Cassette Tapes Get A West Coast Rewind

Tale of the tape: a vintage Bob Marley cassette. i i

Tale of the tape: a vintage Bob Marley cassette. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Tale of the tape: a vintage Bob Marley cassette.

Tale of the tape: a vintage Bob Marley cassette.

AFP/Getty Images

Remember cassettes? They were, for many of us, our first opportunity to record sound and carry music around. Mixtape love letters, kids' violin lessons, early hip hop releases — cassettes were a cheap way to capture and circulate sonic expression.

That's still true. Believe it or not, cassettes haven't gone away.

Dublab, a vibrant artistic collective based in Los Angeles, throws a monthly cassette dance night and encourages DJs to spin cassettes on an Internet radio channel. It includes Matthew David, who runs a small label called Leaving Records that releases albums on cassette.

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Hear a track from Leaving Records owner Matthew David on a compilation of music from L.A.'s 'beat scene.'

"It's the most accessible, easiest, cheapest way for anyone to record a piece of audio," he says, adding that cassettes are a far cheaper medium than vinyl: less than a dollar per unit. The necessary equipment, meanwhile, can be scrounged up for tens of dollars at Goodwill or online.

"We got a ridiculously good deal," boasts Katrina Bouza of the giant, gray, printer-sized duplicators and decks she scored on eBay. Twenty years ago, she says, this equipment would have cost $3500, rather than the $200 she paid.

Bouza and her boyfriend, Chris Jahnle (both 22), founded their own tiny tape label called Kill/Hurt a year ago. Its roster includes all of five bands. When they started it, their family and friends laughed. "They thought it was the most hilarious thing," Bouza recalls. "They said, 'Cassettes?'"

But Bouza maintains that cassettes provide the perfect format for the music she likes. "Cassettes and punk music and noise music and underground music — they've always had this kind of symbiotic relationship," she points out. Cassette tape is heavy on treble, hiss, and distortion — which can serve the natural nastiness of garage rock, freak folk, and other genres that don't depend on high fidelity.

"There's a certain Los Angeles zen to putting on some massive sun-warped decayed thing while going to the beach," says August Brown, who covers music for the Los Angeles Times. Brown believes the city is uniquely suited for a new generation of cassette fans: if you're a young resident without a lot of money, he says, you probably drive "some terrible 1989 Honda Accord with non-functioning windows that happens to have a tape deck."

Dublab co-founder Mark McNeil says the format also fosters a natural sense of community: its followers rummage through dusty old shops and garage sales, talking to people and sometimes making new music out of the old stuff they find. "You have the potential of finding some of the most wild, one-of-a-kind tapes out there," McNeil marvels. "Home recordings ... amazing weird hypnosis tapes ... lectures, mixtapes."

Ah, mixtapes. Cassette culture refuses to lose what mixtapes represent: a talismanic artifact, a personalized aesthetic, no sustainable business model to speak of. For the few people still stubbornly making them, cassettes remain a meaningful way to preserve art.

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