Old-school media finds new life with Plustapes

February 1, 2011

By Althea Legaspi

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(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)
Plustapes is a local label that puts out music on cassettes.
(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)
(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)
(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)
(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)
(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)
(Photo by Chris Hiltz courtesy of Plustapes)

Now is an era that allows you to pick and choose the music you like: You don’t need to buy an entire album –just digitally download what you want. But not so far back in the day, music lovers had a different experience with music – more immersive and tangible.

Remember the classic cassette tape? Or the vinyl album? They never totally disappeared and now they’re back in fashion. A Chicago label, Addenda Records, is one of the leaders of this trend.

For WBEZ, music writer Althea Legaspi introduced Eight Forty-Eight to a man who’s still rolling in the cassette tape world:
 
MP3 players and the Internet make listening to music convenient. Don’t like every song on an artists’ album? Just digitally download what you want. But not so far back in the day the experience was more immersive, physical and tangible. While cassette tapes and vinyl have never disappeared, they are back in fashion. Plustapes’ Dustin Drase chats with music critic Althea Legaspi about how things roll in his cassette world.

For Dustin Drase, necessity was the mother of his invention.

"Originally a group of friends and I had decided we wanted to start a vinyl label, and there were about seven of us and figured if we each chipped in about $500 we’d have enough to release a vinyl record," Drase said. "So I got my money together; everybody else didn’t get their money together," he explained.

Turns out Drase and only one other friend, Michael Ardaiolo, ponied up the cash. So with a grand to start up, they considered a different format. And in late October 2008, Plustapes cassette label was born. At first, PlusTapes was pretty low-tech; they tried high-speed dubbing, which Drase says sounded terrible.

"So then we had to start doing it in real time, where we’d put one tape in as the master, then record one side, flip it and record the other side," Drase explained. "Then we got a little more sophisticated from there. We daisy chained a bunch of thrift store tape players together, we started with a CD master, that was our master, we’d push play on that and then push play on three different CD players to get three at once. And that was a huge jump in technology for us. So that’s how we did the first couple releases; it took a real long time, actually," Drase continued.

The label has found artists at bars like Whistler, where Drase first heard the band Verma. But many early releases were friends in local bands. PlusTapes’ co-founder Ardaiolo worked at Reckless Records where Drase says everyone was in a band, so they had bountiful material. They put a personal spin making the tapes, too.

Drase says, "We actually hand-numbered every piece of artwork, that was mostly my job. And it was far more tedious than it seemed. Each one was handcut with a pair of scissors, and then my girlfriend was great and got me a paper trimmer for Christmas, and it was the best gift I’ve ever gotten in my life. Saved so much time, because I could do at least 5 at a time. But there were many many nights where we’d sit we’d be dubbing 3, and then we’d be laying them out on the floor, then we’d be drizzling paint across them."

An early supporter was Ministry's Chris Connelly, who worked at Reckless and still does. He agreed to release music with Plustapes.

"It was like, 'Oh my Gosh, I remember seeing Ministry as a kid.' And here’s this icon of music history, and he had a solo folk record that had a bunch of outtakes and he let us have the outtakes. And we were really naïve about the industry, but he was like, 'I don’t care, just whatever, just put it out, that’s fine.' And it was really neat to see someone who was excited for us to be started on this venture, and just be willing to be part of it," Drase remembered.

By mid-2009, Plustapes turned to professional dubbing and Drase found some freedom. And they’ve handmade some other elements, like the one they offered at Pitchfork Music Festival for the band Sundancer, whose singer does a wolf howl.

"We actually housed a tape inside of a taxidermied wolf head. We actually did a run of 17 tapes, each one was all handpainted by the artist on the tape had his brother handpaint them, and each one was then tied inside a taxidermied wolf face. And then we put nametags on them and named each one," Drase recalled.

Tapes are also released in limited quantities. If they’re re-released, Plustapes changes something, like the color of the cover artwork, which makes each run unique.

Drase explained the pride attached to his work: "And so that way at least the people who got on board early, again it’s that badge of honor. It’s like OK, cool like that tape is great, I love that band, you got the second round. It’s still kind of that, ‘Yeah, I got the first one, I got the white cover.' And yeah, maybe that’s posturing, but the collector in me loves that sort of stuff. I love first editions and numbered things, limited to 200. Because it feels like you’re somehow connected to those 199 pp that also have that, and so if you go to a friend’s house and see they also have it, it’s like, 'Yeah, we get it.' And you feel that they speak your language. It’s kind of an awesome club to be in," Drase said.

Plustapes came full circle in 2009 when they launched their vinyl arm called Addenda. Connelly became their first vinyl release. Hollows was next. And just last month Addenda released its first 7-inch from JC Brooks and The Underground Sound.

The Eternals is up next: The labels’ artists span style and genre, and like most niche labels, they release what they like. Drase thinks he may have even found his hopeful heritage artist, a kid named Riley Walker.

"We’re actually putting out a group that he put together called Wyoming, it’s going to be a two-tape set, it’s actually very minimal, very sparse. There’s a drummer that kinda plays the edges of the symbol. It’s just very restrained, plinky, super pretty, improvised music," Drase explained. "He just said 'I just recorded this last night.'  And it’s just very fully realized for a group who hasn’t been together super long. And I’m very excited to document his journey through this process of finding new musicians and as pp kinda catch on to who he is I think that kids going to be super important," Drase said.

It’s these kinds of music lover discoveries that Plustapes hopes will keep listeners’ interest. And while cassette tapes are reaching a new generation, Drase knows fads can come and go. Still, tapes are an affordable medium, typically selling for $5 or 6 apiece, and the label’s committed to the format. But Drase says this endeavor won’t make them rich.

"By no means are we going to retire of this. That’s just ludicrous. I look at it as if I can still keep putting out records, and not have to keep dumping my own personal saving in this, and as long as it’s still fun and I’m still enjoying the bands and I’m really enoying the whole process it can go on indefinitely," Drase reflected.

Drase works two jobs and has invested his own money into the labels. And while it may not be an empire building venture, he says PlusTapes and Addenda offers listeners something the digital world can’t replace.

"Listening to a tape is different than listening to a CD. Big time. ‘Cause you can’t really fast forward. So listening to a tape is an all or nothing sort of experience. I find a lot of times when I’m listening to tapes, I actually have a walkman input in my car now. I would just leave the tape on and let it flip, and keep listening to it. So you get this kind of circular listening experience. And it’s the same thing with vinyl where you have to get up, flip a side, and you’re not just gonna listen to one track and get up again. No, you just listen to a side. The same thing with tape, where you can give pp - it’s almost like a mini show. They’re listening to a whole side, whereas CDs, 'No, I don’t like this song, this song blows, blip blip blip, OK I’ll listen to this song again. 'You don’t do that with tapes. Yeah you may not like the middle part, but you’re still there and you’re in it, and that’s awesome," Drase concluded.

Artists, “Songs” featured:

Reds and Blue, “Sons of the Stars”
Verma, “Night Creeper”
Chris Connelly, “SideA”
Sundancer, “PT40SideB”
PLAY Coins “Bullghost”
Hollows, “Johnny Appleseed”
Wyoming, “Keep”
Hollows, “Happy to Listen”