emerged out of the cassette-based synth and drone scenes, bringing the tape with them as a means of distribution, and as an influence on the sound of their new output.”

“However, if the more dance-focused output of Opal Tapes, and the accessible mixes of The Trilogy Tapes and No Corner are anything to go by, we can only expect the kind of music being released on cassette to diversify. An obsolete format the cassette may be, but the music contained within is undoubtedly driving music culture more than may be immediately obvious.”

This Isn’t Just Business, This Is Personal

On a more personal level, I’m excited to be finding new artists I can enjoy on multiple levels, some of whom are returning to the concerns of avant garde musicians that influenced my work in dance in the late 70s and into the early 90s. Knowing that there are young people who assume knowledge of not just John Cage but other experimental musicians who were never embraced by mass media is big news in my world.

And the fact that I’m getting to know these artists not via their cassette or vinyl releases and rarely through live shows but via SoundCloud and Bandcamp is less ironic to me than a reminder that such movements aren’t retro. They’re simply building on history that most don’t even know exists.

The future is never certain but I’m thoroughly convinced that cassette releases are part of an important music movement that remains under the radar of most people even those who consider themselves in the know.

Note: I’m sure I’ve misrepresented certain aspects of what’s happening cause I’m a newbie to the scene. I hope those who know what’s up will accept my sincere interest as a temporary substitute for the deeper domain knowledge I intend to acquire.

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Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (Twitter/App.net) also blogs at All World Dance: Videos and maintains Music Biz Blogs. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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