Popular trends tend to reappear every so often — and in the music world, this is especially true. Genres give way to post-genres, subgenres and genre fusion, and popular tropes of the past seem to pop up 20 years later with little explanation.
This trend has taken shape recently in the form of cassette releases from local acts in Pittsburgh, specifically from those who originated alongside the recent rise of the DIY music scene. Aside from the appeal of nostalgia, the affordability of cassettes is a major appeal to both distributors and music consumers alike.
The way listeners consumed music drastically changed at the advent of the 2010s. With CDs quickly disappearing from stores and shelves, streaming services like Spotify, SoundCloud and Bandcamp took over as the dominant listening platforms. In the cyclical nature of the world, vinyl records made a comeback in a big way.
Big name artists like Metallica, R.E.M. and Vampire Weekend participated in what would come to be known as Record Store Day — a day to celebrate independently owned record stores — starting in 2008. This renaissance led to an increasing emphasis on the DIY spirit and is partially responsible for the popularity of vinyl as not only a way of listening, but as a way to support local businesses.
As vinyl came back in style, it would only seem logical that other retired mediums of music listening would soon bounce back. A handful of record labels founded Cassette Store Day in 2013, with releases from Deerhunter, The Flaming Lips, Haim and more.
Connor Murray, a sophomore marketing and business information systems major, has capitalized on the rising popularity of the cassette tape with his Pittsburgh-based independently run label, Crafted Sounds.
Wanting to participate in the music scene of his native city of Baltimore, but not a musician himself, Murray founded the label on his 18th birthday almost two years ago.
“It was kind of like a birthday present to myself,” Murray said.
His lack of instructions or guidance drove him to seek counsel from more experienced labels, such as Disposable America and Too Far Gone Records. After reaching out to these labels for advice, Murray embarked on the journey that would result in the creation of Crafted Sounds.
Murray initially had to seek out artists wherever he could find them. Using independent streaming sites like Bandcamp, Murray began to build his label entirely of his own volition. After Crafted Sounds relocated to Pittsburgh the following fall, it became easier for the label to find artists.
“At first the label was very sprawled out,” Murray said, “I released with people in Mexico, Tennessee and California.”
After arriving at Pitt, Murray chose to centralize the label around the Pittsburgh scene. He made connections through a few chance encounters with local artists and began to establish his label in Pittsburgh.
Murray met sophomore Ryan Hartman, an applied mathematics major, through the Crafted Sounds Twitter account — Hartman first reached out to Murray before the pair even arrived at Pitt, and the two became friends through their shared love of music.
Now the front man of DIY pop band Surf Bored, signed under the Crafted Sounds label, Hartman described himself as Murray’s “right-hand man,” helping Murray with label decisions. Hartman said unlike records, the affordability of cassettes makes them more accessible to fans.
“The barrier for entry is so low,” Hartman said. “They’re so shareable and they’re cheap, and I think that they still manage to have a cool factor.”
Duquesne graduate Sam Treber, a member of the Crafted Sounds band Short Fictions, met Murray through another form of archaic recording technology.
“We were both at a show at a former venue called Dogfunk,” Treber said. “He was recording the show on a VHS camcorder, and I was recording the show on a handheld tape recorder.”
In spite of the cassette’s popularity and novelty, skeptics — who claim that the return of obsolete mediums is nostalgic overkill — have doubted the validity of the cassette as a relevant medium. But for independent artists and small labels like Crafted Sounds, the cassette has been instrumental to their survival.
“Cassette tapes are so much more affordable,” Murray said. “From a logistical standpoint, cassette tapes are one of the easiest ways for artists to get their music on physical media.”
For artists like Surf Bored, the cassette tape has helped to share their sound with others while conveying the “cool factor” mentioned by Hartman.
To more experienced bands like Short Fictions, who have existed since 2015, the cassette has been a welcome alternative to formats like vinyl, which can set bands back thousands of dollars.
“It’s accessible as someone who’s putting out music from a financial standpoint,” Treber said. “The vinyl was a couple thousand dollars. The cassettes are a hundred dollars, tops, for a case.”
While undeniably cost effective, questions of marketability arise. But both Surf Bored and Short Fictions members testified to the effectiveness of the cassette in terms of sales.
“I see people leaving shows with them all the time,” Hartman said. “There’s enough people that buy them to sustain it.”
After experimenting with releasing music on vinyl and CD formats, Short Fictions has found the most success selling cassettes, quickly selling all of its copies.
“Surprisingly, the fans do buy them just as much, if not more than the records and even the CDs,” Treber said, “We don’t even make CDs anymore.”
Until cassette sales either peter out or increase in popularity, labels like Crafted Sounds will continue to make tapes.
Crafted Sounds will celebrate two years of existence April 13 with an artist showcase at The Mr. Roboto Project. The show will feature performances from Crafted Sounds bands like Short Fictions and Surf Bored, as well as a few others.
“It’s going to be the show of the year, basically,” Treber said.