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The Return Of The Cassette Tape — This Time Also As Work Of Art

Undercurrent 9 tapes featuring Frances With Wolves, Hylidae, Contrails and spoken word by Brett Underwood at Undercurrent 10 event
Willis Ryder Arnold/St. Louis Public Radio

Ask someone younger than 10 if he's ever heard a cassette and you may be met with a blank stare. Before CDs or the ubiquitous MP3, tapes were the go-to method for album releases. Major record labels stopped releasing cassettes years ago, but St. Louis is home to a dedicated tape community. Musicians turn to tape for artistic, creative and practical reasons.

An Affordable Method

“A lot of it’s rooted in the punk, electronic, experimental noise, and hip hop,” said Matthew Stuttler, founder of local tape label Eat Tapes. “Hip hop and punk stayed active, even when the tape went out of general consumption. Those scenes kept it alive because it’s a really cheap way to put music out.”

Eat Tapes releases primarily punk music.  Stuttler usually releases the tapes in runs of 50, but he has produced larger numbers for better known groups like Bruiser Queen. He sat on a couch in Apop Records the week before it closed. The local underground music shop was an institution for regional tape fans and had a wall of shelves dedicated to cassette labels.

Stuttler dubs each tape in his living room. He has shipped tapes to more than 25 states plus Japan, Germany and the Netherlands. Stuttler’s output focuses on local and regional musicians, and he’s been surprised by the interest from around the world.

“I never expected to really ship anything, but it’s cool because I’m excited that people are excited about stuff going on here,” he said.

Stuttler appreciates the unique listening experience offered by tape formats.  He says it contradicts internet listening habits.

“When you have a tape, you’re giving a little more commitment when you put it in. You can’t skip songs,” said Stuttler. “Generally, I just put a tape in and it’s like all right, we’re going to listen to this band all the way through.”

Last month Stuttler released the second installment of his St. Louis band compilation series Meat Bundle #2, which was produced in an edition of 200 tapes.

Cassettes as Skewed Documents

Early this year Joe Hess created Undercurrent with visual artist Chad Evans, a monthly event dedicated to cassette tapes at the Schlafly Tap Room. The project began with the idea to hold a monthly concert series that could later be distributed as recordings. Cassettes fit perfectly with the project.

“Vinyl was way too expensive. CDs were affordable but not as attractive because it’s simply not that popular of a format among music collectors. So we landed on cassette tapes,” said Hess.

Hess is one of a slew of local artists and musicians who have turned their love of cassettes into record labels and art projects. At least three musicians perform at each Undercurrent event. The shows are recorded and edited by Hess’s other co-conspirator David Bell, before being passed to Hess for final approval. The recordings are then sent to National Audio Company in Springfield, Mo. The company manufactures 150 tapes and ships them in two to three weeks, just in time for Hess to give them away at the next event.

Even though Hess orders the highest quality recording possible for cassettes, it costs only $1.50 to produce each tape. The price includes shipping. 

His project was conceived for an application to a Regional Arts Council grant. The money covers the manufacturing of the tapes. That allows Hess to distribute them for free. In turn, that leaves Hess to convince musicians to play for free. For Hess that’s all part of the project.

“This was always meant to be free. No one is getting paid to play. Their payment is in cassette tapes the following month,” he said.

Hess makes sure each band gets at least 10 copies of the tapes to distribute themselves. He often works with local labels to find bands or help distribute tapes left over after each event.  The labels assign catalog numbers to the tapes, including them as official entries to their own catalogs. 

For Hess, the tapes are an art project weaving together sculptural, design and audio elements. He thinks of the tapes as audio collages or old school mix-tapes designed to replicated memories.

“When you wake up the next day after a show, you don’t remember it in sequential order, you remember it in bits and pieces, jumbled up, things that were said on stage, the people from the crowd,” said Hess. “I think what David Bell tries to achieve is that feeling of remembering it the next morning.”

Cassettes as Art Objects

Hylidae - Coral (From Rhizomatic St. Louis Vol.3) - Released by Nathan Cooke's tape label Close/Far

Nathan Cook is a local sound artist who runs the recording label Close/Far.  He began releasing tapes in 2010 and also thinks of them as art objects. 

“Where I also got interested in the cassette is from the perspective of an artist’s multiple,” said Cook, “It had a very nice, aesthetic feel and a mechanical feel and you could get really nice results from the packaging and it was affordable.”

Cook sat in the Fortune Teller Bar, located down the street from Apop’s empty storefront, discussing a tightly knit group of musicians who can seem inaccessible but are actually welcoming. Cook has lived in St. Louis for eight years and sees the city as an initial gateway to a music and tape community he now knows intimately.

“When I first moved to St. Louis, that was the first time I was excited about the music community around me,” Cook said.

Close/Far’s output tends toward the ambient and experimental. Cook releases some of his own work, which is produced using a series of six oscillators built by a friend, and the Rhizomatic series which highlights local sound art, free improvisation, and electro-acoustic musicians.

Like Hess and Stuttler, Cook stresses the tape’s physical characteristics as well as its audio components.

“Creating a suitable vessel for these sounds was really important, all those elements that make it an interesting tactile object are important,” said Cook.

Cook also emphasizes the affordability of cassette production. It’s cheaper to manufacture than vinyl but stands out as more durable than easily scratched CDs, or intangible MP3s. Cook doesn’t think he’ll ever get rich manufacturing tapes, but that isn’t the point. It’s a chance to create a platform to distribute the music he loves without relying on traditional music business models or distribution schedules. His output is slow, having produced roughly a dozen tapes since 2010, but that pace gives Cook a chance to focus on curating his releases without production pressures.

“I see the cassette as a symbol for that autonomy, so there were a lot of practical reasons but a lot of conceptual and symbolic reasons, too,” he said.

Yet Cook’s not interested in producing only insular work for insular people.  He hopes his tapes don’t come across as standoffish or cultish. He wants the tapes to attract people who aren’t necessarily initiated into the do-it-yourself community. 

Really, Cook, Stuttler, and Hess all want to share the music they love in a creative format. They release tapes because they’re affordable, durable and work as art objects. Tape production has allowed Hess, Stuttler and Cook to work with some of their favorite local musicians and release their music.This month's Undercurrent show is produced in conjunction with Cook's Close/Far label. The Undercurrent series ends December. Next month Cook will release a tape by Charlemagne Palestine, a legend in experimental music.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the Undercurrent project was funded by a Regional Arts Commission grant and has been corrected to say was conceived for an application to a RAC grant.