Lajoie is moved by another analogy of human connection. "When I release cassettes, I try to make it limited and handmade, so it still feels like it's handed to you by a friend," he says. "I never bought any commercially released cassettes; it was mostly about buying blank tapes and making mixes. It was much more of a social experience."
For the new wave of tape producers, keeping the analog dream alive seems less an act of nerdy, sentimental atavism than a radical form of music preservation. The sheer quantity of labels making tapes both locally and nationally appears to be a direct response to the alienation of the contemporary music marketplace. And as CD sales wane and the music experience becomes increasingly digitized, tapes have found renewed life not simply as inexpensive vessels for recorded sound. Instead, many labels regard them as art objects — decorating the vessel for outsider sounds with intricate material packaging and original design.
Ironically, the advancement in digital technology has helped spark the cassette resurgence. Music distribution and recording practices have gotten quantifiably easier, giving label owners more opportunity to concentrate their labors on with aesthetic processes. "There's no time wasted," says Lajoie. "We can be very efficient putting the time into the art as opposed to the promotions."
Jared Fairfield Mysteries (L’Animaux Tryst, 2010), a hand-labeled white tapes in an oversized, full-color art paper sleeve, fastened shut with wool yarn; edition of 75.
L'Animaux Tryst specializes in warm, trippy avant-folk; its releases are often hand sewn and ornately printed. Cassettes issued by Tea First Records, a label run by Selbyville's Artie Fischer, are tidy and minimalist, often with a maritime aesthetic that complements the swaying instrumental harmonies of its artists.
For Mang Disc releases, Spear doesn't just vary the packaging per title, but often the individual copies of the editions themselves. The materially indiscriminate, cut-and-paste aesthetics of the packaging match the dizzying sonic turbulence of the recordings themselves. Oboe Cold, a 60-minute cassette released under his recording alias i dm theft able, was issued in 30 hand-numbered tapes packaged in women's underwear, gutted stuffed animals, and old Velvet Underground T-shirts. The audio contained is similarly unconventional, a bricolage of fractious tones and glottal sounds made by Spear himself.
"You don't have to worry about scratching them" (like records or CDs), says Spear, "so you can put them in really interesting packages. I do a lot of bagged releases where I put a lot of junk in there. It makes it more mixed-media, interactive."
Spend some time with each label, and differences in aesthetic emerge. While Lajoie relishes the craft of each intricate piece, Spear's approach is firmly mixed-media, often involving numerous inserts bordering on found art. Appropriately, Mang Disc recordings sound less like songs than indeterminate audio events. Spear's "found" series, tapes he's assembled from material culled from other people's home recordings, serve as perfect examples of this.
Currently available at Strange Maine is Excision of the Vulvar Cyst, a 60-minute cassette Spear found wherein doctors with New York accents clinically describe a woman's delicate surgical procedure. Pa's Music & Singing collects the rare moments of an elderly man recreating his favorite songs on piano with minimal proficiency, and The Gift That I Never Got — a Mang Disc classic — is, according to Spear, "an unbelievably intimate, insane, and beautiful" document of a teenage girl reading from her journal.