It's hardly worth declaring a cassette revival, or even to say tapes are the new vinyl. But the recent success of the Charleston-based cassette-only record label Mirror Universe Tapes seems to indicate otherwise.
Co-founder Ryan Moran, who operates Mirror Universe with his friend Ben Ellenburg, suggests the tape-collecting subculture is growing, though he doesn't know to what extent. "The circles that I run in on the internet, they're all kitschy collector dudes," he says.
But the kitsch and the uniqueness of the product is a big part of what makes it appealing. "It's different, ironic, clever, fun," says Columbia musician Chaz Bundick, who records as Toro Y Moi. "It's kind of the same appeal to vinyl nowadays, except it's poorer quality sound."
Bundick's Mirror Universe-issued tape, Body Angles, sold out quickly after its release in July. "The idea of having something handmade, limited, and physical is very refreshing, especially when music is so physically unapparent," Bundick adds. "It's tangible."
Moran echoes the draw of having a unique product. "When people come over, and they're like, 'A-ha, you have one record, but you have like 50-plus tapes. That's weird.' That's definitely part of it."
To date, Mirror Universe has released four tapes, with a fifth from Weed Diamond, a lo-fi pop act from Denver, Colo. Two of those tapes, Toro Y Moi's Body Angles and Washed Out's High Times are completely sold out. It's likely fortuitous timing had something to do with that. This summer, Toro Y Moi signed with the hip Baltimore label Carpark Records, the same label that introduced indie music fans to Beach House and Dan Deacon. Washed Out garnered a surprising amount of press coverage with a wave of hazy pop acts whose music evoked feelings of summery nostalgia.
The Washed Out tape actually sold out two separate pressings.
Ernest Greene, the man responsible for Washed Out, began his one-man pop act as a diversion from the frustrations of job-hunting from his parents' house in Peach County, Ga. "The Mirror Universe tape came up first, and that happened right before I moved home and before all this internet stuff blew up. They were talking about, 'Let's print 100.' And I was thinking, 'I don't even know if I can sell 100.'"
But when the quantities are so limited, and the cost of production so cheap, it's a lot easier for a small label to take a risk on a friend of a friend — as was the case with Washed Out. "To print like a 7-inch is close to $1,000, and that's for 200," says Moran. "You do a run of 100 tapes for 50 bucks."
This low cost of producing tapes has already been embraced by labels and artists trading in typically contrarian styles of music like noise, punk, and metal, but Mirror Universe is mostly a pop label. Sure, its first release was a slab of the droning psychedelia split between Columbia's Brian Grainger and Boston's Ophibre. But then there's Toro Y Moi's Daft Punk-gone-R&B party pop, Washed Out's gauzy dream-pop, and the fractured, ambling blues of M.R. (nee Matt Rabin).
Future releases from Charleston acts Sarah Bandy (who sings over ukulele) and Castles Underground (who play a more traditional style of indie rock) promise to bring the label's catalog closer to home and reinforce the idea of Mirror Universe as an adventurous pop label.
"We have Charleston bands," says Moran. "But they're just taking longer."
And with a slate of 10 releases, Mirror Universe, like the market for tapes, shows signs of growth. There has been talk of expanding the label's operations into vinyl, but for now cassettes just seem to be the best option.
"We have considered doing 7-inch records, and maybe 12-inch records, but we're pretty happy just doing tapes," says Moran. "People want to buy tapes, for some weird reason."