April 8, 2010
Despite the increasing popularity of the mp3, a few hold outs still prize the cassette tape over other formats for its intimate and tactile qualities. Today, contributor Helen Schumacher profiles a Portland, OR based label that's vowed to keep cassettes alive well into the 21st century.
It’s not surprising to hear Raf Spielman compare running a music label to something as antiquated as an 18th-century salon. The Portland, Oregon, musician specializes in releasing music in a format some consider a pre-digital relic. Spielman runs Eggy Records, a label that distributes nearly all its releases on cassette tape, each of which includes beautifully designed jacket artwork. Spielman first started distributing the label’s releases at a coffee shop after they offered up some space for the tapes, which usually sell for about $4 to $6. He soon realized that he wouldn’t be able to release the tapes fast enough with his own label and so, about a year and a half ago, he began working with other labels to curate and package their music under an extension of the Eggy moniker—Eggy Records and Distribution.
“The two major benefits were that people could actually see the tapes, these beautiful, obsessively created objects that are normally only available through online mail order, and that by curating the selection under the Eggy name, people would be more inclined to pick up a tape by an artist they’d never heard of,” says Spielman of his decision to become a distributor of limited-run cassette tapes.
While Spielman admits that listening to music on cassette can have drawbacks (including cumbersome rewinding and fast-forwarding, degradation from too much play, and the ever-present possibility of getting eaten by a hungry tape deck), he also credits the cassette with being able to foster a special relationship between musician and listener.
“Nobody expects the music on a tape to be professionally recorded in a studio, but there is the expectation that the musical ideas are interesting. Because you don’t play them on a computer, people are less likely to be checking their email or reading a blog while they ‘listen’ to a tape than an mp3. You listen to the music in the order the artist intended—you can’t listen to it once, then put your two favorite songs on a playlist and ignore the rest,” he says. “I guess all of us in the mp3 generation believe we know exactly what we want to hear exactly when we want to hear it, and I think that leads to a lot of close-mindedness. Giving up a little control is good. It makes you think about the sounds you’re hearing.”
He maintains that “tapes are where the exciting music is happening.” In fact, several Portland labels—including UHU, Gnar, Karamazov, and Stunned—are also helping to save cassette tapes from obsolescence. Earlier this year the notoriously DIY city even hosted Tapefest, an event which fêted the retro medium with musical performances and local labels selling their cassette releases.