When Campbell Gray began Well Fed Records in 2019, he saw it as a way to get his music out there without it getting lost online.
Gray’s band prerock. exports a ruthless brand of droning metal, fitting snugly within a flourishing Melbourne experimental rock pantheon.
Well Fed Records distributed Prerock’s music on cassette, selling a limited run of purple tapes at gigs around the city for $10 each.
“The tapes we did for [prerock.] were really cheap,” said Gray. “They sound great and I think they look really cool too.”
Cassettes may have looked dead by the turn of the millennium, but underground scenes have kept them alive – now they’re on the cusp of a cultural revival.
“Music fans are just excited to be able to collect music, to hold it in their hands,” Gray said. “Tapes are the most accessible way into that for artists and audiences alike.”
Since their rapid decline in relevance in the late ’80s, cassettes have stayed relatively quiet. Sure, major labels would release tapes of new albums alongside better-selling CD copies, but this was just to meet a rapidly shrinking market.
According to the cultural research site American Enterprise Institute, cassettes were the ruling music format of 1986, owning 54 per cent of the market share – by 2002, CDs owned over 95.
The general public had decided: tapes were too clunky, too low-quality and too old. Only 20 years after being on top, it was the end for tapes in the public eye.
Cassettes may have been down, but not out. While they had lost appeal to general audiences, musicians in underground circles used tapes as their go-to release format. Fringe genres such as hardcore punk and black metal recognised the flaws of tapes and adopted them aesthetically in the ’90s.
“I think smaller artists … embrace tapes mainly because of the cost and the culture around them,” said Gray. “You can pretty much put out a tape for nothing.”
Local photographer and tape collector Thomas Lidgerwood said cassette tapes are usually the cheapest of physical formats. “It’s less of a financial commitment to buy one and support the artist compared to vinyl.”
As digital music sales began to replace CDs in the ‘00s, tapes were being embraced by even more genres developing online.
In 2012, Vaporwave artist Macintosh Plus released a tape run of her genre-defying album Floral Shoppe, limited to 100 copies. Cassettes were now not only cheap for musicians to produce, but worth collecting just like any other format.
Gray said tapes had “pretty much always” been collectable.
“I think there’s always been this current churning of underground bands and scenes making tapes that you can’t find anywhere else whether that’s metal, rap or indie.”
Since 2012, notable releases such as the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)and Metallica’s reissue of No Life ’Till Leather (2015) have seen cassettes edge closer towards mainstream success. According to music marketplace site Discogs, music cassette sales jumped from 65,000 in 2014 to 282,000 in 2020.
Despite this, Lidgerwood is unsure of the format’s staying power.
“They lack the main attractions of vinyl in my opinion, which are the audiophile quality and large artwork,” he said. “But I think tapes will continue to grow at least a little bit.”
Gray is optimistic.
“Tapes are going to continue to grow and more and more artists, labels and fans are going to embrace it.”