With the demise of the compact disc, some people might be surprised by the emergence of an old music format making a comeback: the cassette.
A growing number of bands and consumers are hitting rewind on the rectangular 9 x 5.5-centimetre plastic tapes mainly associated with the 1980s, when they were the portable music method that filled the gap between 8-track tapes and compact discs.
In Winnipeg there are more than half a dozen labels specializing in releasing cassettes, and an increasing number of bands are releasing music on vinyl, cassette and digitally, bypassing CDs altogether.
Winnipeg power metal band Evil Survives has released two albums on vinyl and cassette, selling out a manufactured run of 100 copies each of Metal Vengeance and Powerkiller on tape.
"Cassettes are my favourite format; even though I love vinyl, I'll take cassettes over them. I have a select set of records, but a couple of stacks of tapes as tall as I am," says Evil Survives guitarist Charlie Justice, 28, who is also involved with War on Music, a workers-owned music store collective on Albert Street.
The shop has been selling cassettes since its inception in 2007, but over the past year tape sales have soared at the store with customers ranging in age from teenagers to people in their late 30s and early 40s who still own tape players and Walkmans.
"We can't keep them on our shelves. We're always in short supply," Justice says. "I get them on eBay and they go so fast I can't keep them in stock. I'm always salvaging for cassettes."
One of the store's suppliers is Chris Jacques, a 39-year-old Winnipegger who performs as noise metal artist White Dog and runs two cassette-only labels: Prairie Fire Tapes and Dub Ditch Picnic.
Prairie Fire Tapes, co-owned by Cole Peters (who has his own cassette-only side label, Stasis), mainly focuses on releasing noise, drone and avant-metal artists, while Dub Ditch Picnic puts out anything Jacques enjoys, from metal to garage rock to punk.
The partners formed Prairie Fire Tapes when they decided to put out a split cassette instead of a CD.
"It's raw. We're not putting together music that's super polished," Jacques says. "I worked in record stores when CDs were coming out -- they were meant for jazz dudes and Dark Side of the Moon. Cassettes are for the people.
"If I have an idea, I'm going to record it and it's going to be done. No sitting around and waiting. With everything else you have to have cash or someone backing you; with tapes, this is out of my brain, onto tape and into your hands."
Since the labels' inception in January 2010, Prairie Fire Tapes and Dub Ditch Picnic have released 40 cassettes by artists from across North America. Jacques duplicates tapes in his basement on a professional high-speed duplicator he purchased used from a church that recorded sermons and sent them to shut-ins.
"In the time I have a cup of coffee I can have 50 tapes done," he says.
They ship tapes across the continent and count Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore as a customer. Moore is a noted cassette fan who edited a book on the skilful practice of making mix tapes -- Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture -- and has released cassettes with his band and by other artists on his Ecstatic Peace record label. Groups such as Pearl Jam, Deerhunter and Dirty Projectors are still releasing tapes, and Beck told music website Pitchfork he was recording a cassette-only track-by-track version of Sonic Youth's 1986 album EVOL for inclusion in a Sonic Youth box set.
Still, the official sales numbers for cassettes are minuscule at retail outlets, with Nielsen SoundScan reporting U.S. sales of 34,000 in 2009. Cassette fans were dealt a blow last year when Sony announced it was discontinuing its iconic Walkman, the world's first mass-produced portable music player, which made its debut in 1979.
Some people were simply surprised to hear the Walkman was still being made.
SoundScan numbers don't mean a thing to Jacques and other micro-label owners, since they sell most of their product at live shows or online through mail order without a bar code ever being scanned.
"It's not like sending out LPs that are going to cost 13 bucks to send somewhere; for a couple of bucks I can send tapes into the States," says Jacques, who begins hosting Dub Ditch Picnic Radio at the University of Manitoba campus station, 101.5 UMFM, on Tuesdays from 1 to 3 a.m., featuring a playlist that will include a healthy selection of tapes.
Over at University of Winnipeg campus station 95.9 CKUW, Scott Turner has been hosting Sell-Out Sounds on Fridays from 2 to 3:30 p.m. for a year. He and co-host Kevin Strang play a large selection of tapes, continuing the tradition started by all-cassette show CT Scans, which Sell-Out Sounds replaced.
"The coolest thing about tapes to me is they stick around: they are durable. I have every single tape I've ever got and they all still work," says Turner, 27, whose first cassette was Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction.
Turner owns an iPod and a Walkman, but enjoys the richer sound quality of tapes more than the compressed quality of an MP3.
He is also a big fan of the mix tape -- he still owns all the compilations he has made or that have been given to him over the years, while he doesn't have any mix CDs.
Anyone who knows the difference between a Maxell XLII 90 and a TDK D60 knows what he means.
"Dragging and dropping songs onto a CD isn't the same as sitting in front of your stereo with a pen and paper, figuring out the times to fit on a side so there isn't any blank space," he says. "I think there's a humanity missing from the digital world."
Plus, when you have an album on cassette, you tend to listen to the whole side before flipping it over and listening to the entire other side. In the digital world it's all about the singles, which aren't as important to non-mainstream artists in the punk, metal, hip-hop, indie-rock and noise-rock world.
"There's something about getting to know an album inside out," Turner says. "I think an album represents a statement in time from that artist."
A list of Winnipeg labels releasing music on cassette.
Prairie Fire Tapes
Noise, drone, metal, experimental
Dub Ditch Picnic
Punk, rock, no wave, Krautrock, drone, dub, psych
Noise, drone, static, experimental
Noise, experimental, tape loops, no wave, drone, industrial
War on Music
Specializes in vinyl, but released the two Evil Survives cassettes
Peace and Quiet Recordings
Punk, hardcore, black metal, power electronics
Don't Fear the Night
Cassettes Grindcore, punk