In the 1980s, cassette labels played a vital role in the distribution of underground music, most notably in the noise, industrial, and punk scenes of the time. Easy and relatively inexpensive to produce, cassettes became a common format for the circulation of music lacking popular appeal. Although the majors produced cassettes as well, many of the producers of these underground labels saw their DIY business model as a stance against the greed of the mainstream music industry. Connections made through distribution and information sharing among the artists and musicians in these circles helped to establish a network for those involved.
In the age of GarageBand, Myspace, and file sharing, it may come as a surprise to some that cassette labels are still very much in operation. Tapes now function as a basic form of patronage between musicians and their audience; since a physical format is no longer necessary to send or receive music, these objects become a gesture of support. Tapes act to make tangible the connection between a creator and their listeners, and the attentive and often handmade packaging speaks to this exchange. One instance of this relationship is revealed in the description provided for the Gilgongo Records “Singular Set” series, a run of cassette releases recorded directly onto the tape by the musician in an edition of one. Gilgongo’s James Fella explains that for the project, “…the emphasis is on reaching out and sharing something specific with one other person, that an unrepeated portion of time and creation was individually cut and passed on to one other person to hold onto as their own.”
Cassettes also yield a grainy, degraded sound quality, an aspect that has its own appeal. The draw to this sound can be read as a type of nostalgia, Paul Hegarty in “The Hallucinatory Life of Tape” writes:
Within the dying of media comes the passing or slow dying of individual units - tapes, records, cylinders, cartridges - all of which decay, and in so doing, seem to take on characteristics of having lived. Once digital media arrive as ‘other’, as cyborg sound, the analogue seems to breathe, however rasping the sound. Nostalgia and melancholy imbue formats in general and individual items with pneuma (the essential lifeforce or breath of everything in the universe, according to the Stoics).
Thus, the interest in cassette releases today can, in part, be understood as a response to the proliferation of digital media. Within the realm of experimental music, where the sonic and aesthetic attributes of technological decay hold a particular importance and history, one could argue that the current emphasis on cassette releases extends from this lineage, now only heightened by the influence and expanse of digital media. (Perhaps for this reason many of the labels below would fall under the “experimental” or “noise” category.)
In an effort to provide a snapshot of this active community, I’ve decided to compile a list of 101 contemporary cassette labels as a resource. Feel free to insert additional links in the comments field.