At one time, in an era that came after the era of vinyl records but before the dawn of the CD, music was contained on something called a cassette tape. Like the vinyl record, it was an analog storage device, composed of some sort of spooled plastic that used magnets of some sort to arrange particles in such a way that you would put these cassettes into a device known as a cassette player, push play and then music would come out (It's more complex than that,and if you really want to know about the science of it all, here's a good place to start).
At any rate, these cassette tapes were actually once very popular, and people had cassette players in their homes and cars, and carried portable stereos called boomboxes and Walkmans (which were sort of like an iPod, but without a hard drive). There was even a store called Tape World that only carried cassettes and related items.
Cassettes had their disadvantages; they could occasionally get stretched out and become useless (like a badly scratched CD), and extensive play eventually wore them out. But they also had the advantages of requiring less careful attention than a CD or record (they could be chucked to the backseat of one's car and retrieved later), and they could be purchased blank and used in the production of something known as a mixtape - a time-consuming, intricate ritualized production most often used to impress a girl with your musical acumen.
Eventually, CDs arrived in their longboxes, and recorded cassettes faded away. Blank CDs and burners have all but made the blank tape a thing of the past as well. Walkmans (Walkmen?) are no more, and I think it takes a lot of work to even find cassette players these days. In fact, all my cassette tapes went to the curb when I consolidated my life for my move from Detroit to Amsterdam.
Now, Baldy Longhair records sits poised to help usher in another era of analog music - the return of the cassette tape. They are a cassette-only record label that has already put out a handful of releases, including the absolutely incredible album ...Are Healthy by The Disconnects. We connected with Todd Wolenski, co-owner of Baldy Longhair Records, to talk about how this started, where it's going, and what it means for the DIY movement.
RC: So, how did Baldy Longhair records start?
TW: Starting a label is something I've wanted to do since the early '90s when I first started getting into punk rock as a teenager. I felt such a strong connection to the music and I wanted to be surrounded by it and support the scene in any way I could. Now it's almost twenty years later and still find myself still going to shows, buying records, obsessing over music and still wanting to contribute my own energy and effort. I never learned any musical instruments and my singing voice leaves a little to be desired, so over the years I've done zines, radio shows, and blogs but in the back of my mind the goal was always to start a label. There are all these great bands around me that I really want people to hear and get down with and why not be the vehicle for that? It was around this time last year was when I first started telling people I wanted to do this. About six months later, we put out our first release, pretty soon after that we had a few more out, and a few more on the way.
RC: And why tapes?
TW: I always loved tapes. Growing up that was pretty much what we had in our house. And even when I started getting into vinyl, I'd only end up taping all of it so I could throw it on in the car or on my walkman. I cannot tell you how many days were spent in my parents' attic making mix tapes. Making mix tapes was an unbelievable experience. I'm talking about spending all day with piles of records, tapes, and CDs, scribbling notes, picking the best track order, figuring out how much time you have to make whatever statement it is you want this mix to make, and making your own artwork. I put a lot into it. I mean, I can definitely remember days where I'd get a call from a friend asking me to go out and turning them down cause I was elbow deep in making a mix tape. Don't get me wrong, I love vinyl, but you can't make it at home. It'd be impossible! And iTunes playlists while great are just not the same as crafting your own tape. You lose so much in the translation.
So there's this careful, delicate, hands on, personal side to tapes. But then conversely they also come in this hard durable outer shell that can take a beating and still play flawlessly. Kinda a metaphor for Punk in a way. Like most people though, I pretty much thought I'd seen the end of cassettes. Then slowly over the last few years I started seeing them again at shows, and hearing about tape only labels. And the more I looked into it the more I was sure this is what my label is going to be about. Also from a practical standpoint you can produce about three tapes for the cost of one record so if I could get three bands I like out there to be heard as opposed to just one, it made more sense. It's nice to be able to do something analog that sounds great but is still affordable.
RC: How are the tapes produced? Is there anywhere that even still produces tapes?
TW: There are a few places that still do it and do it exceptionally well. M2Com in Pasadena, CA is one. National Audio Company in Springfield, MO is another. Or you could go right on Craigslist or eBay and buy a tape duplicator or dual deck and just bang out a bunch at home over a couple beers.
RC: How do you choose the artists you're going to release? How have they responded when they find out you're putting out their release on cassette?
TW: First and foremost I have to like their music and they have to be genuinely nice people. Some of the members of these bands I knew from around the local scene. Others I met through mutual friends. Some I just emailed blindly and crossed my fingers. As far as dropping the bomb on them that we'd be doing tapes, everybody was immediately intrigued, and ultimately excited about it. It's nice that people in the punk scene are pretty open to, and outright in favor of doing something on the fringe, making something unique and thoughtful. I don't take for granted that they trust me with their music. Tapes have a really warm sounding quality to them like vinyl and I think so many ears are used to MP3s these days that it really is a revelation to hear analog sound.
It's funny, our next release is going to be a split 7" with The Disconnects and Crazy & The Brains and I had to assure everyone that there would be tapes too. As excited as we all are for our first vinyl release, we absolutely had to do some tapes to accompany it. I'm going do a small run of homemade tapes to give out as a free gift to the first bunch of people to pre-order the 7" and they'll get the tapes about a month or so before the record even comes out. These tapes are going to be unique too because the 7" is going to be about 12 minutes worth of music but the tapes we have are all 60 minutes long so we're just going to repeat the tracks on them as many times as they'll fit.
RC: What kind of reception have you been getting with your releases, as far as finding distribution and such?
TW: Mostly people have been really into it. Granted there have been a few places that have turned their noses up at it, but that's just life. Every review we've gotten has been very positive. And for the people that wouldn't review them because of the format it's their loss, really. In general people seem really eager to talk with me about tapes. They really tap into some great memories and stories. Right now for distribution we're mainly selling them through our webstore. There are a few shops in the New York and New Jersey area that have them too, and you can find them listed on our website. We definitely have a plan to get them into more shops in the coming months. If anyone reading this runs a shop or distro and is interested in getting some tapes feel free to email me.
RC: Do you think the cassette tape is poised to make a comeback like vinyl has?
TW: Vinyl will always be the one format to rule them all… that being said here's the part where your readers are probably going to think I'm crazy but, yes. Yes, I do think tapes are poised to make a similar comeback.
Here's the thing with vinyl, people like myself love it because it sounds better and because they feel better connected to a format that requires careful attention. You can listen to an album all week long on your iPhone or computer and then that first time you throw the record of it on your home stereo it's like you're not even listening to the same songs. It's an experience that I feel music lovers need to have to realize the importance of analog over digital.
The problem though, with vinyl is that it's gotten too expensive. When I first started buying records it was because they were the cheaper alternative to CDs. Now it's flip flopped with new records coming out at anywhere between $15-$30. CDs, while less expensive by comparison, are by and large disposable. You put them in your computer to import the songs and throw them in the corner never to be used again. So what does the young broke punk do? Well you could buy it on iTunes which I'm sorry but is lame. I don't ever want to own an album that solely exists as a bunch of 1s and 0s. I like to hold my music in my own two hands. I need that personal connection.
CDs as I just said are out. Records are fantastic if you can afford them. Given the state of affairs in America these days I'm gonna guess that there are a lot of people that can't. Factoring in all that plus the nostalgia factor, maybe more people will get hip to tapes - crazy, I know. Also, I'm a realist. I know most people listen to the majority of their music on their phones and computers. It's the world we live in. We're not home much because we're all out working and going to school. And I know a lot of people out there might not have tape decks lying around. So for that we have a digital download card with every tape we sell. At worst case scenario at least you have a cool hunk of plastic to show off when your friends come over, something tangible and unique you can admire for its personality. Also like vinyl, we do all kinds of wacky tape colors and alternate cover art to keep things interesting. My hope though is that if you've bought one of our tapes you've at least tried to track down a deck to play it on. Plus we sometimes hide little things on the tapes that aren't on the MP3s so we try to make it worth your while.
RC: What was the first tape you ever owned?
TW: Oh boy, here's where I lose all of my punk credibility. I really wish you'd have asked what the twentieth tape I bought was instead, and I'd like to preface this by noting that I was in the second grade when I bought my first tape. But the first one was Different Light by The Bangles. The one with "Walk Like an Egyptian." God I loved that song as a kid. I used to play the hell out of it on my Fisher Price tape deck. C'mon man, who hasn't had a "Manic Monday" at some point in their lives?
RC: What does DIY mean to you?
TW: I live eat and breathe DIY. I have personally handled every single tape sold - from cutting and stuffing in the download cards, to hand numbering all the limited editions, to packing them up and walking them over to the post office. The stores that carry our tapes, carry them because I drove around for days with a never ending cup of coffee and a box of tapes asking shop owners if they'd be interested. If you come to some of the shows for the bands on my label you might even see me working the merch table. It's a real labor of love.
I work another full time job besides running the label. Every other waking moment I have free outside of that is spent on Baldy Longhair. Luckily, I have a lot of love and support from friends and family. My wife, Michele, helps with the day-to-day operations, runs our website, and helps with graphics and advertising. Many of the bands do their own artwork and layout for their releases. The entire operation is funded by myself and my good friend since high school, Julio. When I need photos people give them to me. When I need help with anything my friends step up and pitch in. If I have to get the word out about a release all the bands take to their Facebook Pages and help spread the news. No one involved is looking to get rich off this. We just want as many people to hear this music as possible and to make enough back that we can keep it going.