When was the last time you played a cassette tape? If you’re of a certain age, maybe it was the day before you got your first CD player, CD burner, or iPod. But if you’re a teen or twentysomething that listens to music that’s harsh, noisy, loud or even just really twee, there’s a chance your favorite band puts out their records on cassette. And the capitalists have taken note: not long after the creation of the oft-debated Record Store Day, there’s now a Cassette Store Day.
Audio cassettes have never been at the pinnacle of audio quality, but at a time when most full length LPs have retail prices in the $20 range, picking up an old cassette player on eBay to play $6 tapes can seem quite appealing. Major labels mostly focus on vinyl these days, but they will still print the occasional cassette, and thousands more are printed every year by dozens and dozens of independent labels in the United States alone. One of those labels, Nashville’s Infinity Cat Recordings, has incorporated the format into a business model that lies somewhere in between the majors printing cassettes as a novelty and the DIY kids with beat-up old duplicators.
As a case study, Infinity Cat’s cassette business is an excellent example of managing risk. In comparison to CDs and vinyl, cassettes are absurdly cheap to produce, even when farmed out to professionals. For its cassette series, Infinity Cat prints about 300 copies of each tape, with a new release every two months. Each release sells for $6, and each new tape is always from a different artist, often either unsigned or from another label. The label is part imprint, part A&R department — bands have springboarded from an Infinity Cat cassette to sign deals with other labels, or even signed with Infinity Cat proper to release full length LPs. Much of the grunt work is done by label manager Ale Delgado, as is the case for all things Infinity Cat. But the cassette series is really Casey Weissbuch’s baby.
Weissbuch has been embedded in the Nashville DIY scene since he first arrived from Cincinatti to attend Belmont University, the music and business school where he formed Diarrhea Planet with Jordan Smith and Evan P. Donohue. On the road for the Planet’s obscene touring schedule, he saw tons of bands, plenty of whom just weren’t being heard, and were in desperate need of a signal boost. From the start, he says, the whole point of the cassette series was to help bands trying to break through the noise of all the music being released, every day — and to get people to listen to music “they wouldn’t know about otherwise.”
The first release, Music Band’s Can I Live, was just that — giving a hand to a hard-working band who had already self-recorded and released music, but just weren’t breaking through. “[Music Band] was part of the reason why I even wanted to do [the series],” Weissbuch says. “They had just been doing [music] for so long, and they worked so hard in Nashville, playing every fucking show they could.” Weissbuch admits that he didn’t like them at first. But as they continued to grind, the hard work paid off. “One show, at Dana Fest… at this place called Fu Bar, I saw them play and I swear to God… It was like the Messiah had arrived,” he says.
Before he even had anything in place — or any real authority to sign anyone — he asked the band to do a cassette. “I talked to the label, figured it out, they got some press pictures that are hilarious, and we did it,” he says. “We did that album in a day.”
Not every tape in the series has sold out (there’s still plenty of copies of that Spanish Candles tape for you Mike and Brent fans), but several have. The demand for the Guerilla Toss tape was so high that the distributor bought all the copies before they could even sell any directly — the band would would go on to re-press the cassette as an LP and sign with DFA Records. Listening to Weissbuch talk about past releases, he sounds like a mix of rabid fan and proud dad: “And then Rozwell [Kid]… I still can’t believe they let me do that — but they did that thing and now they’re on Side One Dummy. And Music Band is signed to Infinity Cat, Daddy Issues signed to Infinity Cat. They have booking agents, they are like doing things as a career, and I’m like…I don’t think that I was responsible for that in any way. I don’t want to take credit for that. But it feels good.”
The series’ success is as much a testament to Weissbuch’s taste as it is to the reach of its distro (Redeye) and its publicist. Now that Weissbuch is based in New York, it would be impossible for him to run the series without Delgado — on top of his day job as Mitski’s drummer, Weissbuch books shows with Inland Empire Touring, and makes music both under his own name and with a band called Slanted.
In terms of its context in the greater market for cassettes, the few hundred tapes that Infinity Cat moves each year is clearly a drop in the bucket: beyond the generally low overhead that comes with cassette releases, there’s a whole “cassette culture” and entire labels built around the format. Burger Records, from Fullerton, California, works with Slumberland, Captured Tracks, and Hardly Art to release cassette versions of their LPs. Through their Weiner imprint, any band can get their tape mastered, pressed, and promoted by Burger.
But still, cassette’s biggest advantages are monetary; putting out a tape is a low-risk stepping stone into the market of physical releases. Seth Graham, of Ohio tape label Orange Milk, told Vice’s Thump that this low-risk model essentially gives weird shit a chance. “I think cassettes are mainly to satisfy the [demand for] physical release and to allow decisions in curation to be driven towards what we want to release over what might sell,” he said. Echoing Weissbuch’s sentiments, he told Thump that “In a way, the cassette world is a way to get your foot in the door of the music world.” If you’re looking for an intro into the dark and mysterious world of analog tape labels, Pitchfork’s Pelly twins rounded up of some of the more interesting cassette labels of the moment. But even that list is in no way comprehensive — when a kid can start a tape label in his bedroom almost as easily as a Bandcamp page, labels likely start and fold with the speed of sound.
For now, Infinity Cat’s cassette series is still ticking — on May 13, Colleen Green drops her self-titled 6-song EP (above). Weissbuch already has the first release lined up for the next round of releases, which starts in July. You can subscribe for a year’s worth of releases at a slight discount (without knowing what they’ll be) — with only a few dozen available, those typically sell out quickly.
For some people, the obscurity of cassette releases is part of the appeal, which makes their disdain for the artificial scarcity tactics of Record Store Day and Cassette Store Day understandable. But for Weissbuch, it’s all about getting the music heard.
“These things don’t have to stay small to be special. They can stay special as long as the spirit is kept alive,” he says. “These people that you see out here busting their ass, but no one sees it. So someone has to do something about it.”