be kind and rewind… cassettes are making a comeback

DOI Recording’s John Thorp tells i-D why some of 2017’s most exciting releases are coming out on cassette.

by John Thorp
08 September 2017, 9:25am

Angel Olsen and Tyler, The Creator, two of alternative music's most celebrated artists over the past few years, share little in common musically. Yet their most recent, and most critically lauded LPs -- Olsen's My Woman from 2016, and Tyler's Flower Boy, which landed in late July -- share a format. Both have been released on limited edition cassette tape, alongside the usual digital, CD and vinyl formats. Tyler's tape, apparently produced at the request of his fans, even arrives in a bundle with a 'sticker and an enamel bee pin'. But there may be more to the cassette renaissance than novelty alone.

Predictably, these two established artists are aping a bubbling alternative scene. In recent years, rewinding and the art of untangling has undoubtedly become more prevalent. Forbes reports that in 2016, cassette sales of albums in the US rose a massive 74%. Still, at 129,000 units versus 13 million vinyl records, I'm afraid that it's unlikely that you'll find a Nickelback C90 in Tesco or Walmart anytime soon.

On the fringes of house and techno, labels such as Opal Tapes, 1080P and Where To Now are responsible for introducing me to music from artists such as Karen Gwyer, Patricia and Beatrice Dillon. The often more experimental works of these artists have thrived away from dance music's more linear expectations. Indeed, when first discovering these producers, the intimacy and occasional awkwardness of the cassette tape seemed not just practical, but oddly perfect.

"By virtue of it being a cheap and fast way of releasing music, tape is home to such wildness, such way-off-the-radar artists, and yet the cream still rises to the top," explains Karen Gwyer, whose recent LP Rembo has gathered huge acclaim, albeit on vinyl. "Great tape labels are great labels, without a doubt, and I feel very lucky to have been released by some uncompromising risk-takers."

Given the resources available to more mainstream artists, it's perhaps reasonable to be at least slightly cynical about a tape release. But to upcoming artists and record labels, tapes often provide a perfect middle ground between digital music, submitted into the ether, drowning in wave after wave of new music, and the timeless, physical appeal of vinyl. With pressing plants currently besieged by major labels pressing endless Dad Rock reissues and novelty singles in time for Record Store Day, manufacturing to tape is comparatively cheap, flexible and hassle-free.

This was the appeal when, after many years of considering it, I decided to launch a label, DOI Recordings, beginning with the music of my close friend, William Doyle. While Will was as keen as I was, he has previously released on scene-defining labels such as XL Recordings, while working under his East India Youth moniker. With no Adele or The XX, or indeed any artists at all on my books, I needed a way to satisfy Will's understandable desire for a physical product with a minuscule budget. C90 cassettes, surprisingly versatile in packaging and design, seemed like the only way forward.

Lightnesses consists of two, thirty-odd minute ambient tracks, more classically English and Eno than on a Cafe Del Mar tip. It is, "A consuming, mind-altering love letter to the very state of listening." By which I mean it is a wonderful record to listen to while doing fuck all, and one that sounds even better fused with the crackle and hiss of tape. When you reach the 'clunk' at the end of each side, it's the perfect conclusion. Not every DOI release will arrive on tape, but it's been an interesting experiment in this case; one in which the format has lent itself perfectly to the music within.

The music industry continues to exist in a state of flux, recovering from the entitlement and theft of the Napster era through to now, while adapting to both the benefits and the tyranny of choice. As more artists than ever compete to be heard, cassette tape production looks to the past in order to build a surprisingly versatile scene for the right kind of artist. Your Walkman may see the light of day again yet.

John Thorp (as John Loveless ) is DJing alongside Erol Alkan and Xavier de Rosnay (Justice) at XOYO this Friday 8 September. Get tickets here .

DOI Recording