By Jeremy Essig
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The resurgence of vinyl — accompanied by the apparent death of the CD format and continued popularity of digital music — is a phenomenon that might be called predictable. To many music fans, the convenience of MP3s has rendered CDs a waste of plastic. Record albums, meanwhile, have become an obsession for a new generation of collectors jaded by 99 cent iTunes singles and the disposable nature of compact discs. Besides an emphasis on artwork, LPs are generally considered to have better sound quality — and their imperfections are charming, not irritating.
The resurgence of cassettes is a trend that's more unexpected. Unlike LPs, tapes aren't particularly known for superior sound quality — and unlike CDs or MP3s, they're generally not the most convenient option for portable music. Yet area retail stores still carry blank tapes, and local record stores dedicate precious shelf space to cassettes. So what do cassettes have to offer — and why are cassettes reappearing in the collective consciousness while rapidly disappearing off thrift store shelves?
For starters, to many music fans, cassettes are still the ideal format for a music mix. Two south-city DJs recently found a way to secure the pleasure of receiving such a token on a monthly basis by starting their very own tape-trading club, simply called Mixtape Club. For the past five months, a group of close friends and strangers have met up to exchange tapes.
"There was talk of starting one for a while, and then it just kind of got to the point where it's like, Fuck it, let's actually do this," says cofounder Luc Michalski. "So we just set a date [and] told everybody. At the first meeting we had twenty people there, and fifteen traded. It was awesome."
Adds Michalski's co-conspirator, Ashley Hohman: "It was actually Luc's idea. Amongst friends we trade tapes a lot, but we thought it would be a good idea to get a group of people together who are really into making mixtapes and expand it to a larger audience — people who had never made a mixtape before or have never received a mixtape. So I just kind of opened it up to a larger group. It was his baby, [and] I thought it was a great idea."
"Club" is a somewhat deceptive moniker, as membership is loose and fluid, and anyone is welcome to show up as they like. According to Michalski, "You make a mixtape however you want to, and then you show up. We put our names in a hat, and you draw a random name, and that's whose tape you get. That's pretty much it."
Although CDs are tolerated, they're not allowed to mix with the tapes. "Our unofficial rule is, Whatever, if that's all you got, bring it, but you're not gonna get a tape," Michalski says. "If two people show up with CDs, [that's] awesome. They get to trade. But you're not gonna burn a CD and go home with a tape."
So why is the club exclusively cassette-oriented, and why does it shun the CD mix? Michalski shares the mindset that's making CDs less and less viable to music consumers. "For me, CDs are entirely disposable, and they can be just recreated over and over," he says. "There's nothing to it — you lose one, you just burn another one. [With] vinyl...I can hold a record that people have enjoyed for 30 years. Same with tapes. There's more story behind it, there's more history, there's more soul to it. There's better sound with vinyl, of course. That's not even worth preaching on. There's also just this counterculture rebelling against digital blah blah blah, that whole aspect. I just love 'em both." Here he pauses to roll up his sleeve, revealing a cassette tattoo on his arm. "I'm committed."
The process of creating a mixtape is something the members of the club are very passionate about — after all, it involves a lot of creativity, beyond just choosing songs or working around a theme. Hohman especially enjoys creating artwork for them. "It's more personal," she says. "It's kind of creating a little piece of you to share with someone else. And there are also other great things involved in making a mixtape. Mixtape art is something I value a lot; it's my favorite part."
Both Mixtape Club founders have also discovered plenty of new music due to their tape-trading experiences. Says Hohman: "[On] a mixtape I received this year from a friend, there was this band called Catatonic Youth. That's been my favorite thing I've learned about from receiving a mixtape." The process of making and receiving mixes leads to the purchase of more records — which inevitably leads to more new mixes to share. "The tape that I got last month was fantastic, and I bought a couple of records [because of it]," Michalski says. "That's almost the whole point — that's why it's awesome. I didn't know about those bands until I got that tape."
In many ways, the return of the cassette has been influenced by vinyl's big comeback. Some might even be lured into the world of cassettes because of their love for LPs, Hohman notes. "When people are getting into vinyl, they realize that cassette culture was also very vital when vinyl was very vital and that a lot of bands in the '80s and early '90s also released tapes and traded tapes," she says. "A lot of records now that are being reissued will [have] bonus tracks from cassette demos." And Michalski points out that although tapes are making somewhat of a comeback, they'd never been completely absent: "[The cassette] is something that I think in the punk culture has always been really prevalent, but maybe it's just more in the open now."