Who are you and what do you want?
We are Blue Tapes, a boutique tape label specialising in sound art and alternative process artwork. We release music from Bhutan, Canada, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.
Why tapes? Isn’t it all a bit self-consciously retro?
No, tapes are not a dead format. They never went away. They’ve been the format of choice for distributing home-recorded or experimental music pretty much since the inception of that technology, and even the advent of peer-to-peer, cloud-based music services, and social networking hasn’t particularly eroded this - it’s only added more strings to our bow in terms of connecting with other human heads.
Tapes are a good format. Even audio purists like Autechre are insistent that - sonically - cassette tape is their favourite playback format. Even until recently, Autechre promos were issued on cassette tape rather than CD - wanting to sidestep lazy digital pirating was only one small part of the reason for this.
One thing you need to know about Blue Tapes. If something is good enough for Autechre, then it’s good enough for us.
Tapes are still the most economical way of producing physical music product, and the one that can be produced to a high standard in the lowest print run. This is liberating in a number of ways. Firstly, it releases us from any business-based demand of recouping, covering overheads, etc, which in turn prevents us from having to prioritise releasing musically that is “commercially viable”. If a particular piece of music is so niche that about only one person in the whole world other than us and the musician who invented it would ever get it, then it doesn’t appear commercially unviable for to release that. It’s cool by us. If we love it, we will produce it, we’ll add artwork and interesting packaging - and sometimes books, and large-format art you can hang on your wall, and other strange things - and we’ll put our heart and guts into trying to get it out there to people.
OK, but why not just release stuff on vinyl? Does anyone even have a tape player anymore?
OK, so for you heathens who don’t own a Walkman, we’ll chuck in a download code with each release. Something that any music fan should have worked out by 2012 - different formats are appropriate for different listening experiences. There isn’t necessarily any one better or best format. You can’t take tapes out running with you, or listening on the bus. Most mobile telephones do this job just fine. Richard Youngs recently correctly observed that vinyl was good living room music, for when you’ve got people round or for a glass of wine in the evening. I don’t think anyone ever really liked CDs.
Tapes are something even more different. The experience of listening to a tape is not at all like listening to a Spotify playlist. Tapes cannot be shuffled. Tracks cannot easily even be skipped. You are submitting yourself as a listener to music on tape in a way which you are not particularly used to anymore, because your control over the experience is limited and passive. You cannot author your own tracklists or create your own sequencing. Tumblr, Flickr, Soundcloud, This Is My Jam etc have trained us all to be maddeningly proficient archivers of content, but in this context your faculties as an editor have been diminished. On some level this somehow stops you from thinking too much about the music, and leaves you more susceptible to its twists and turns, it leads you down the internal logic of its soundworld and you either surf with it or switch it off and come back to it.
And that is the truly great part. Tape is the ONLY format where a recording can be played from halfway through a piece. Most tape players will flip the side over for you, so you can drop in and out of the music at any time, or it can loop forever. As listeners we are freed from the tyranny of the tracklisting and the linear music narrative. Any browsing of last.fm stats reveals all album-type releases to have the greatest number of listeners for track 1, second highest number of listeners for track 3, third highest for etc… if you’re in a band and you put your best track at the end of your album then you are fucked. In our world though, the listening experience becomes cyclical. Each note of music at the ‘end’ of the tape is listened to as equally as much as the music at the ‘start’ of the tape.
In future releases we will experiment with this further by releasing actual tape loops: a truly continuous music. Infinite and indestructible.
(Apart from by magnets).
But vinyl, of course we love vinyl. Everybody loves vinyl. But vinyl is expensive. And can only be produced in mass quantity. Anyone releasing a very niche music on vinyl is taking a huge gamble - often doomed to just become an expensive vanity project. Tapes are utilitarian and bullshit-free. If you hate the music on your tape then you can record something else over the top if it. By contrast, vinyl is positively bourgouis and decadent.
Why do musicians even need a label anymore? When they can sell their own music direct through Bandcamp, iTunes, even Amazon…
They don’t. But then, they never did. Of all the reasons for wanting to start a label I think this is actually the one that’s hardest to answer. The function of Blue Tapes here isn’t to act as a benefactor, a sort of kindly uncle who chucks money at musicians so he can adopt some of their glamour by association. If anything, it’s to be a collaborator. We’ve constructed so many annoying rules about how and what we release that by the time any actual sound has emerged out the other end of the process it’s practically generative.
Each Blue Tape will consist of one piece of music per tape (or one piece per side) and will come in artwork and packaging supplied by the label. The audio almost becomes soundtracks for still images.
Further down the line, we’re hoping to get all of the musicians actually collaborating with each other, in a kind of international house band, with Blue Tapes acting as the conduit or curator for this. This was something that 4AD did very well.
Of the current crop of traditional labels, only Southern’s excellent Latitudes series is doing anything similarly exciting (although again, trying to collect the full series will kick your wallet about the balls somewhat).
The two labels I have been most excited about in the past five years have both been tape labels: Stunned (RIP), whose every release you wanted to cling to your heart and never let go, and The Tapeworm, who are practically the Penguin Books of the tape scene.
So what do you actually sound like?
Really, we want stuff that inhabits its own soundworld. That isn’t too ‘genre’. Sound that sort of makes up its own rules, subsists on its own internal logic. A lot of this stuff will probably be home-recorded. A lot of it will probably be instrumental. Apart from the releases that are spoken word. No pop songs.
But, of course, we love pop songs. Everyone loves pop songs. Pop songs were the ultimate art-form of the 20th Century, and there’s no reason to assume that the 21st Century is going to be any different so far. Pop music superseded all other art because of its hungry commercial appetite - it was capitalism as high art. Pop music existed to sell things, so it had to evolve to be fibre optic-fast, to continually outdo itself, to extinguish the competition with the cold and precise mechanics of the killing machine.
Pop songs are the source code around which all of our cultural life is programmed. They are a highly-advanced from of brainwashing. They permeate everything. You don’t have to hunt for pop: it hunts you.
Like I said, we love that shit. But if we want anything from this label it is to create a bit of a sanctuary from real life. Tiny tape-sized pockets of time and space that the rest of the world can’t get into.
THAT’S what we sound like. Forcefields.
Which is better: analogue or digital?
There are no betters in life, only differents! But everything about this label, from the processes used to create the artwork to the tiny-teethed grinding cogs in the cassettes we release is going to be steeped in the former. For some reason, the physics involved in the processes of sunlight burning through a chemical barrier to x-ray an image into paper or film, or how audio information can be remembered by magnetised ferric oxide is easier to grasp and more fun to think about than how a digital camera or MP3 works.
Also, what I like about tapes is they don’t just disappear into the vaults of your iTunes. Instead they turn up randomly in your sock drawer, or behind the sofa, like little lost amulets; staring at you accusingly. And you think YOU, fuck - you. Let me put you on and just forget about this cleaning the house business for five minutes.