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Inside Steve Rosborough's grocery bag is the past, and perhaps the future, of music. He takes half a minute to pull out plastic, multicolored artifacts nestled behind the bag's wrinkled drugstore logo, then stacks them in precise, even rows, handling each one like a precious commodity. There's the tape of Soothsayer's debut tucked inside a box adorned with outer-spacey dots and cryptic images. Beside it is Rosborough's newest addition, Camden's Life of Devotion, housed inside artwork of green, multifaceted crystals.
It's been more than a decade since most music listeners have hit rewind on their favorite cassettes, though some may still have a couple slowly decomposing in the depths of back seats. Despite this, Rosborough, who helms local cassette label Moon Glyph, believes the relics are poised for a comeback.
Rosborough started the label last year, practicing at first with self-promotion of his band, Olives. Since September, the releases have come rapid-fire, bringing the current total to nine. Originally self-dubbing each tape in his Loring Park apartment, he still hand-cuts each sleeve himself and designs most of the artwork.
"I wanted this to be a DIY, homespun thing where I controlled a lot of the stuff, and I was working with small bands who were figuring out their way," he says.
He decided on tapes as his mode of musical transport because they're cheap, and while CDRs are in the same price ballpark, cassettes were the better option for sound quality.
"Tapes are definitely a lot warmer sounding. The music is actually on the tape—it's not a bunch of numbers that are run through something [like CDs]. There's more sincerity," says Parker Sprout, singer of local psych band Velvet Davenport.
When Sprout was looking to release a short collection of songs, he decided Moon Glyph was the perfect avenue. The resulting 15-minute Lemon Drop Square Box became the label's third release. The album's weird atmospherics and background blips became, more or less, the Moon Glyph standard: typically atypical.
"I wanted to put out some niche music that probably wouldn't fly in a larger crowd," Rosborough explains. "The music [the label is] interested in is sort of rock-based, but it's kind of on the fringe and sort of skitters around the surface of different sounds."
It turns out Moon Glyph could be a case study of the modern cassette uprising. Among the hundred-plus cassette labels that have popped up recently, most specialize in experimental music, using grassroots internet marketing to promote small-batch releases. As Rosborough says, "If I wanted to make a folk or a blues label, I probably wouldn't be putting out tapes."
Not long ago, cassettes were king—during the era when the populace became convinced to replace their records with tapes, and before they were convinced to replace their tapes with CDs. Now entrenched in digital haze, it's understandable why consumers, feeling the cold distance between music maker and listener and missing the thrill of the hunt amid an easy-access sea of categorized, catalogued mp3s, yearn for physical media to repair the connection. But why cassettes?
Next to the 8-track, the cassette is the most annoying format. Under perfect conditions, the lifespan of a cassette can reach to 30 years, but the tape's data is likely to disintegrate in a decade or two. And then there's operation.
While perusing the Moon Glyph catalog, a wave of nostalgic fury hit when the play button popped back at me. Wrong side. Need to flip over. (This is, of course, after the journey of actually tracking down a tape player.)
Yet it may be others' healthy acceptance of nostalgia that fuels the new cassette culture. Many or most of today's twenty- and thirtysomethings' youthful memories come with background tape hiss. And where there's nostalgia, there's money to be made. For example, Rob Sheffield's 2007 memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape, which is as much a love story about cassettes as it is about the human subject of his tale, is a New York Times best seller.
But Rosborough doesn't believe the nostalgia theory. He says he thinks cassettes' rebounding popularity is due to the format itself. Nearly exclusively relegated to DIY circles, purchasing a cassette means supporting a labor of love. It's the time spent stuffing cassette boxes, applying labels, spawning a jewel-cased underground. Once a listener has adapted to the format's girlfriend-like neediness, the act of playing a cassette can be refreshing. The tape, by design, requires more interaction than modern formats. You have to be right there to flip it over. You have to be thinking and focusing more on the music itself, building a stronger bond. Maybe, in the end, this makes you a better listener. And maybe that's the point.
A full listing of Moon Glyph's releases, including tapes by Velvet Davenport, Dante & the Lobster, Daughters of the Sun, and more, is available at http://moonglyph.asymm.net/