Not gone, and not forgotten — cassette tapes are back in Hamilton

Want to record music but feel that CDs and vinyl just aren't right? Try cassettes tapes. Haven't you heard? They're back.

'I think people who like tapes are those who like collecting physical objects' — Aaron Hutchinson

"P.S.", an album by Thoughts On Air self-released on Cloud Valley. (Cloud Valley)

It used to be the number one choice for the musician on a budget. 

Falling in place between the nostalgia of vinyl's heyday and the digital revolution of the past 20 years, the cassette tape stood as the underdog of music formats, easily accessible yet objectively hindered by quality loss and temperamental function. And like most 'dead' formats these days, they can usually found in the dust of attics, garage sales and goodwill shops, doomed to remain relics in light of the next big thing.

But over the past few years, an unlikely resurgence has been underway, with artists and musicians around the world looking back to the cassette as a means of self-expression. Tape-based record labels are more plentiful than ever, and operating worldwide.

Aaron Hutchinson running the merch table at a HAVN event. (HAVN)
In Hamilton, tapes are a viable alternative that lets artists publish their work without the overhead costs of CD or record pressings.

Local labels like Perdu, Cloud Valley, HAVN Records and Barton Street Tapes help foster a collaborative scene, controlling every step from creation to production and distribution. 

"I think people who like tapes are those who like collecting physical objects," said Aaron Hutchinson, co-owner of experimental venue HAVN and it's offshoot HAVN Records. "They occupy physical space and require some amount effort to listen to, which forces investment from a listener." 

I chose the name Barton Street because it's a place that gets shunned and looked down on by a lot of people. The music and noise that I've released on my label reflects that same feeling.- Nate Ivanco

"As a musician it makes me feel that my art is being engaged with in a meaningful way. It's not always a good way of selling music though, and we have a vast number of unsold tapes because the format is so inaccessible."

Listen below: "Marion, Beamer Falls" by Eschaton of their 2014 tape '∆', one of many fluid collaborations between HAVN members. The song features Aaron Hutchinson on drums, electronics, and trumpet, Connor Bennett on bass and saxophone, Connor Olthuis on bass and Matt Tavares on keys and guitar. 

"It's eye opening to see the number of bands that use tapes as a medium for their music," added co-owner Connor Bennett. "It can sometimes be seen as exclusive or pretentious, but I think of it more as an affirmation or statement regarding the unconventionality of the music and those involved. I think the comfort of the sound and physical aesthetics plays a role too."

Artistic freedom

Though the vinyl resurgence of the past few years has been widely acknowledged, the market for tapes remains underground, in part due to the quality factor. While audiophiles can discuss the merits of vinyl 'warmth' and others can wax poetic on the nostalgia of an old record, no one would jump to defend cassettes. 

The music, too, is a separation point. The majority of artists and labels using tapes work in experimental genres such as ambient, drone, or noise music, characterized by a lack of traditional song structure and a willingness to explore the extremes of convention and self-expression.

Through working with a low-cost medium, artists are granted total freedom to produce the work they want, connecting and distributing tapes across global channels without need for traditional record labels or outsourced distribution. 

Scott Johnson is one of the most well-known ambient artists in Hamilton. In addition to performing under the solo moniker Thoughts On Air, he runs Cloud Valley, a label with countless releases from his own projects and those of other like-minded artists.

"I grew up on cassettes," said Johnson. "I've been jamming and experimenting with all types of equipment and setups for years before Cloud Valley was born.  Now it's just in my DNA."​

Listen below: "Rayna Shine" by Thoughts On Air, a song with a somewhat stronger pop influence than some of his other works. Released digitally in 2014

Recent releases on local label Barton Street Tapes. (Nate Ivanco )
"CD-Rs to me have seemed to have lost their appeal, and records are insanely expensive to make due to the universal appeal from a lot of self sustained musicians," he continued.

"I've met hundreds upon hundreds of tape artist appreciators and makers over about 10 years through promoting my tapes and exploring others. It's addictive, and I absolutely love the idea of having taped sound on records and on streams." 

'Small like it should be'

Nate Ivanco, another member of Hamilton's tape scene, says that experimental music is a long-running and continually vital area in the city.

A member of numerous local bands, including Coke Jaw, Snake Charmer and Marion, Ivanco also runs Barton Street Tapes and
Nate Ivanco running a saw through a contact microphone during a Noise Night show. (Nate Ivanco)
Noise Night, a monthly event for like-minded artists to collaborate in a receptive environment.

"I chose the name Barton Street because it's a place that gets shunned and looked down on by a lot of people. The music and noise that I've released on my label reflects that same feeling. I'm never going to release something for The Arkells or anything like that, nor would they ever want me to do so."

Listen below: "Draining" off 'The Bathtub' tape by Marion, Ivanco's solo noise project. Based around the sound of a bathtub being drained of water, manipulated by overloading the tape recorder's microphone into extreme distortion. 

Overall, Hamilton's tape culture is the type of community able to thrive simply on the enthusiasm and participation of its members, without the need for outside assistance that limits so many other creative ventures.

"Hamilton's scene is small like it should be," Ivanco said. "I don't think we've ever had more than 20-ish people at a Noise Night, but it's really cool when they stay and enjoy it. I hear things like "I didn't know Hamilton had a noise scene" and before you know it that person is playing within the next month or two."

"I think we're all chameleons," Johnson reflected. "I've mostly felt categorized as one of the main 'out there' performers, but greatly appreciated and supported by friends, promoters and audiences. Hamilton's scene has always had support involved that keep outside the box expressionists afloat and attended to."