14 things you learn running a cassette tape record label

With the vinyl revolution well underway, and the early 90’s seemingly making a comeback through the fashion industry, a combination of both seems to have paved the way for the following revival. Cassettes.

Remember them? Tapes to you and me.

Wow247 spoke to a number of tape-only independent record labels about the revival and battling the juggernaut of online streaming:

Jordan from TapeHead Recordings in London – first tape bought: ‘Chorus’ by Erasure. It’s still in my old man’s car.’
Nick Langley from Third Kind Records in Brighton – first tape bought: ‘Filmtracks – The Best Of British Film Music’
Jordan Wilson-Grell from Prison Tapes in London – first tape bought: “I want to say it was something really cool, but it was probably a Hanson album.”

1. You can uncover music that might have been missed elsewhere

TapeHead: “I am a songwriter/producer and with the music industry taking a nosedive in recent years I noticed some great music was never getting the chance of a release. The aim is to release exciting new music of any style for as long as we can afford to do so.”

2. There’s a renewed appreciation for the product

Sci​-​Fi Rains & Heartaches
Sci​-​Fi Rains & Heartaches by Hz, “a poly-box covered with a unique page from a sci-fi novel” – Third Kind Records

Third Kind: “It seemed like a fun partnership for a designer and a producer, both indie music fans, to embark on.”

Prison Tapes: “I loved the weird ways people would package things, the little notes or pressed flowers and pins that they would put in there. It feels personal.”

Third Kind: “After a decade or so of scratched up CD-Rs in boring wallets and crappy mp3s, the limitations of the cassette don’t seem nearly as bad.”

3. The recording process is hands-on

Prison Tapes: “I’ve always preferred having a tactile relationship with recording equipment. When I moved to London I either sold or left a lot of my gear behind, and ended up coming across a 4 track cassette recorder which I started using to record short songs and ideas. This lead to a more general interest in the format, and I started buying tapes from various artists on Bandcamp- $5-$8, why not right?

4. Cassettes can fill the void left by the decline of CDs

tapehead

TapeHead: “Cassettes instantly seemed like the perfect medium to release music on. Now that the masses are experiencing music digitally via downloads or streaming, who cares about a Compact Disc? Most new desktop computers and laptops are now shipping without CD drives. Vinyl is great, but it’s expensive to produce and bulky.”

5. They mean even the smallest names can have a physical release

Prison Tapes: “I wanted to promote artists who might not be able to sell +100 records, but still deserved a physical release. CD’s lack a personal touch, and vinyl is too expensive for such small runs.”

6. It’s not just a retro fad

TapeHead: “I think if we can can use the ‘retro fad’ to get more exposure, more new bands and indie labels will see the benefits in releasing music on cassette. The community is growing, and with awesome events like Cassette Store Day people can see that the demand is real.”

Third Kind: “It’s a bit like those new books that come out with original Penguin covers, or fresh vinyl releases of classic LPs. It becomes a pleasing object to pick up for some reason. It’s no surprise that Vaporwave and hip hop both sell well on this format, they’re both overtly restructuring or reimagining past styles, or even blurred impressions of the past.”

7. And cassettes can be forward-thinking too

Third Kind: “For me it’s about looking forward, finding crazy new music that no label would have the guts to press a few thousand LPs or CDs of. And I think that’s what will keep ‘niche’ formats like cassette going. There are lots of people that don’t like music that comes out on regular, more safe labels, me included.”

8. It offers something more than digital

prison tapes
Prison Tapes / Facebook

Prison Tapes: “Listeners prefer to receive a physical product when they pay for music. If they can get a tape by paying only a few extra dollars than the download price (all tapes these days come with a download anyway), it’s a no-brainer for collectors. The relatively small runs for most releases only add to the allure, of course!”

9. But no-one’s saying cassettes are a Spotify killer

TapeHead: “NEWSFLASH: TAPE TRADING DID NOT KILL THE MUSIC INDUSTRY!! We cannot compete with the demand for online/free music. All we can do is offer a different experience for the people out there that want it. The perceived ‘value’ of music has been reduced to zero for the masses now, and until that perception changes we are stuck.”

Third Kind: “Time will tell. It’s feasible now that there are adults that are seriously into loads of diverse music but have never bought it. That might eventually mean the end of physical formats but so far the signs are that young people want a tactile experience, an exchange between artist and consumer and a way to make our increasingly intangible digital culture more physical. So it’s not a question of competing with free music so much as offering a more satisfying alternative.”

Prison Tapes: “I don’t think growing demand for streaming necessarily means less people buying tapes. There will always be people who will just stream/torrent music, but there are plenty of others who want a physical memento for their support of an artist. These categories aren’t mutually exclusive- people tend to do both!”

10. The format can spark some seriously creative packaging ideas

Prison Tapes
Haircuts for Men LP on Prison Tapes

TapeHead: “The artwork is incredibly important for our releases. We like to use all available space, including the case so every part has value. We also try to do something special for each release, like incorporate old 3D Spex into the packaging, or put in hand numbered instant photos.”

Third Kind: “I try and come up with the design concept on the first or second listen to make the audio to visual subconscious connections. We often focus on the idea of the cassette as an object. Like some old thing you might find but it’s completely immaculate. It’s that nostalgic aesthetic again. I don’t like sleeve notes and that kind of thing. I’m more interested in the design offering just a few clues, but otherwise retaining the mystery of the music. My ultimate cassette release would look like a full size black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Prison Tapes: “The visual design is very important for us, and this is one of my favourite parts of the process. Most artists will provide album art from which we pick a colour palette for shells, labelling and (in some cases) marbling inks. Appropriate typography and layout are critical. The artwork needs to complement the music- it has to be eye-catching without being distracting, and relevant to the themes presented.”

11. Musicians like tape as a format

TapeHead: “The artists love releasing music on cassette. To be able to have a physical copy of your songs released – no matter how limited the run is – is exciting and not something many bands get a shot at now.”

Third Kind: “We tend to release music by people that aren’t really releasing anything or putting their music out there that much. It’s music I love that I want others to hear. So, generally people are grateful or even flattered that someone is willing to put quite a bit of effort into selling only 50 albums. They might be a little mystified too I guess. Lots of artists don’t even have a tape deck to play back their album!.”

12. As do the listeners

TapeHead: “The quality of the releases, music and packaging keeps customers coming back.”

Prison Tapes: “The personal touch helps! We include handwritten notes to each customer, and keep track of return customers. A lot of effort is put into producing work of a professional standard, in terms of both audio quality and visual design, and I like to think we’re known for that.”

13. The sound quality is… different

TapeHead: “I’m not going to fall into the trap and proclaim that it is better than a digital file. It’s just different. I enjoy it more because you can hear how the audio information has reacted with the tape, and those imperfections are what I like about it. It could also be nostalgia melting my brain…but that’s fine with me.”

Third Kind: “The sound quality can be really good. People forget this. We dub our tapes at home in real time on good decks and ideally on chrome which sounds great. It takes ages but it tends to sound better than ‘pro dubbed’. There are some bad sounding tapes just the same as there are bad sounding LPs. The limitations are similar in terms of signal to noise. That’s why classical music heads love CDs, quiet sections of symphonies sound rubbish on anything else.

14. But you need to take care of your tapes

Prison Tapes: “Cassettes definitely have a bad reputation regarding audio quality, but I think much of it is undeserved. People mishandle their tapes and don’t clean their equipment (you wouldn’t treat a turntable like that!), and many of the old decks in cars chew them up. You’ll never get digital or vinyl level quality from tapes, but you can get very close with the right equipment. Remember to clean your heads folks!”

If running your own music label interests you, or maybe you’re intrigued with the intricacies or recording music, then check out our unbelievable music facilities in our brand new Centre of Creative Industries at the Hillsborough campus, including music studios, recording rooms and even a performance theatre! Take a look at our music courses at The Sheffield College today!

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