‘If you guys want to listen to anything, just let me know,’ says Patrick O’Brien from behind the counter of his record store, Sunshine and Grease, in Melbourne’s inner north. His solemn glance is aimed at me and another guy perusing the vinyl racks. We’re wedged between shelves full of records, CDs, books and DVDs – mostly avant-garde stuff: everything from Jandek to Blank Realm, William S. Burroughs to Dylan Martorell. In this tiny, dark room, we’re being careful not to move around too hastily for fear of knocking something with our backpacks. Next to a crush of three-inch CD-Rs on O’Brien’s desk is a selection of cassette tapes, overflowing from their display box. Over by the window, there’s also a long line of cassettes: some of their cases sport elaborate designs; others have been haphazardly labelled in black marker; and some don’t have any clear identification at all.
I have an urge to pull out one of these mysterious titles and ask O’Brien to play it for me, but it’s hard to know where to start – of the 30-odd tapes in the selection, I’ve heard of maybe two or three of the artists. And when I begin reading some of the covers, it becomes clear that these are neither relics from the 1980s (the kind found gathering dust and selling for a dollar in an op shop) nor homemade mix tapes unearthed from some bygone adolescence. Most of them have been released in the last couple of years.
Thanks to a slew of artists and labels who have embraced the cassette as a valid medium for new music, what would have occupied the tiniest portion of the front counter 18 months ago is now a more prominent feature at independent music retailers. Australian upstarts, such as Totem Tapes and Near Tapes, have sold out of limited editions of 50 or 100, while larger international labels like Not Not Fun and Burger Records (both Californian operations) are releasing artists’ music on cassette in runs of up to 500. As well as tape reissues of established garage bands like Black Lips, there has been a spike in tape-only releases from neo-psychedelic experimenters (groups like Sun Araw and Pocahaunted) and local bedroom adventurers (Horse Macgyver, Lower Plenty, Stitched Vision and Abortion Eve).
O’Brien, who plays the odd cassette on his weekly radio show O’Tomorrow on Melbourne’s 3RRR, sees all of this as a response to a ‘throwaway’ music culture of unfulfilling digital downloads. ‘With the internet, you can download stuff really quickly,’ he explains, ‘and you can get all sorts of things. But I’ve got tons of things downloaded and I never listen to them. It’s too easy. With a cassette, you’ve got to listen to it. You can’t even skip to the next track. It adds value to something. You need to invest more in it to listen to it, and I think that’s part of the reason why.’
For others, such as Jonathan Nokes, the young Melburnian behind the Totem label, it’s largely a matter of aesthetics. Nokes takes pride in putting effort into the cover art of his releases, collaborating with bands to come up with a product that’s visually stimulating in ways that other, newer formats aren’t. ‘I really like the physical medium of the tape – the plastic case it comes in, the way you can hold it – it’s nice and small, it fits in your hand. And the J-cards [cover inserts] are great. Particularly coming out of the US are these amazing silk-screened, double-sided, triple-length inserts which are really visually appealing.’ Interestingly, it’s the audio qualities that Nokes mentions last: ‘Then there’s the tape itself, the way it sounds: it’s warm and dubby… the whole thing is great.’
It might be tempting to lump cassette culture in with fixed-gear bicycles, Polaroid cameras and all the other fixations of a supposed Gen-Y retro culture that goes for style over substance. But those defending the audio quality of the cassette are not all under 35. Greg Williams, whose media manufacturing and duplication plant Dex Audio has been making tapes for 30 years, has lived through both analogue and digital generations, and still rates the cassette for sonic value. ‘With the way mp3s are these days, I still reckon you can make a tape sound better,’ he argues. ‘There’s a lot of music recorded that has quite a brittle edge to the sound, and when you copy that music digitally and listen to it on a CD or an mp3, that edge comes through really clearly… But with tape – it tends to soften that edge.’
Dex Audio is one of the only companies left still making cassette tapes. In fact, Williams estimates there are only about a half-dozen manufacturers left globally. The small number of cassette orders Dex takes these days is only an aside to its main trade (CDs and DVDs) – a tiny fraction of the 100,000 tapes they churned out each month back in the 1980s. Ever since digital technology superseded cassettes in the 1990s, the industry has been a niche one. Industry leaders TDK stopped making tapes nearly a decade ago, and according to Williams, just one or two companies, of the small handful that are left, are still manufacturing a product of equal quality to TDK’s old products. ‘We’ve had to keep track of who’s making tape and who’s not, to keep our plant alive. That’s where the market has ended up, because nobody wants a large volume of cheap tapes anymore. It’s just small volume, and they want it to sound good.’
There are no illusions here: the cassette tape is an endangered species. But Williams draws a parallel to today’s thriving vinyl culture, pointing out that ‘78s took a long time to die out’ after the introduction of vinyl as we know it today. He’s certainly not ready to throw in the towel on tapes just yet. ‘From a business point of view, the way we look at it is: while there’s still a demand there, we’ll keep making them, and we’ll keep sourcing the materials.’ It seems to be Williams’s own romantic notions as much as anything else that keeps him in the game. When asked about the downsides of cassettes, he says that sometimes your tape player ‘chews them up’. But that’s all part of the fun, of course. ‘I miss the days of walking down the street and seeing a tape all spread over the footpath. I used to like seeing that.