Rewind the times 

In the face of all logic, the cassette tape gets its well-deserved comeback

I have a mixtape from a former boyfriend that begins with The Misfits' "American Nightmare" followed by Wanda Jackson's "Savin' My Love." It was a meaningful compilation of songs at the time, because I was moving away to go to college and our parting of ways was dramatic (or, probably, melodramatic). The final song, The Animals' cover of "Bring it On Home," where Eric Burdon sings "If you ever/ change your mind / about leavin' / leavin' me behind," was straight to the point. But all the other songs—The Country Teasers' "Only My Savior" and The Insect Surfers' "Mr. Yunioshi"didn't offer much subtext about heartbreak. They were just really great songs that, because they were part of the same collection, became inextricably linked to the feelings I had at the time. That's the effect of a good mix.

Since our culture moved from cassette tapes to compact discs to iTunes, Soundcloud and Bandcamp, we haven't really lost what makes a good mix, per se. When you create a mix—even as a digital playlist—you still probably put some thought into which song to open with and which to end on, what to title the playlist and how the subtext might come across for the listener. In that sense, it's still kind of an art form. But cassette tapes did have a certain aesthetic and satisfying tactile quality that even a CD, with its flat surface, can't touch. Getting a real mixtape is like receiving a letter: You open the little hatch and inside is a message made of songs often accompanied by scrawled secret messages and handmade liner notes decorated with collage.

The cassette has had a resurgence over the last few years. The trend, though, isn't just homemade mixtapes but with new releases. Burger Records, one of the most prominent cassette tape outlets, list more than 500 new tapes on its website. Lost Sound Tapes also boasts a huge catalog that includes compilations and splits. Pitchfork wrote a piece last year touting nine underground cassette tape labels, and other independent media outlets have written stories reflecting the little pockets of cassette culture springing up around the nation. Another piece of evidence: Along with Record Store Day, an April 19 celebration of independent record stores, we now have Cassette Store Day, which debuted in early September last year. (No date has been set for this year.) That's just the underground scene, which is where you'd expect the rise of anything retro and—ahem—hipster. More well known musicians, including The Flaming Lips, At the Drive-In and Skrillex, have also dipped their feet into tapeland.

click to enlarge PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHAN MARQUIS
  • photo illustration by Jonathan Marquis

In Missoula, there has also been a rise in cassette tape culture. John Fleming at Ear Candy Music says that he's seen more cassette tapes show up in catalogs as well as from local bands. On a shelf in his Higgins Avenue store there's a small collection of tapes from Missoula bands like Scriptures, 10yoGirlfriend and Rooster Sauce. "I don't like cassette tapes," Fleming admits, "but I'll order them if people ask for them." Still, he says he gets why bands are using the medium. It's cheaper to make them and, unlike a lot of LP and CD companies, cassette tape producers don't require a minimum order, which is a godsend for broke musicians trying to save up every penny for touring.

Musician and promoter Tyson Ballew, a longtime Missoula fixture who moved to Bellingham, Wash., last year, never gave up on the cassette tape. His label, Tummy Rock Records, has put out several over the years: The Flightless Bird Trilogy is his own collection of solo work and he's also worked on tapes for local bands, including experimental group Poor School's Live at the Raven Cafe and the upcoming release of punk band Buddy Jackson's The Murry Wilson Sessions. Like Fleming, Ballew also brings up the fact that tapes are more economical to release. But unlike Fleming, he finds vinyl—also enjoying a comeback—annoying because it's not as portable as tape. In fact, Ballew suggest that instead of doing a Kickstarter campaign to put out an expensive LP like so many bands are doing these days, artists should save their money, put out tapes and use Kickstarter as a means to hire a PR person to get their music to radio stations and performance venues. It's probably not the most enticing Kickstarter campaign, but it might be practical. "It's the most unpunk thing to say," Ballew says, laughing.

Problem is, of course, few people have the means to listen to a tape anymore. The Walkman has been out of production for years in the U.S. (Japan, a holdout, just recently stopped making them.) Ballew and other cassette tape promoters understand the challenge. That's why you can listen to the Buddy Jackson album on Bandcamp, and most of Ballew's cassette releases provide a download code so you can have a digital copy along with the tape. The digital access is necessary for the way we consume music now, Ballew says. So why even do the cassette tape at all? "It's cool to have an artifact from a band that's not a T-shirt," he says.

At the VFW, a new event called Secret Mixtape Society provides a way to share music. It's set up to be a monthly meeting of musicphiles open to the public where people make mixes based on a theme—this month it's "Spring Fever"and then swap their mixes with each other. Despite the name of the event, some people will bring CDs and USB drives, but cassette tapes will undoubtedly be part of the affair.

As cynical as it sounds, the return of tapes is a fad in a time when we have less cumbersome options. Some of us recall how we cursed our tapes for unraveling and, over time, warping. Still, the digital playlists I've made show worse side effects: They seem easily erased and repurposed or forgotten in the Cloud. With tapes, there's more permanence. Fast-forwarding is a nuisance, so you listen to them the whole way through. Tracks you might have skipped grow on you. You come to know the order of the songs. If it's a mixtape, it unfolds into a story—a nice emotional landmark in a fast-paced music world.

The first Secret Mixtape Society meets at the VFW Mon., March 31, at 7 PM. No cover.

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