The un­likely re­turn of cas­settes

They melted in hot cars, got eaten by tape decks or just wore out … still, au­dio tapes are hav­ing a bit of a mo­ment

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - DAVID FRIEND

TORONTO — Tyson Wiebe firmly be­lieves the au­dio cas­sette hasn’t been played out.

Many, many years af­ter most mu­sic fans tossed their tapes in the trash, the Leth­bridge, Alta., mu­si­cian got be­hind the dated for­mat in a big way — by form­ing an in­de­pen­dent record la­bel in­tent on res­ur­rect­ing the once-loved cas­sette.

Through pro­duc­tion runs of 100 copies, Wiebe hopes to con­vince more home­grown artists that re­leas­ing tapes makes sense in 2017. He sees it as a way for mu­si­cians to stand apart in the age of stream­ing mu­sic, and get more peo­ple to ac­tu­ally play a full al­bum.

“It sounds great to us and it’s a lot more in­ex­pen­sive than do­ing some­thing like vinyl,” the founder of Nor­we­gian Blue Records says. “You go to any in­die rock show right now, any­body worth their salt is start­ing to put a tape out.”

As both phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal sales dwin­dled last year in Canada, sales of cas­settes were sur­pris­ingly on the up­swing.

About 7,000 tapes were bought in 2016, which rep­re­sented a yearover-year spike of 79 per cent, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen Mu­sic Canada. While it’s not a huge vol­ume, the fig­ure was enough to give some in the mu­sic in­dus­try a shred of hope for a new rev­enue stream.

“When you’re a tour­ing band you need some­thing that can get you to the next town,” says Wiebe. “For us it’s huge.”

For some lis­ten­ers, the lo-fi for­mat never re­ally died.

Punk and hard­core mu­sic fans, in par­tic­u­lar, clung onto cas­settes say­ing the for­mat’s au­dio hisses and dis­tor­tion gave tex­ture to songs.

Marvel’s 2014 sum­mer block­buster “Guardians of the Galaxy” helped drag the tape back into the con­ver­sa­tion with a sound­track of clas­sic rock hits that topped the charts. Helped by a spe­cial cas­sette re­lease de­signed to look like a throw­back mix­tape, it be­came the top-sell­ing tape in both 2015 and 2016 in the United States.

Whether peo­ple were ac­tu­ally lis­ten­ing to the tapes isn’t so clear.

One of the big­gest hurdles in em­brac­ing the cas­sette trend is find­ing a way to play them. Decades of de­clut­ter­ing have left many house­holds with­out a good player. Few hung on to their Walk­man, the smaller por­ta­ble play­ers that were once so com­mon­place.

Some bands ques­tion the mer­its of en­cour­ag­ing fans to go back­ward to a tech­nol­ogy that many lis­ten­ers con­sid­ered faulty in the first place. Cas­settes were hin­dered by prob­lems like wear­ing out, get­ting eaten by tape decks and melt­ing in hot cars.

Van­cou­ver rock­ers Ja­pan­droids raised an eye­brow when their for­mer record la­bel pushed out their al­bums “Post-Noth­ing” and “Cel­e­bra­tion Rock” on tape.

“I think we both found it a bit baf­fling,” ad­mits drum­mer David Prowse.

But his band­mate Brian King fondly recalls some fans en­joy­ing the ini­tial nov­elty.

“Peo­ple wanted them, or at least some peo­ple did,” he says. “I’m not ex­actly sure ... if they’re ac­tu­ally lis­ten­ing to them.”

But Ja­pan­droids were never re­ally com­mit­ted to the cas­sette’s re­vival and when they signed to Arts & Crafts for their lat­est al­bum, man­u­fac­tur­ing a tape wasn’t even dis­cussed as a pos­si­bil­ity.

Other in­die la­bels have seized the opportunity, in­clud­ing Toronto-based Dine Alone Records, which is one of the coun­try’s most en­thu­si­as­tic tape sup­port­ers. Dozens of their artists have al­bums on tape, in­clud­ing City and Colour, the Sheep­dogs and Alex­ison­fire.

Cana­dian in­die mu­si­cian Ty Trum­bull ex­pe­ri­enced mixed re­sults af­ter buy­ing into the early re­vival of tapes back in 2014. Look­ing to drive sales at his live shows, he says the low over­head costs made it easy to sell cas­settes for an af­ford­able $5 at the mer­chan­dise ta­ble.

He was con­fi­dent that “Pull the Cork,” the 2014 al­bum with his band Scoop Trum­bull & The Wrong Notes, would he a sure­fire hit. But sales were volatile de­pend­ing on where in Canada he played.

“Toronto put a bit more value in kitsch things like that,” he says.

“When you start tour­ing out to New Brunswick there were less peo­ple in­ter­ested ... you’d maybe sell one or two.”

Whether there’s enough in­ter­est to keep cas­sette pop­u­lar­ity grow­ing is still un­cer­tain, and early signs sug­gest the up­swing may al­ready be los­ing steam.

Over the past two months, cas­sette sales hit a ceil­ing and haven’t re­cov­ered. Sales vol­umes have dropped 33 per cent so far this year, with only 400 tapes sold across the coun­try by the sec­ond week of Fe­bru­ary. That’s about 200 fewer copies ver­sus this time last year.

There’s also a catch to the re­cent sales re­nais­sance.

Like vinyl records, many cas­settes are pack­aged with down­load codes that let any­one en­joy the mu­sic on their com­puter or phone.

Crit­ics say that’s falsely propped up the pop­u­lar­ity of the for­mat, and sug­gest that many tapes are just trendy, ironic bed­room decor for teenagers.

Tom Howie, half of Van­cou­ver­raised elec­tronic duo Bob Moses, isn’t bet­ting on tapes find­ing wide­spread pop­u­lar­ity again.

“The resur­gence of cas­settes is solely an off­shoot of hip­ster cul­ture,” he says. “But it’s a cool mar­ket­ing strat­egy. Every­one wants some­thing they can’t get.”

GRAEME ROY, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

One of the big­gest hurdles in em­brac­ing the cas­sette trend is find­ing a way to play them. Decades of de­clut­ter­ing have left many house­holds with­out a good player.

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