Curating cassette culture

People just don't listen to music like they used to
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  May 12, 2011

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Endless Caverns Chakra Ledge (Cabin Floor Esoterica), a black, hand-painted cassette sheathed in a brown satin pouch with lace trim | cabinflooresoterica.com
Today, every conceivable style of music is available with minimal effort or cost. Rare bootlegs of Joy Division shows that once haunted collectors like holy grails are just a Mediafire search  away. You can rip a CD of '50s Ghanaian highlife music on a lunch break, or snag all of J. Lo's singles in one inspired iTunes blitz. For the majority of us, the modern music experience happens via console, headphones, or both. But for an increasing number of those in Maine's underground music scene, today's digital marketplace has coaxed their love of music back to its humble origins: the cassette tape.

For all practical terms, the tape should be an artifact. Compact discs sounded the death knell for analog in the late '80s, and though club DJs have helped spare vinyl from obscurity, tapes never experienced a similar revival. The record industry declared the tape dead ages ago, and a full generation has elapsed since the Walkman cassette player was the most popular audio playback device.

But over the last few years, a rash of independent labels in Maine are slowly adopting the cassette as their preferred medium. Citing reasons of sonic appeal, full aesthetic license, sound business sense, or all three, the undeniable resurgence of the format is changing the way people think about music . . . again. By recalling a time when a label's imprint was a collective signifier of musical taste, and then mixing it with unique, homespun takes on modern art, tape labels are proving that music still exists beyond the consoles.

"There's something about the labor you put into (making tapes) that's really nice," says Skot Spear, who launched his label Mang Disc from his Windham home in 1996. To date, Spear has put out more than 75 recordings, including CD-Rs, cassettes, and one ambitious 8-track release. While he doesn't consider himself an analog purist, he cites a mounting dissatisfaction with digital formats among the reasons that cassette culture is gaining in mass appeal.

"It's weird, the reaction against CDs. I felt it too," says Spear, who credits years of working in local record stores as a source of his frustration with the format. "It does something to your psyche."

Spear — who is also a manager at Strange Maine, the most eclectic shop in the Arts District — has seen new and used cassettes become one of the store's biggest sellers. "They totally blow away the CDs; it's not even close," he says. Other retail stores in town seem to be following suit. Years after they sold their last new cassette, Bull Moose outlets have started buying back tapes for store credit, selling them indiscriminately for a quarter apiece.

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