Friday, January 13, 2012

The Return of the Cassette, Part 2

A Deposition of a DIY Label Head, Lifetime Black Metal Fan, and Cassette Enthusiast

Mike, the mastermind behind Fallen Empire Records, contacted me to share his thoughts about the cassette format and its revival. The label specializes in vinyl and cassettes, and according to Josh Haun it is "a label to watch". This is how the conversation went.

Full Metal Attorney: I'd like to know your reasons for choosing the format [cassettes].

Mike: OK so, I feel like this will make the most sense if I tell you a story rather than just list some bullet points.

I've been listening to metal since i was 13 and black metal primarily since I was 15. I'm 22 now, so that's the majority of my life. When I was younger I used to buy CDs all the time because that's all I knew. I probably amassed 150+ CDs before I was 16 or 17. Around that time I discovered torrenting via private sites (at the time, it was OiNK, and then Waffles once OiNK was shut down). This really opened up my world to a totally new way of discovering music, and I slowly bought less and less CDs.

After a while, I decided that I still wanted to buy and collect music, so I switched my focus to vinyl. I was always intrigued by the record player in my living room that my parents never used anymore, and I loved the fact that the art was several times larger than the CD format. I bought a few used metal LPs at a local shop, and found a few favorites on eBay (Dissection - Storm of the Light's Bane was an early purchase) and started paying attention to vinyl. For a while, I didn't really listen to my vinyl much, it was just a physical collection, but as time went on I decided I wanted to listen to the stuff I had, and I started to pay more attention to my turn table and also started buying more vinyl. This was probably around 2007-2008.

From this point forward my music philosophy was this: find music via torrent sites/blogs and buy my absolute favorites on vinyl. However, there was still some aspect of music buying that I loved that was missing: going into a record store and buying 'blind'. I used to do this with used sections of CDs all the time. Go into the store with 30 bucks, leave with 6-7 CDs. Vinyl is expensive, you can't do that with vinyl. So at Maryland Death Fest 2009 I bought 2 tapes from a distro (Paragon Records) that was set up. Raate - Sielu, Linna and Xul - Demo I. Cost me $8.

Raate: Sielu, Linna (vinyl)
Raate turned out to be tremendous, and Xul turned out to be in interesting, mechanical (almost like Thorns s/t) exercise in cold northern black metal. At this point I was intrigued by cassettes, but still didn't take to buying them often. It wasn't til Paragon Records had a sale (I think summer 2010), and I purchased about 20 cassettes from them for $60 bucks that I fully became interested in cassettes. The thrill of cheap, blind buying was back again.

I began to take notice that a lot of my favorite bands released demo tapes in between, or before they started releasing full lengths on bigger labels. I wanted to hear these releases. From that point on, I started seeking out cassettes more and more. In 2011 I definitely bought more cassettes than anything. I think the format fits underground black metal perfectly, from a sound and aesthetics standpoint.

So yeah, there's just a story about how I got into buying cassettes. You might be able to infer some things from that . . . . I really only scratched the surface here and touched on 2 aspects I enjoy (cheap, blind buying). Also, I have different reasons for enjoying cassettes from a consumer and label (manufacturer) standpoint.

FMA:Your story makes a lot of sense to me. Essentially, you got cassettes because the artists made the decision--for whatever reason--to release their music only on cassette. But you came to like the format. I pulled two major themes out of your explanation: One, cassettes bring back the thrill of blind buys. Two, it's a way to compensate the artists that you like after you pirate their music.

Mike: Spot on about the thrill of blind buys. However, I'm not exactly sure that with cassettes it's about supporting artists that I like, at least not compared to LPs, of which I almost exclusively buy things from bands I already know any love. For me, a big thing is discovering new music by buying cassettes. I am a lot more likely to give music that I have paid for and have a physical copy of more attention than something I just happened to download from blog X. Because I can buy so many cassettes for so cheap (I just got 22 cassettes for less than $80 including shipping second hand from the UK, and another 9 for $28 before shipping from a USA distro) I have no problem spending a few bucks on something I've never heard with the chance that it rules. I'm digging through these two orders as we speak and already found some gems!

FMA: The thrill of blind buying is something I never did a lot of with CDs, but it was rewarding when I did. But I've done some blind buys with MP3 music--notably, Kvelertak, before I had heard a single thing about them. So that's not impossible in a digital medium. Digital media has so many other advantages. The lo-fi aesthetic can even be duplicated. Hell, if you wanted, you could record something onto cassette and then record that cassette onto MP3, then distribute.

If compensation is your concern, then why not buy a T-shirt, or buy the music in some other format?

Mike: I think I pretty much touched on the first paragraph above. Don't get the idea that I'm opposed to digital media, I actually help run a blog ( and one of our primary focuses is digitizing releases which were originally released on tape (often with the band or label approval first). I do buy plenty of t-shirts and vinyl.... so why cassettes?

FMA: So to be quite honest, the only real value I can see in a cassette is gimmick appeal: It's out of the mainstream, and quantities can be limited. In short, a cassette is more kvlt.

So, does it just come down to gimmick appeal? If it does, then is that even a bad thing in a genre which is (let's be honest) full of gimmicks?

Mike: I think a lot of it stems from tradition. The 'demo tape' is something of metal tradition, I feel. This goes back to how I got into cassettes in the first place; simply because there was material that I was interested in that was available on cassette at a reasonable price. What did I love about cassettes that kept me coming back? To me, it's the budget version of vinyl. I think the collection aspect is a big thing for me as well. I've always been a collector of something. When I was way younger it was mostly baseball cards, and since then it's been beer & liquor bottles and music. It's nice to have something tangible to go along with your music, and for me cassettes do a damn fine job for my budget, and ultra underground interests.

Blut Der Nacht - Demo MMXI
Are cassettes 'gimmicks' just because they are not the most current, convenient format? By that logic, I feel as though LPs & CDs should also be tossed into the gimmick category. Tapes are arguably more convenient than LPs (easier to store, portable, cheaper, etc). Do tapes lack the fidelity that all other formats offer? Yes. But does that really matter for underground black metal? Absolutely not. Most issues I've encountered with cassettes have nothing to do with the recording, but with the dubbing. Crepusculo Negro is notorious for low quality dubs done with a high-speed machine, which often distorts and muddles the audio. Another issue is the band or label not making the master loud enough, and then the music is largely masked by tape hiss. All of these issues are non-existent if people know what they're doing in making the cassettes. I have actually noticed with some of my releases (namely Blut Der Nacht, and the Nuklearenpest/Wulfgravf sides of the 3 way split) they have sounded better on cassette than the digital files themselves. The cassette offered some warmth to the BDN and Nukpest recordings, and managed to provide some atmosphere to the Wulfgravf recording, I felt.

Is part of the appeal that they were underground, hard to obtain? Sure, at first it was a cool exotic way to listen to music, but now it's just sort of what I do. I buy tapes. I make tapes. I trade tapes. I don't think it's odd at all, and I wouldn't have my music any other way.

And just as a closing thought, do you think that the format might influence the artists in how they write music? Whenever I listen to tapes or LPs, I listen front to back. I never skip around. Maybe artists compose differently with the notion that "Hey, people are going to listen to this front to back" as opposed to "Oh let's just make 2 - 3 songs for the radio and fill the rest up with random songs featuring guest stars". Now that I think about it, I actually like how cassettes and vinyl sort of "cure" any type of musical ADD. I know when I have an iPod at my fingertips, I'm sometimes prone to switch what I'm listening to at a moments notice. When listening to cassette or vinyl, that urge really doesn't happen. I let the music run its course.

FMA: Vinyl does still have its place, because of its fidelity. CDs may not, in time, because although they are high quality they are still no better than digital media except that you get a physical piece of art (that most people would look at once or twice and then rarely ever again).

But for tapes? An artist could release their album as a single MP3 file, thus encouraging the listener to play the whole thing. And the art is small. And the quality is poor. So I keep coming back to the idea that they serve no purpose better than digital media.

Going back to your point about appreciating music more if you payed for it: I actually did my own study of this phenomenon while in college. I hypothesized that there would be a positive correlation between a person's investment in music and their appreciation for it. To be fair, it was a crude study based on self-report questionnaires, but I found no correlation. I wonder if anyone has done a better study on the topic.

I keep coming back to gimmick appeal. But I see less and less of a problem with that.

Mike: I actually really like the small, crude art, heh.

Strongblood: The Beaten Path of Youth
[Strongblood's The Beaten Path of Youth is] a 2011 release [with art] that I absolutely love. Some people like lo-fi, low budget (see, the still popularity of B-grade horror flicks). A lot of this low-budget/lo-fi tape art is also very personal. Every Fallen Empire release to date, I print, cut and fold all the j-cards myself.

I don't think that paying has anything to do with appreciating the music: if it fucking sucks it fucking SUCKS and no amount of money can change that. What I was getting at is that I'm more likely to give the music a real shot if I pay for it and have it in a physical, tangible format. When you are on the internet, you are bombarded with constant "LISTEN TO THIS IT KILLS / THIS BAND RIPS / THIS SHIT IS CRUSHING". It helps to have some actual releases in front of you so you can say "Ok, I've committed to this, it's here, I'm going to listen to it".

I will agree with you there is some undeniable appeal to cassettes as an underground format. I will also agree that the fidelity of the other formats isn't necessarily there, but with a lot of underground metal, it's also not necessarily noticeable/a factor. So in the end it really comes down to a matter of choice, and for some reason or another there are still enough people who make the choice of cassette to keep it in existence.

Another interesting thing to think about, is at what point of development are a lot of these places in? Up until recently it's possibly that some artists in Eastern Europe, South America, Asia, etc have not had access to computers or internet, so a 4-track and tape recorded was all they could get around to. Who knows. What seems to keep it thriving though is tradition. It's what was done in the past, and it's what we will continue to do. It keeps a barrier between us and everybody else

(Something else of note, thought completely unrelated, is the prevalence of cassettes in racist/national socialistic/pornographic/whatever music. The reason being [I think], you can literally produce an entire release without leaving your house. Record in your basement, duplicate in your living room, print art in your computer room. You can have the most offensive shit imaginable on the audio and art, and nobody will say "Whoa man, I can't help you with this..." So there is that when it comes to that type of music, which I think is interesting because then DIY aspect of things is almost a necessity)*

FMA: It's not like NS bands are the only ones who've been rejected by a printer (and anyway, I would imagine there are printers who are really into doing that kind of stuff). Death metal bands, even some of the more mainstream ones, have been rejected by printers. And if you do everything yourself, that adds to the human aspect of the cassette medium. The care of a hand-crafted product. The connection between humans writing to each other and entering into a transaction whereby one of them physically puts a cassette in an envelope, and possibly slips in a flyer or a handwritten note. Is that human aspect of cassettes important to you?

Mike: Yes, the human aspect is a fairly nice bonus that comes with some cassettes. Of course, it's not necessarily present with all cassettes (pro-cassettes of course are a 'manufactured' product), but sometimes it's there and it is nice. Because I am a fan of this human element, for Fallen Empire I do like to do everything by hand to maintain this aspect. As of right now I have only done pretty standard layouts for the j-cards, but now that I know what I'm doing more, I'd like to get more experimental for project that warrant experimentation. Blut Der Nacht has recently come to me with two side projects that the vocalist and drummer have been sitting on for quite some time now, and we are going to try to do something a little more extravagant with the packaging.

Another interesting story is how the art for the forthcoming Tardigrada cassette is coming to fruition. I was at the Messe des Morts festival in Montreal, and was talking to a group of people outside the venue on the second night. After some chat, one of the guys stopped me and asked me if I posted on the Pure Stench forums. Turns out we both knew each other from talking online. Had no idea he was going to be there, but when he told me his alias on the board I knew exactly who he was and he knew who I was. Anyway, from that meeting we got to talking about his artwork; he designed the logo and did the art for one of the bands that had performed that night (Wendess, here's the design + logo) and had a t-shirt that he showed me. I was pretty impressed by it and told him I might be interested in having him do some stuff for FE, so we exchanged contact info and I got in touch with him right away after I got back home. Fast forward to today and he is currently working on the logo for Tardigrada and is doing an original artwork based on the 'Confusion of Tongues' for the album art. So there's just an example of an interesting personal connection that was found. Granted, I assume that I would still be able to use his artwork if I were pressing a CD or vinyl, so I'm not sure if that's really anything besides a nice story, heh. However, this is a brand new band and I am a small label, so choosing to release on tape comes back down to the costs. It's the cheapest way for me to get a bands music out there, I don't have to pay hundreds of dollars up front to get the thing pressed. I suppose CDr would be just as cheap, but I don't know many people who enjoy paying for CDr, even people who still buy CDs.

Niantiel: Cavern of the Skeletal Spirits
One package I received that I will never forget is when I got copies of the Niantiel demo in wholesale. Every cassette was hand made at home, and he really went above and beyond with the 'human aspect' of it. Every single cassette was spray painted black, giving it a unique color and feel, and then he did some hand writing and design in silver marker on both sides of the cassette. And then, for my personal copy, he went even further than that. He wrapped the cassette case in a thick cardboard sleeve, and then did some drawing on the outside and sealed it in wax. He then also included a glossy photograph and 3 lyric sheets (1 for each song) and a hand-written note. To me, that was very special and is something I will never forget and always hold in high regard.

So yeah, the human aspect is definitely something that has factored into my enjoyment of cassettes.

FMA: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. Do you have anything else you want to say?

Mike: Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings, I look forward to reading it when it's all done.

[Also,] I mentioned Crepusculo Negro as being 'notorious for poor dubs'.

They have since addressed this issue, and moved towards the pro-press format, which I find is appropriate for them (the recent Ashdautas/Bone Awl Split sold 300 copies in about a day). Just didn't want to bad mouth them on an issue that they have properly addressed.

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[*A minor edit was made to this interview at the interviewee's request on April 27, 2012. I don't think the change really matters--it's really just eliminating a distraction--but in the interest of pure honesty I am making this note.]


  1. Tapes do rule. The first time I got a "hand-made" tape I felt slightly screwed over but then I realized, no one else will have this exact tape. Each one is personalized whether it was intended to be or not. That, to me, is something I enjoy with my music. Blind buys are excellent as well, Mike would know considering how many he buys and how many I buy blindly or based off of his recommendations from him or other labels. Good interview, FMA.

  2. I do enjoy buying cassettes on occasion and make the effort to do so from some smaller labels. That reminds me that I need to make my big annual underground purchase here soon. Maybe I will look into this label.

  3. Cool interview, a great read...

  4. Cool interview, a great read...