Cassette Music Discovery

It’s never been easier to find and miss good music

I’ve been collecting tapes a while now.

About a year ago, I set out to learn how to tape jockey. You can imagine the looks of disbelief I get when I play out, and the demands to explain myself. “Why tapes, are these new?” It is a spectacle. I’m talking about a dual deck connected to a mixer, spotting a reel, flipping sides, constantly cueing and fading. I’ll jockey in odd spots, galleries, brewpubs, block parties and rooftops, almost always in Oakland. I’m never quite sure what people are responding to — the music, the spectacle or both. Some have never seen a cassette tape, others haven’t seen one since their youth, and others are curious why I’m having such a good time.

I make no claims of music expertise or coolness. As an immigrant, my musical background was solely Tamil Ragas, Billboard Top 40 and Gospel Hymns. Moving to Canada didn’t help much either, my teenage collection was categorically bland and over-played. But a lot of that changed when torrent trackers for independent music emerged — strong communities that sprung up to trade albums, all neatly cataloged, curated and reviewed. I started to explore a wide range of music and engage with other collectors but most of all, really listen to an album … in it’s entirety.

I prefer the focus albums demand, hearing the entire story, sometimes an entire catalog. Back then, non-RIAA music drew me in with its variety and exclusivity. I immersed myself in independent culture, obscure art previously unavailable to me— the newly accessible sounds of diversity; Ethiopiques, Anatolian Rock, Pyschedelic Folk, Afrobeat, Film Music, Italian Jazz, Reggae Dub, Bollywood Funk …

It was against the mono-crop of commercial music,
that indie music stole my young heart.

Yet, beyond the early days of music piracy, through music trackers and into the streaming era, somehow the egalitarian and democratic promises of digital music never quite materialized. Napster revalued music, leading to more of the same, streaming music services which artists describe as robbery.

Thinking back, that 200Gb HD of curated music, the pride of my 20's has died. In its place are towers of tapes, a few crates of vinyl and a shoebox of letters, pins and stickers from artists. Cassette music is now a focus of mine as much as food, fashion or coffee. Besides, I took a hipstocratic oath a decade ago to seek out and support the obscure arts.

My tastes say much about me and my moods.

My current cassette flavors include lost 90's Cali New Age, Psych Rock and Instrumental Hip Hop. In winters, I get in the mood for the warmth of Cascadia Folk and Ambient while summers usually bring shows and New Wave Electro.

A regular bedtime selection is a cassette find produced in 1993, Spin the Cat — a thrift store find with no available information except for a defunct 415 phone number. Its simple composition of marimba, violin, cello, and freak folk percussion puts me right into dreamland. A thrift store find, it’s odd to think that with every new medium, a portion of music will go by unarchived, lost for good. Sadly, there are far too few tape archivists.

An Oakland thrift store cassette find by Lloyd Cargo with no known information except for a phone number.
Cultural appreciation will always be an active practice
and music streaming seems far too passive for this listener.

Right now tape releases are at a high-point. On this most democratic of music media, you will find DIY communities curating their favorite bands and releasing them on tape analog and Bandcamp digital. I’m amazed how many new labels sprout each month and annoyed sometimes at just how terrible the home recording is. There is tape music in every genre and for just about every feeling … if you put some effort into finding it.

And if you have trouble finding good music, you probably need to look harder, but that isn’t what we do, clicking through endless streams — hot today, not tomorrow. I’d launch into a rant about the homogeneity of music or how an artist’s instagram is a better predictor of success than their sound … but you already know that. While most of us like it free and easy, dig a little deeper as those musicians need you as much as you need them.

“Let the products sell themselves
Fuck advertising, commercial psychology
Psychological methods to sell should be destroyed”
— Minutemen, Shit From An Old Notebook

Editor’s note: You can listen to author’s mixtape online or read cassette reviews.

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