There was a time somewhere between the slow slide of vinyl and the meteoric rise of CDs when the cassette tape ruled. It was the early ’80s, and the only portable, recordable music medium was the tape. And holy crap, we loved it. It was the era of the mixtape, the Walkman and the failed “blank tape” tax. By the ’90s, though, the cassette was dead, replaced by that shining “indestructible” disc many consumers now consider obsolete.
Some have held onto that nearly unmanageable medium, with a No. 2 pencil at hand whenever the tape gets tangled in their aging cassette players. (If you don’t get the No. 2 pencil reference, you’ve never owned a cassette tape.) Like all cool things of yore, cassettes are enjoying an underground resurgence. Indie kids are cutting vinyl again, and they’re making and releasing cassettes, too.
Jacksonville-based Tapes from the Gates (tapesfromthegates.com) is capitalizing on this trend, releasing new indie music in cassette-only format. (OK, they offer digital downloads, but don’t tell anyone.) Founded by Chris Bartus and a crew of his devoted friends – Jesse Kennedy, Paula Runyon, Joseph Campbell and Jennifer Bagheri – TFG has curated an interesting lot of newcomers for release on cassette.
The roster is wide and varied, with a bent toward trippy electronica. Folio Weekly recently spoke to Bartus about the life of tape.
Folio Weekly: Where are the artists coming from at Tapes from the Gates?
Chris Bartus: At first, we reached out to friends to help fill our roster. Then I attempted to recruit other musicians whose music I really enjoyed. I’d look to see if they had released any music on cassette, and if they hadn’t, I’d ask them if they would be interested in joining TFG. I’ve had some great luck with that approach, but I’ve definitely had to get used to dealing with rejection. We are now to the point where we’re starting to get submissions from artists. It’s nice being wanted, but it isn’t easy having to be on the other side and telling artists you’ve decided not to put their music out.
What are the criteria for distribution?
We just go off what we think sounds good. I think psychedelic is a word that could describe our label’s music, but that also comes with lots of stereotypes and some misplaced associations. Music has the ability to take you out of space and time, and can alter your consciousness. On that note, John Fahey is psychedelic to me. The composer Steve Reich is psychedelic. I think what most will notice right away is that we don’t release straight-ahead pop or rock-and-roll music. Our artists succeed in setting moods or experimenting with the textures of sound. Our first few releases definitely utilized electronic elements and use of the synthesizer, but we’ve already lined up some blues, hip-hop, raga, and Afro-Latin music for the near future.
Why tape … and why now?
Digital music files can easily be stored, so the CD is starting to serve little purpose. Cassettes are an analog format, so they sound unique [as opposed to] digital music. Whether that is good or bad depends on the listener. If you want to get real nerdy about it, a high-quality tape deck with three heads can make the music sound pretty remarkable, and it’s fun scouring thrift stores to find them. A $600 tape deck from 1988 can be had for under $50 if you get lucky. I also still know quite a few people with older cars that only have tape decks. They get really excited over the idea of buying tapes, because it gives them a break from NPR.
How has the response been so far?
It’s still a niche market. Our website was just completed last month, so we’re starting to get a lot more business through that. As it stands now, we’ve sold most of our tapes to people outside Florida.
Name a couple of your personal favorites on the label. Also, what are some upcoming releases?
Well, I’m definitely proud to have a few musicians of modest notoriety: Andrew Douglas Rothbard was previously in the band Pleasure Forever. They released a few albums on Sub Pop in the early 2000s. His solo material is incredible to me. Keith Wood [of] Hush Arbors is also almost done with his tape. He plays in the band Chelsea Light Moving with Thurston Moore, who was previously in Sonic Youth.
We have our first hip-hop album from Joseph Charles Campbell [Athens, Georgia]. He’s very non-traditional for the genre, given he never made anything close to hip-hop in his life until recently. Daniel Maruniak’s project Hungry Holograms [Puerto Rico] sounds a bit like Daft Punk making music with The Mars Volta. Fans of Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics will be pleased by the guitar sounds.
Next month, we’ll be releasing a tape by Los Pirañas from Colombia, South America. They do a wild fusion of champeta, Afrobeat, lysergic rock and cumbia. I listen to lots of international music, so I’m really excited about integrating that into the label. I’m currently in talks with musicians from China and the U.K.