Celebrating Cassettes: The Joy of Low Fidelity

Every year right around now, I put my Mini Cooper convertible in storage and replace it with a ’96 Geo Tracker. My Cooper has virtually no ground clearance, which makes it useless in any measurable snow, while the Tracker not only stands high above the ground but also is four-wheel-drive, making it virtually unstoppable.

The downsides of my Geo: It’s beginning to rust. The driver’s side door handle is broken. The rims are the wrong size, so the tires have a habit of deflating overnight. It smells like my dogs.

The upside: It has a cassette deck. There’s something particularly awesome about digging out a mixtape from the summer of 1994 and listening to forgotten bands like Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver or Morphine or The Wedding Present or Game Theory.

But for Chris Fischer, the label executive behind Unread Records, cassette tapes are more than just a nostalgia trip. The motto on the homepage of unread-records.com: “Creating homemade tapes from empty aluminum cans since 1994.”

Fischer used to live in Omaha. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania, native, now living in Pittsburgh, was wooed to our city in the late ‘90s by none other than Conor Oberst after Fischer set up a show for him in Lancaster back in the early Bright Eyes days.

Back then, Fischer’s Unread Records was part of the underground world of cassette-tape-only record labels. Now 19 years later, it still is, even though super-cheap digital music technology should have made cassettes obsolete. Instead, Unread boasts a catalog of 148 cassette tapes by artists such as Charlie McAlister, Ramon Speed, Spirit Duplicator and Omaha’s own Simon Joyner.

Those artists will join seven more from the Unread Records roster for Junkfest #19 — a concert at the Sweatshop Gallery in Benson this Saturday at 6 p.m. Fischer said the event, which celebrates the label’s 19th birthday, will be “a great show, very bizarre, an experience.”

When I interviewed Fischer back in 2000, the central question was: Why cassettes? Not so strangely, the question remained at the forefront when I talked to him last Saturday. He admitted cassettes have inferior sound quality, degrade faster and are more expensive to mass produce than CDRs. And if you thought finding a turntable was hard, finding a cassette deck means scouring eBay, Craig’s List or your local pawn shop.

Fischer said his love of cassettes is a product of growing up idolizing tape labels of yesterday like Shrimper, Catsup Plate and Omaha’s Sing! Eunuchs. “Cassettes are more artistically attractive to me,” he said. “It’s a mechanical thing, a physical object. It feels better to hold a cassette. It jangles around a bit. It has screws. It’s not that I’m anti-technology, there’s nothing wrong with CRSs, they just don’t look as attractive, and I don’t understand how they work.”

Plus, like vinyl records, cassettes have two sides. “Everyone now just wants to purchase a song off iTunes or just buy increments of music as opposed to a whole album,” Fischer said. “There’s nothing better than listening to an album — the A side, the B side, hits or no hits, I like to hear it all for what it is.”

Over the years, Fischer has gone from a production process that involved plugging tape decks together to dub six tapes at a time to using professional dubbers. He dubs between 50 and 150 tapes per title, depending on how well he thinks they’ll sell, then gives half of them to the artists. Not a total Luddite, Fischer said if an artist provides the master on CD, he makes the tracks available for digital download. But it’s the cassettes that are the cool, collectable thing, not the downloads.

Simon Joyner, who ran Sing! Eunuchs with Chris Deden, said cassettes became an important medium in the late ‘80s into the ‘90s because everyone had a cassette player and recorder at home. “So, people who wanted to create music could do it very easily and inexpensively. They could try anything they wanted because no studios were necessary, no label was necessary. Out of this, labels formed around this DIY concept that artists were everywhere and here’s the music, cheap and accessible.”

But Bandcamp and other digital music file-sharing sites have made cassettes unnecessary. “What’s going on now is fetishistic, econo-chic,” Joyner said. “There is nostalgia around the cassette medium because so many great, important artists and bands started out that way, during that time when it was the cheapest, easiest way to get music out there. (Today) most people releasing music on cassette are feeding that population of cassette fetishists while also releasing the same music in other ways, having their tape and eating it, too.”

Joyner said when he was putting out tapes, he “longed for vinyl, and that hasn’t changed.” Fischer agreed, and Unread has released a number of vinyl records. “I would love to do a lot more,” Fischer said, “but 80 percent of my catalog is cassettes only because of cash flow. If I won the lottery, I’d do more vinyl.”

But even if he did, there would still be a fascination for cassettes. “Nowadays, cassettes are cool and retro,” Fischer said. “A friend of mine approached me to put out a cassette and didn’t have the first idea how they worked or what they were. It blew my mind.”

Joyner, who never liked the “low-fi” label placed on him early in his career, accepted tape hiss as an unavoidable product of recording limitations.

“You should only love that sound if the music in the foreground is good,” Joyner said. “Then as now, a lot of music released on tape is no good, and having it on tape doesn’t change that fact. But when it is good, there is something nice about the hum and hiss as I drive around the city in my decrepit Ford Escort just to hear it.”

Or in my Geo Tracker.

Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.

posted at 08:44 am
on Tuesday, November 05th, 2013

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