I’ve spent a lot of time covering cassettes here at THKD, not just because I dig them, but because I truly believe that some of the best and most interesting heavy music today is being released by smaller labels who have embraced the format as an affordable way to bring the underground to the masses. As such, my relationship with several of these labels has become far more personal than just receiving an e-mail blast from some faceless PR company; their owners have proven to be incredibly personable and genuinely appreciative of the coverage I’ve given them. But, as deeply as I’ve delved into cassettes and as much as I’ve chatted with those who are in the business of releasing them, I still had many unanswered questions. What motivates them? What brought them to the format? At the end of the day, does the format even matter? In an attempt to answer these and many other questions, I gathered the gents behind the labels for a virtual round table discussion of all things tape-related.
Hansel Merchor – owner, Caligari Records
Sandor GF – owner, Universal Consciousness
Andrew Rehberger – owner, Tridroid Records
Noah Coleman – owner, Sol y Nieve
Jake Rothlisberger – co-owner, Graceless Recordings
THKD: Tell us a bit about your early experiences with underground metal and/or other forms of underground/outsider music. How did those experiences feed into you deciding you wanted to run a label? What can you tell us about the genesis of your label?
Hansel: I have been pretty obsessed with music, and especially metal, since I discovered my older brother’s vinyl collection when I was about 10 years old. I literally spent hours staring at all his Iron Maiden albums. I could not believe how cool they looked. The music took the amazement to a whole new level so my attachment to music, in its physical sense, started pretty early. Prior to that discovery, I vividly recall having these massive moments of boredom that would make me think that life sucked. After I discovered metal it was pretty clear to me that I would never ever again have to go through another dreadful boring afternoon.
So just like it happens with most people, one band led to another and Maiden and Metallica led to something heavier and more obscure like Celtic Frost and Destruction, and frankly the fun never stopped. Right after I finished high school, in the early 90’s, the death metal and black metal underground movements exploded across the globe and to me, the fun just quadrupled.
During my teens I was an avid collector of mags and especially cassettes since that’s all I could afford and before finishing high school I remember fantasizing about how cool it would be to own Roadrunner Records or Combat Records. My second fantasy involved me being the editor of Metal Maniacs magazine. Either way, a music-related career at either level was always out of the question since doing that while maintaining a decent standard of living is pretty much impossible.
Still, the ideas lingered in my head and my fervor for metal despite having ups and downs has never disappeared so a few years ago with the surge of the internet I started a webzine called Deaf Sparrow. I did that for about 6 or 7 years untiI I exhausted my desire to be some kind of ‘editor’. So in a way Caligari Records is about fulfilling a second fantasy and is about staying connected to the music I have always loved. At the time, I had a little bit of money set aside and a buddy of mine had just started his own label. On top of that, through the zine, I knew of a few self-released recordings that I thought would look killer on tape, so I figured the time was right.
Sandor GF: I originally got into underground music culture back in the mid-nineties through tape trading. I was already a ‘metal veteran’ by the time I was 14 and my musical appetite was ever-growing! Discovering bands such as Bad Brains, Fugazi, NoMeansNo, Rollins Band, Ruins, Einsturzende Neubauten and Painkiller helped to expand my musical horizons greatly. Little by little I became a big proponent of experimental music, eventually hosting a radio show on KSPC 88.7 FM in Claremont, CA for about five years. I became active in improvised music and self-recorded countless stoned jam sessions with my first band SeeThru. I first made proper cassette releases for my bass/drums improvised sludge band Wounded Head in 1999, then followed those with a very limited Andorkappen solo release. At first I sort of looked down on the idea of releasing cassettes, not many people outside the most dedicated noise/punk underground were into it, everybody jumped on the CD/CDR bandwagon during the nineties. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of releasing more cassettes – it was partially out of financial necessity, and the hands-on nature and simplicity of duplicating cassettes at home fully DIY style made it attractive to me.
Noah: Underground/outsider/experimental music has always been a passion of mine. Even as a little kid, the darker and weirder the music, the more it spoke to me. It was fairly inevitable that metal and noise music would eventually reach out and grab me by the neck. The compulsion to run a label has been almost as strong for me as writing music has been. Since my young teenage days, this is what I’ve wanted to do. It took finishing an album that I was fully pleased with to make me start Sol y Nieve. Being able to work with some really amazing bands early on (Teeth Engraved With the Names of the Dead and Yellow Eyes, in particular) allowed the label to grow and sustain itself and not just plummet into the void.
Jake: I give all credit to Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil. My father had that record and many others that were highly influential to my early interest in heavy music, but that one stood out and I was obsessed with it. I don’t want to go too much into my childhood years, but I associate that LP with some of my earliest memories. They were also the first band I saw live. It was absolutely life changing for me to see Tommy Lee spinning in that fucking cage, the dancers with their tits hanging out, the laser pentagrams … I knew what THE DEVIL had to offer in kindergarten and my fate was sealed!
THKD: Why cassettes? What is it about the format that initially interested you and what do you like most about it? How have your feelings about it changed now that you’re running a cassette label?
Hansel: Why not? Cassettes are just another format, you push Play and music comes out of the speakers. I think there are people who have issues with every type of format but I don’t. Honestly, I like them all for different reasons. Some people think cassettes are about nostalgia, but I don’t agree. Keep in mind, some people think vinyl is about nostalgia also and others think that CD’s are just flat pieces of shit. Actually, the other day I was talking to a guy about that and he said that tapes were some kind of fetish. All I could think of was him sucking on some chubby girl’s toes. Now, that’s more of a fetish.
What interested me about doing tapes was that one, I could afford them without going into debt which also means that I can continue working in the format without risking too much and two, in my mind, by doing tapes, my competition is not necessarily every other metal release out there (like it would be if I worked with CD’s) but every other metal tape release, which means that the label functions in a much smaller environment.
Sandor GF: I think I’m a cassette lifer, haha. They’re cheap and reliable. I also have a very strong emotional connection to cassettes since my early childhood, I almost exclusively listened to cassettes growing up in small town Hungary, all the way up to the mid 90’s! Back then, I could only find releases by my beloved metal bands on mass-produced bootleg cassettes. LPs were too expensive for most kids of my age, but I could save up enough money to buy cassettes a few times a month, so I built up a nice collection. We of course traded and home-dubbed countless releases with my friends as well. We even ordered cassette demos from Hungarian bands, my cousin was actually directly in touch with Tormentor back in their heyday – they totally freaked me out, haha!
Andrew: Well it started when I got my first car a few years ago. It had a cassette deck and I was able to find cheap cassettes, so my interest grew from there. What kept me coming back were the booklets. I find properly designed j-cards the most pleasing to look at album layout. I still view cassettes the same for the most part. Just hold the layout to a higher standard.
Noah: For most of my life, cassettes were the only format I used for listening to and recording music. As their popularity waned and CD’s began their influx, they were still my go-to format for mix tapes and personal recordings. Cassette’s never died, they just became a lot harder to find. My feelings about them haven’t changed one bit.
Jake: I started with the idea to manufacture the Vesicus demo and casually mentioned it to one of my closest friends, who proposed the idea to go into a release output together. We began with tapes, with ease and initial cost in mind and the recordings we had queued up seemed best suited for cassette. They were nasty and dirty.. with some imperfections that could perhaps be muddied in the hiss.
THKD: One could argue that they never went away in the underground, but I think we can all agree that there is much more/wider interest in cassettes now. Why do you think there is interest again after all these years of being dismissed as a dead/inferior format? Do you think it’s in any way a reaction to the prevailing MP3 culture?
Hansel: I think it is parallel to what’s happening with vinyl which has sales that continue to rise year to year and in part it could be a reaction to the intangibility of MP3’s, which I like to call the ‘no format’. It’s also that some people like to collect and to hold something on their hands. Some people just absorb music at a much more intense level than most casual music fans and the relationship between metal and artwork is stronger than in other genres. Most people who enjoy metal know that in order to enjoy the music fully they need to absorb the whole concept, they need to hold something in their hands, stare at it, read it and appreciate it, so in that sense tapes fit right in. Also, there is a regained interest in tapes, however I do not see the format selling billions of copies in the near future. I think there is a limit as to how many tapes can be sold. Tapes sell only a fraction of what CD’s sell and frankly I don’t see that balance reversing anytime soon.
Sandor GF: At one point, when I first started releasing stuff, cassettes were merely a necessity in the DIY underground – it was not at all a respected format, frowned upon & ridiculed by the mainstream – but yet again, due to the cheapness of the format, it became a de-facto staple of underground music culture. I listen to mp3’s as well, but I certainly prefer to listen to music on vinyl or tape. As far as why they’re trendy? ‘Undergroundxploitation’ is the answer. And they’re kind of cute, we gotta admit 😉
Andrew: Well it is easily the cheapest format to get a great sound from. A good sounding cassette player will cost around $5 from most thrift store, with cassettes going as low as $.50. It is a low risk investment for any music fan, as you get a copy of a full album for less then the cost of one digital track. Seeing how any people are still driving cars with cassette decks, that is another main driving force of the interest in them. I do feel that the interest in cassettes is a reaction to the current mp3/digital culture. A lot of people who are currently into cassettes want to be able to hold a physical product in their hand rather then have a few bytes of digital sound. An album is more than music, it is the whole package. Good artwork and layout is almost as important as the music that comes on it. You can never get a digital track signed in any meaningful way. In short it just takes away the values of ownership.
Noah: The cassette resurgence started roughly 20 years after the original decline of cassettes, right? Culture always resurges itself every 20 years or so. Nostalgia is a heavy boulder within our society that you can’t stop from rolling. Aside from unavoidable cultural phenomena, cassettes provide an inexpensive analog alternative to records which can be fairly pricey sometimes. I’m sure that had a lot to do with it.
Jake: I’ve never stopped listening to tapes, so they don’t have any nostalgic charm for me, but that could explain some of the resurgence. Trends move in circles and we seem to be entering the 90’s again. You hear it in popular and especially indie music and pretty much every cool teen is dressed like Lisa Turtle..what better way to complete the image? A Walkman on your hip with some new tunes on cassette. I don’t know, everything seems like it’s done out of sarcasm and I’m probably out of touch. I don’t associate that attitude with anyone in this conversation or the underground metal network, just speaking of the ‘tape revival’ pop culture phenomenon, if that even is a thing. When Graceless started several years back, some newspaper from Illinois (maybe?) called and wanted to talk about the rise in cassette popularity. I guess someone at the plant we manufacture through gave them my number. It was really odd and caught me off guard, so I passed on what could have been a potentially enjoyable interview.
THKD: What are the advantages and disadvantages of running a cassette label? What has been your biggest challenge?
Hansel: I am not sure there are any advantages or disadvantages but the fact that is a very niche format may be a disadvantage to some and an advantage to others. I think of it as an advantage because it is quite niche. The biggest challenge has been finding the time to make it work and keeping up with what happens. Releasing tapes is just part of my operation and I would say it what takes up about 50% of the time that I put into the label. The other 50% goes to the distro and that demands plenty of time and attention. It is hard work and it can be a lot of work. I like to see daily movement in the label so that requires me to be involved on a daily basis. So yeah, I am not a single twenty-something with some disposable income anymore, so the challenge is the time I sacrifice in order to make this work.
Sandor GF: The profit margin is never going to be as high as with a CD or vinyl LP label, although some labels are guilty of selling $10 cassettes. That’s a racket. Shipping them is rather painless, but international shipping rates are so grossly expensive now, every time I ship a single cassette to Canada and pay over $7 for shipping – it blows my mind, in the worst way…
Andrew: The main advantages of a DIY label are cost and production time. If you shop around for a deal a pressing of 100 can cost around $50. Allowing for extras can bring in people for the sole reason that it is cheap. Since I do all the dubbing and printing myself (well at Office Depot, but close enough) I can get a pressing out in as little as a day once the cassettes and cases arrive. The main challenge/disadvantage is getting good sound quality on old equipment. Since the main components are 25+ years old they don’t always want to work correctly leading to all sorts of problems. It really just leads to and extra dubbing pass or recording the master tape again, which is damn annoying and eats up time that could have been spent doing other stuff.
Noah: The advantage is that it’s fairly inexpensive to produce a high-quality cassette release. Even with all the bells and whistles, it’s pretty easy to keep the costs down. The disadvantage is that it makes it more difficult to produce and release more expensive things (i.e. – vinyl).
THKD: To my experience it seems that the majority of cassette releases are either black metal or noise/drone type stuff. Why do you think this is? Do you think certain genres are more conducive to the format than others?
Hansel: I am not sure what the numbers are for cassette releases per genre but when I make cassette-related searches in YouTube I get a lot more results for other genres than I get for bm or noise/drone so it may be more our perception since we are immersed in this kind of music. Undoubtedly, there are a shitload of releases in these genres and I think their DIY nature and the low production costs associated with it may have a lot more to do with it. I see BM and noise as rather exclusive genres, meaning that by design they exclude the grand majority of the population as its target market and I think the tape format just adds to it, since only a very reduced group of people consume it. It’s a bit of a marriage made in hell, if you will.
Sandor GF: Those genres are forms of true underground music, as they were meant to be. To be fair though, most of the DIY punk/hardcore underground also embraces cassettes, also garage rock and underground rap and some electronic DJ mixes are common on cassettes – so I think it’s a healthy global underground thing.
Andrew: Well seeing as black metal and noise/drone are minimalist forms of music, it makes sense that those types of bands and projects would jump all over cassettes. I don’t really think genres are a deciding factor for the most part. I’ve had every genre of metal come to me asking for a cassette release. It really has to do with the people in the band.
Noah: The beginnings of both of those genres seem to be inextricably linked to cassettes. They were almost as much a part of the culture as the music itself, especially with the early noise and industrial scene. I think it makes a lot of sense that the present cassette resurgence would be spear-headed by those two genres.
THKD: Do you have much contact with other label owners? Do you feel any sort of kinship with others who have chosen to embrace the format?
Hansel: I have quite a bit of contact with other label owners. It is mostly in a ‘professional’ level though. I have been building a tape distro since early last year so that means I have to get in touch with other label owners in order to trade or buy stock. To be honest, that’s the extent of my relationship with most. I guess there is some sort of kinship between myself and other tape label owners but to be honest, it’s not like we communicate telepathically or function at similar wavelengths. I think any sort of kinship that I can establish with people may have more to do with the music we like than with the format we deal in.
Sandor GF: I trade with a few labels, and I follow several on instagram/facebook. I work at Amoeba Music in Hollywood, where I stock as many cassettes from metal and whatever underground bands/labels I can support. We’re in this together – I wish more labels were interested in trading with me, however I rarely release ‘safe’ and ‘predictable’ releases – so most people/labels who concentrate on a specific style of music often look past my label.
Andrew: I’m not in contact with a whole bunch of labels yet. I’ve kinda been stuck in my own little hole for a while, but the few I’ve been in contact with I do feel that there is some sort of bond. This is due to the fact that we do the same thing and can give each other tips, trade, and just talk about the format and music we love.
Noah: I have a little bit of contact, mostly through label trades and things of that nature. There’s always a sense of kinship with those that are involved in the same things you are. I have a few friends back in Chicago that run tape labels (Bill from 1980 Records and Mike from Solar Temple Tapes) and we would inevitably start talking shop whenever we hung out.
THKD: What is your relationship like with the people who purchase your releases? Has running the label allowed you to connect with anyone on a deeper level than business/customer?
Hansel: Let’s say that my relationship with quite a few of my customers is much more intimate than any relationship I have ever had with any label I have bought music from. I try to respond to all inquiries as soon as I can and I do all that I can to satisfy my customers. I listen to what they have to say and pay close attention to their suggestions. I work at a level where it is possible to do that though. That said, I have not found my next best friend through a tape sale.
Sandor GF: My costumers tend to be loyal and curious about new releases, often very supportive beyond my expectations. It makes it worth all the struggle. I enjoy sharing this ‘underground cultural struggle’ with my fellow music fanatics – striking up friendships and collaborative relationships with other labels and artists is exactly what it’s all about.
Andrew: For the most part it is just a business/customer relationship. That is what the customer chooses. For the most part unless they are a local buyer it does not get too deep. I’m much better in person in person than in writing. This has allowed me to connect with a lot of local MN musicians. Being one of the few labels around I got to know just about every metal band.
Noah: Yes, though mostly through the internet. Occasionally, during my travels, I’ve been able to meet some ‘regular customers’ and it feels like meeting a pen pal for the first time.
Jake: We’ve made some good friends through the label, sure. I’d say the bands we’ve had the opportunity to work with have been the most rewarding, but I’ve had many who began as customers and turned into friends I talk to on a regular basis now. Some of the first orders were from Greece and South America and they have been in contact since!
THKD: It didn’t take long for the big metal labels to come sniffing around the renewed interest in cassettes. What do think of things like the newest Carcass and Pig Destroyer albums coming out on tape?
Hansel: I don’t mind. It is only natural. I think those labels are just re-testing the waters at this point and that some may be deterred to get much deeper into the format once they find out that the profits are not enough to warrant the work required. Also, I think of it this way, if some kid buys a tape player because he found a Pig Destroyer tape online, then the chances of him gravitating to more obscure tape releases is there. So I expect other smaller operations may be able to benefit from that perhaps much more than Relapse Records, or Nuclear Blast or some shit.
Sandor GF: Well, I’m sort of into it. On one hand, It re-legitimazes cassettes an acceptable format and potentially help shed some light to the true underground. On the other hand, they’re back with the $10 cassettes, which is a racket that I don’t support… But hey, I’m happy for fans of more mainstream metal, if it makes them happy good.
Andrew: I think it is a good thing. It gives exposure to the format to the more casual fan. It allows them to wet their feet in the format. With it being as cheap as it is, it might get them hooked.
Noah: I have no problem with it. I don’t really buy CD’s anymore and vinyl is just too expensive sometimes, so if I can buy the tape version to tide me over until I can afford the vinyl, that’s great.
Jake: That’s just a business opportunity. If there’s a trend to exploit, you know Relapse, Earache, etc. are gonna jump in balls deep and fuck it til it’s dry.
THKD: It seems that cassette releases have gained quite a bit of support within the blogging community; sites such as Black Metal and Brews, Hammer Smashed Sound and even Invisible Oranges have devoted coverage to the format. Are you surprised by the attention?
Hansel: No, I am not surprised. Blogs just cover what’s going on, they react to it.
Sandor GF: Underground music blogs greatly helped the scene to survive, in the wake of the now largely (and sadly) obsolete printed fanzines. It makes a huge difference for me when bloggers/reviewers actually take the time to listen to my releases and actually review them. Their dedicated efforts are invaluable to my label (and many others as well, I’d imagine)!
Andrew: I am not. Whenever good music is released on any format it gets people talking. With cassettes it is no different. It is a draw of the different style of packaging with the music they love.
Noah: Not at all. Most of the blogs worthy of any attention (like yours and the ones you mentioned) are trying to cover what they feel is good underground music and give it the attention that they feel it deserves, no matter the format. With so many bands releasing albums on cassette only, they’re bound to get some coverage at some point.
Jake: I’m not surprised by the attention, as I hope it’s not because of the format, but the desire to write about quality music that happens to be available on that format. If it’s some sort of cassette feature that happens once a week/month, then whatever. That’s just covering the field, I suppose. If it gets someone’s attention and inspires them enough to write a review, how it was presented should be irrelevant. It was probably sent to them as mp3s anyway.
THKD: As cassette releases have started to gain more and more attention, they have not been without their share of detractors. How do respond to people who dismiss your label based strictly on their dislike of the format or think this just some sort of fad/nostalgia trip?
Hansel: I don’t think there is a need for a response. People like what they like and hate because they have to hate. I hate asparagus and I don’t need someone to make the case for asparagus to me. Everything has its share of detractors and everyone has their reasons for it, some of these are justified, other are just plain stupidity, stubbornness or close mindedness. Either way, if someone doesn’t like tapes, then tapes are just not for them.
Sandor GF: If you don’t like them, stay away from them. No problem. If you don’t like cassettes, that’s your damn right. But it likely also means that you’re less than open minded to exploring uncompromising, musically and artistically relevant and vital bands and labels. The choice is yours.
Andrew: I never really got this kind of flack. I seem to have built a nice fan base from the start. If I did get this kind of flack I would just tell them I’m doing what I love and I’m not going to do anything different. If they can’t accept that that don’t deserve my time anyway.
Noah: I’ve never personally run into that. I’ve seen articles and online rants, I suppose, but never anyone personally dismissing my label because of it. It doesn’t bother me if someone isn’t into tapes, though. Whatever. It’s all taste.
Jake: I guess I don’t deal with those who dismiss our label. When the trend passes to whatever comes next, I hope to still be here spreading filth via physical format and tapes will always be an effective way to do that.
THKD: What advice would you give to anyone that’s thinking about starting a label/releasing cassettes? Is there anything in particular you had to learn the hard way that you wish you’d known in advance?
Hansel: I’d say if you wanna do it, go for it. Just think well at which level you wanna be involved. I think there are two ways to go about it; 1- to simply have a label where you limit yourself to releasing material. That’s easy because you can pace your releases at whatever rate you want. And 2- to have both, a label and a distro. I went the second route and what I have learned is that if I want to achieve some modicum of success it will involve a lot of work. I put in a lot of hours in the label but is gratifying because I love the bands I have worked with and I think my releases look and sound pretty fucking good.
Sandor GF: Just about anyone could theoretically run a cassette label, it’s really not all that expensive to even professionally duplicate/manufacture labels. If you really care about the music regardless of making a profit or not, then DO IT! Have a vision, have a label identity. Have some sort of financial plan, be professional, do your best to put out unique, quality product. Give the artist a decent percentage of the finished copies of the release (whatever is mutually agreed upon). Communicate and collaborate freely with the artists you release, make it so that it stands the test of time – all uncompromising art DOES.
Andrew: A good master tape goes far. The dubbed tapes will never sound better than the master, so take your time to get the master tape perfect. Always have extra cassette cases, as they break often. I wish I started with this knowledge; it would of saved a lot of headaches. Finally, above all else, just stick with it. There were plenty of times where I wanted to quit but stuck with it. That is the most important thing; the longer you are around the better things get.
Noah: Don’t dub your own tapes at home on some bogus, old, dirty cassette deck. It’s a pain and it doesn’t sound good. Also, use some kind of paper folding device when folding your j-cards. Andre, who ran Land of Decay, introduced me to them and they a) are a lot faster and b) make the j-cards looks so much better.
Jake: Don’t expect anyone to care and you won’t be disappointed, but if you’re compelled to do it, make it happen. Genuine and moving art often gets buried under the mundane, so do whatever necessary to expose what moves you.
THKD: What has been the most rewarding aspect of running your label? Are you satisfied with what you’ve accomplished up this point and what are your plans for the immediate future?
Hansel: The label sustains itself at this point and that will allow me to continue releasing recordings, so that’s very satisfying. I am also happy to have put out 10 cassettes that I think offer a wide palette of heavy sounds. Getting a few kudos from music lovers and from the bands is very satisfying as well. To me, music is most exciting when it comes from bands that are in the first phase of their careers, (let’s say first three recordings) so ideally, Caligari Records is about catching new bands that are in their best moments. As for plans for the future, just to keep working. I have three releases lined up so I am moving ahead and there is a fourth one that I hope works out.
Sandor GF: I enjoy sharing music that I think is awesome with fellow music fans, more or less regardless of profitability! I don’t think I’m ever going to be satisfied with any personal accomplishments. There is a need for exposing true underground artists to wider audiences, there’s plenty more work to be done.
Andrew: The most rewarding part of running a label is getting to work with so many awesome bands. I still get as excited for each one of my new releases as I was the first time. I’m very satisfied with how my label turned out. I never thought I would get this far; how far I have come since my first release amazes me. My plan is just to do more releases from awesome bands, grow the label, and keep up the hard work so maybe one day I will be able to run my label full-time.
Noah: The rewards are immaterial and unexplainable. It’s the same thing that is most rewarding about the process of painting a picture, or building a chair, or raising a child. It is rewarding because it is.
Satisfied, yes, but not satiated. There is still much to accomplish, unleash, and loosen unto the world. 2014 and early 2015 holds new releases by Essene, LOCI, Monument, Ten Thousand Miles of Arteries, and Dead Dragon Mountain along with cassette reissues of material by Krieg, Locrian, Yellow Eyes, and Chaos Echoes.
THKD: I’ll let you guys have the last word. Are there any final thoughts you’d like to add?
Hansel: Thanks for the support.
Sandor GF: Thanks for your kind interest in my label, it’s greatly appreciated – I hope more people will continue to give my releases a chance, I only release material that I deeply care about – be it solo projects or artists that I think must be heard!
Noah: Thank you for your interest and support, Josh.